December 5, 2010

Down to the Wire

I love it when the final rubber of a Davis Cup tie actually means something -- it wasn't since Russia defeated Argentina in 2006 that the last match was played to completion. And this year, after four hard-fought rubbers, we were finally given the chance to see two countries fight their hearts out for their honor.

Play began Friday and, admittedly, I thought Serbia would run away with it. Armed with a U.S. Open finalist in Novak Djokovic and a World Tour Final champion in Nenad Zimonjic, as well as homefield advantage, it looked like the team should have had the cards stacked in its favor. And when France made the first dent in the scoreboard -- Gael Monfils beat Janko Tipsarevic hardly breaking a sweat -- I wasn't worried their lead would last. Not surprisingly, Nole evened the score with a routine win over Gilles Simon later that day and Zimonjic teamed with Viktor Troicki to build a two-set lead on the pairing of Michael Llodra and Arnaud Clement.

But that's when things got interesting. All four players took a break after the second set, and France got off to a quick lead to start the third by winning Troicki's first service game. The Serbs had a few shots to pull even in the eighth game, but some masterful play by Llodra, ranked a respectable #29 in doubles, got them out of trouble and kept them in the lead -- two games later they had forced another set.

Both teams raised their play then -- there were six aces in the fourth set and another five service winners as players held their games rather easily on both sides of the net. It wasn't until several games later that the French rattled off three games in a row to tie up the match. They then broke the ever-solid Zimonjic to start the fifth and never looked back -- after four and a half hours of play, the French had secured a surprising 2-1 lead.

Djokovic was again able to draw things even on Sunday when he kept his record against Monfils unblemished. The world #3 broke the Frenchman's serve seven times to win in straight sets, making the final match so much more important. Originally expected to pit Simon against Tipsarevic, both teams subbed in the alternates and Troicki was forced to face Llodra a second day in a row.

And this time, the Serb was not intimidated. After losing serve several times on Saturday, he was able to keep his own games in check. He out-aced the Frenchman and won more than half of his return points. He made more errors than his opponent, but that was more a symptom of his aggressive play -- he also shot nearly twice as many winners -- and after about two hours and much less drama than the previous day, he had sealed in the Serbs' very first Davis Cup.

In doing so, Serbia became the thirteenth nation to claim the championship, and they certainly put themselves on the map as a force to beat in the sport. If we didn't already know the force and potential contained within the teeny country, we certainly do now.

And that could give others reason to stop and take notice next year.

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