September 16, 2011

Right Back At It

It hasn't even been a week since the last ball of the U.S. Open was struck, but that hasn't prevented some of the sport's biggest stars from representing their countries in the Davis Cup semifinals and World Group play-offs. And while newly-minted New York champion Novak Djokovic bowed out of his first rubber, plenty others who were pushed to the limit last week were out and swinging in the first day of the weekend's battles.

Runner-up Rafael Nadal might have been upset that he was unable to defend his title from last year, but he showed no signs of that on Friday when he took on France's Richard Gasquet on the clay of Spain. A tricky player, Gasquet has handed losses to the likes of Jurgen Melzer and Andy Roddick already this year, and cannot be overlooked. But Nadal made quick work of his opponent, winning all but two points on second serve and only allowing the Frenchman twelve on return. It took just over two hours to give Spain the early lead in the tie -- the desire to prove something runs strong in this one, it seems, as it's at least the second time he's taken out recent disappointment on a Davis Cup challenge.

Teammate David Ferrer suffered a similar upset in New York when the fifth seed fell to recently cut-down Andy Roddick in the round of sixteen. But against world #11 Gilles Simon, who himself suffered an early defeat to sub-twenty American John Isner at Flushing Meadows, Ferrer was indomitable -- he committed far fewer errors and broke his opponent an astonishing eight times during the match. The two-tie deficit will be pretty hard for last year's second place finishers to overcome now.

Over in Belgrade, the defending champions were down their biggest star, and that certainly put them at a disadvantage to the power-players on Argentina's team. Veteran David Nalbandian, who received a bit of a reprieve by facing Viktor Troicki instead of white-hot Novak Djokovic, nevertheless was relentless against the much-higher ranked Serb. After splitting the first two sets, he raised his game in the last two, withstanding fifteen total aces and staying aggressive himself. It was his first top-twenty win since January and reminded us that the nearly-thirty year old isn't going anywhere just yet.

Several hours later, 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro, who had his return in New York staunched earlier than I would have hoped, continued his comeback. In a rematch of the Delray Beach final, this time he was in control from the start against Janko Tipsarevic. His straight set win gave Argentina a two-tie lead over last year's victors, which could be hard to overcome without Djokovic in the mix.

The action wasn't all among those contesting the World Group semis, however. Down in the play-off level of Davis Cup, U.S. Open semifinalist Roger Federer was fighting for the chance to elevate Switzerland in next year's games. After compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka put them in a hole by losing to Australian upstart Bernard Tomic, the team's main man took the court versus fellow journeyman Lleyton Hewitt, a man who won their most recent meeting in Halle last year. But after losing the first set, the Grand Slam master eventually got the better of Hewitt, bringing the Swiss even with their opponents. It's got to boost the confidence of the man who blew two chances to make the U.S. Open finals.

It's true that there is no rest for the weary, and with even players who were around through championship weekend still showing up for their homelands, you know how important the Davis Cup is to them. And for whoever wins, they'll have the pleasure of knowing they had to beat the best to do it.

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