November 19, 2012

One Hundred Years in the Making

Should it come as any surprise that the hundredth Davis Cup final would come down to the wire and be filled with more shocks than a fuzzy carpet in winter?

There was plenty of talent on both sides of the net, of course, but history stood squarely on the side of the Spaniards -- the five-time winners brought a deeper roster, higher-ranked players and an ATP Championship doubles team. All they had to do was hold their party lines and it would be smooth sailing. And when things kicked off, it looked like they'd do just that.

Veteran David Ferrer came out swinging in his opening rubber, downing Radek Stepanek in straight sets. Tomas Berdych had a tougher time sticking to his script, however -- Nicolas Almagro, a frequent nemesis of his in 2012, didn't relent in Friday's showdown and pushed the world #6 to five sets. Ultimately the higher-ranked player prevailed, though, and we went into doubles Saturday all tied up.

That's when the Czechs pulled the old switcheroo -- instead of featuring little known Ivo Minar and giant-killer Lukas Rosol, they re-teamed Stepanek, a member of the #2 doubles team in the world, with Berdych. The pair had delivered a crucial rubber for their country in the semifinals against Argentina back in September, and proved to be the dealmaker this time around as well. Against the London champion team of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez, the Czechs got down a set early, but somehow rallied for the four-set win and established themselves as the unlikely leaders going into the final Sunday.

Things wouldn't be easy for the underdogs. Berdych, after two tough days on court, couldn't muster enough strength against Ferrer in the headlining match of championship weekend. The Spaniard was barely tested in the three sets and quickly avenged his loss to his opponent in last year's ATP championship.

So it would come down to the final rubber to decide this Davis Cup -- the sixth time that's happened since the turn of the century. But this was no ordinary tiebreak -- thirty-three year old Radek Stepanek, whose ranking is an even bigger number than his age, took on Nicolas Almagro, six years his junior and about twenty-five spots higher than him. The two had only met three times before, with the Spaniard winning their only match in over two years, at this year's U.S. Open. The odds were squarely in Almagro's favor -- Stepanek had lost more singles matches than he'd won this year, while Nico had added two more titles to his kitty. And after Friday's fight against Berdych, he showed just how much he was capable of.

But Stepanek was reinvigorated on Sunday. Two straight days of match play didn't seem to faze the veteran, and he stuck with his opponent through a fifty-six minute first set to get an early lead. Almagro got an early break in the second, but the Czech fought back to get even and dominated the breaker. He lost a step or two in the third, allowing the Spaniard to get on the board, but in the fourth set Stepanek took charge from the beginning and didn't allow a break chance. After nearly four hours of play that day he became the hero of the Czech team, closing out a victory even his higher-ranked compatriots were unable to do, and winning his country its first Davis Cup since independence.

The win does a little more than that for Czech tennis -- by winning the hundredth Davis Cup final contested, they've also marked the first time since 1990 that the same country has won both the Davis and Fed Cups and the first time in history anyone has swept both plus the Hopman Cup. Whether this end-of-year success will translate into a new era of dominance in the 2013 season of course remains to be seen. But with momentum shifting solidly from old powerhouses to these plucky upstarts, we really could see something in this sport we haven't ever seen before.

November 15, 2012

Leaders and Followers: Davis Cup Final Preview

You thought it was over, didn't you?

Well, the ATP season may have wrapped up on Monday, but we still have one more champion to crown on the courts. This weekend some powerhouse players will try to lead their countries to Davis Cup glory, but it might be their followers that seal the deal.

The Top Dogs

It's the second time the Czechs take on the Spaniards for the title, but leadership may have shifted a bit since 2009. Rafael Nadal is still in recovery and Fernando Verdasco has fallen a bit down the rankings. Still David Ferrer is no slouch and his performance since the U.S. Open has been more than noteworthy -- the world #5 is points away from passing Nadal in the rankings, and after title runs in Valencia and Paris, he's proven he's a part of the elite. He's got winning records against both his singles opponents and, maybe more impressively, a solid 21-4 record in Davis Cup play. If someone's going to lead this team to a sixth trophy, this is the guy to do it.

Still, Tomas Berdych may have something to say about that. The tall Czech comes off his third straight trip to London, having taken a set off Andy Murray and beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the year-end championship. He's back at his career high ranking and has notched seven wins over top ten players this year, perhaps most importantly against then-#1 Roger Federer in New York. He's got a lot of Davis Cup cred, too, winning all six matches he's played for his country this year. He's got a decent record against the Spaniards in singles, and has rebounded one-sidedly after a controversial win over Nicolas Almagro last January in Melbourne. He may not have had the success he's wanted at the Majors recently, but Berdych has been a fixture in the top ten for over two years now, and has the potential to be a spoiler this weekend.

Second in Line

The second singles players for both teams are hardly second tier names, but with their higher-profile colleagues taking the reins, it's understandable they'd fall under the radar. But they could easily turn things upside down this weekend. Nicolas Almagro has been quiet recently, but he's sticking near the top ten thanks, largely, to two clay court titles early in the season. He won his most recent match with Czech Radek Stepanek at the U.S. Open, and even bageled Berdych at Indian Wells back in March. Clearly most comfortable on clay, he still can strike a ball on the hardcourts, and with three top ten wins this season, he's capable of causing some upsets too. If he can go even one-for-two, Spain's going to be at a huge advantage.

But a win over world #37 Radek Stepanek is no sure thing. He might be ranked a ways down from his career high of #8 in the world, but he has scored five top-twenty victories in the last six months. The Czech even made the doubles semis at the ATP Championships in London, picked up an Australian Open trophy in the paired sport to kick off the year. And if he's traded off to the doubles rubber, I wouldn't be surprised to see giant-killer Lukas Rosol take his place -- while the twenty-seven year old hasn't repeated his Wimbledon success on Tour, he nevertheless picked up a Challenger title last week in Bratislava. And if inspired, he might pull off another shock on his home court.

The Doubles Rub

With so much possibility in the singles matches this weekend, the middle doubles rubber certainly becomes a little more interesting. I'm frankly a little surprised Stepanek wasn't included here, since he's risen to a #4 ranking in the discipline. And the Czechs are going to need all the help they can get with unlikely London champions Marc Lopez and Marcel Granollers on the other side of the court. The Spaniards teamed for three other titles and made an additional four finals. Cheered on by their absent compatriot, they're riding a wave of momentum that will be hard to stop, and the Czechs will be under pressure to deliver every step of the way.

On paper the Spanish certainly look to be the favorites to repeat -- again -- but the Czechs have more than a fighting chance to unseat the defending champions. Spain certainly could clinch the whole thing by Saturday, but something tells me the lower ranked players will be more than crucial to the ultimate result. And with some serious country pride on the line, watch for all these guys to bring their A-games all weekend long.

November 13, 2012


It must be nice to end the year exactly the way you started it -- at least when you kick it off the way Novak Djokovic did in 2012.

No, he didn't have quite the success he had at the start of last year -- the two titles he won in the first half pale in comparison to the eight he wracked up in the same period of 2011, and he wasn't able to repeat the shocking defeats of Rafael Nadal on clay he scored last season. But he made the final at three of the four Grand Slams and late-season wins in Beijing and Shanghai helped him secure the year-end #1 ranking for a second straight year.

Still, there had been a bit of a curse on top players at the ATP Championships in recent years. In 2011 Djokovic's grueling schedule must've taken a huge toll on him in the post-season -- he lost two of three round robin matches and failed to make it to the London semis. A year earlier, Rafael Nadal did reach the final, but couldn't close out the title against Roger Federer. With some interesting underdogs sneaking in for trophies before that, the year-end #1 hasn't taken year-end championship since 2007, when eventual six-time winner Roger Federer picked up his fourth. And the way the veteran champion began yesterday's title match, it looked like he was about to add to his total.

Federer might have had an even more impressive year than his opponent. Though he didn't finish 2012 with the top ranking, he briefly reclaimed it after ending a long Slam drought in July and picked up another five titles to boot. He made his eighth ATP Championship match after a one-sided win over recent nemesis Andy Murray, and took control early against Djokovic on Monday. He won the first three games of the match and, after ceding the lead a few games later, successfully kept Nole from serving out the set at 6-5. With shots like this, he proved he is still hungry for more titles, but more than a few errors also proved he's also human, and eventually put him in a one-set deficit. Djokovic kept cool in the second set too -- after a long opening game he got down a break early again, but finally broke for five-all, saving set points and ultimately winning the match after over two hours on court.

While Nole didn't need the win to clinch the top year-end ranking, his victory certainly cements his place as the most successful player of the year, stealing back momentum that may have shifted in recent months. He also becomes only the ninth player of the Open Era to hold the spot two years in a row, and the first since Roger Federer began his domination of the sport ten years ago.

So have we finally, officially witnessed a changing of the guard in men's tennis? With Djokovic proving he can not only come out swinging as he did in 2011, but can also weather the storm of tournaments through spring, summer and fall, has he ultimately shown he's ready to take the reins over from the Greatest of All Time? And how long will his own dominance last?

Whatever the case, there are plenty of players nipping at his heels, eager to prove they too are part of this new era. But if Nole continues to play like he did this year -- and no, not like he did last -- it could be quite some time before he lets anyone else in.

November 11, 2012

Clash of the Titans

When you think of all the headlines that have crossed the tennis wires recently, it's pretty easy to forget who's been at the top of the sport all season. Andy Murray's domination at the U.S. Open, Juan Martin Del Potro's comeback tour during the fall, David Ferrer's breakthrough at the Paris Masters -- all worthy distractions, but none enough to erase the fact that two men have had the most success on the court in 2012. And while the year-end #1 ranking will not be decided by tomorrow's final, it's nevertheless fitting to see 2008 champion Novak Djokovic battle six-time winner Roger Federer for the World Tour Final in London.

Nole was a little quiet in the middle part of the year -- he didn't win a title between March and August, and after a harrowing defeat in the New York, it seemed momentum had shifted elsewhere. Still, he picked things up in the fall and clinched his second straight season at #1 before making the trip to the O2. He was the only man in the field to get through the round robins without losing a match, the first time he's accomplished that feat in six season finale appearances, and made his way to the semis as the favorite.

He seemed a little lethargic to start his semi today against Juan Martin Del Potro, though. The Argentine had just squeaked into the year-end championships last week, and was coming off his second straight win over Roger Federer in his final round robin match. He was a little shaky in Sunday's first contest, struggling on serve early and fighting off break points, but as Djokovic's serve seemed to break down a bit, the big man took advantage, broke in the ninth game of the match and served out the set at love. He even got an early break in the second set before Nole finally found his game -- the Serb quickly got back on serve and eventually forced a decider. By that point Del Potro was spent -- he won just two points on return in the third, took just half of his own serves and eventually ceded the match after two-plus hours of play. With the win, Djokovic returns to the final for the first time since he took the title four years ago, but his competition this time might be a little more fierce.

Roger Federer has won this event more than any man in history, and his performance in 2012 shows that he's still hungry for more. He's lost a few ranking points in the last few months -- he failed to defend any of the three titles he won after last year's U.S. Open -- but with his first Grand Slam trophy in over two years, he reclaimed the #1 ranking and qualified for the World Tour Final for the eleventh consecutive year. He was indomitable early in the round robins, not dropping a set to either relative newbie Janko Tipsarevic or veteran David Ferrer, and, despite his loss to Del Potro on Saturday, still managed to win his group.

For his reward he earned the right to face Andy Murray who, with his titles in London and New York, has been fighting all year to have his name included among the top three in tennis. It looked like he'd further make his case today when he opened the second semi with a break of Federer in the first game. Several minutes later, though, Roger evened the score and eventually forced a tiebreak. After converting his second set point, he dominated his recent rival -- in the next set he too lost just two points on serve, withstood some strong serving from his opponent and scored his first win over the Scot since the Wimbledon final. Tomorrow he'll be going for his third straight title in London and, maybe more importantly, for the right to prove he's not going anywhere.

Novak and Roger have split their four meetings this year, each claiming a win at a Major, and while Federer has won their last two, Djokovic has taken four of their last five hardcourts matches. Together, they've won eleven titles this year -- two Slams -- made another eight finals and put together a 39-17 record against top ten players. It's another battle between old and new, but despite recent slowdowns both have made quite a case for themselves all season. And with just one match left this year, there are no two players more deserve to still be standing for it -- so let's make it a good one.

November 8, 2012

Moving Forward.

It's been an exciting couple of days in the U.S., and whether or not you agree with the results of the Presidential election, we have been given a leader who promises a brighter future for the nation. The stakes might not be quite as high at the ATP Championships being contested this week in London, but so far the incumbent powerhouses have put on quite a show, and with their last-minute campaigning, they could prove they're more than ready to lead this sport for some time to come.

Group A

With two round robin matches in the books already, we still don't have any final calls for the first group of candidates. World #1 Novak Djokovic, though, certainly looks in the best shape to make the semifinals -- the 2008 champion has gone 2-0 in his early rounds, avenging Andy Murray again on Wednesday to take the lead. He'll next face Tomas Berdych, a man who's only beaten him once in their eleven meetings, so chances are pretty good he'll advance.

But hot on his tails will be Andy Murray -- the U.S. Open champion has had a breakthrough year, and the prospect of an ATP championship would put the cherry on top. He's 1-1 in London so far, and needed three sets in his win as well as in his loss, but as long as he can get at least one set off of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga tomorrow, it's pretty likely he'll make the final four.

Hope isn't quite lost for Berdych or Tsonga yet, but as the less experienced players in the group -- both are making their third trip to the Championships -- it makes sense their roads forward will be tougher. The Czech has been strong in recent months, stunning Roger Federer in New York and winning a title in Stockholm. A win tomorrow could rocket him to the top of the group standings. Meanwhile Tsonga, who's had a bit of trouble defending points he'd accumulated late last year, hasn't won a match yet in London, but if he manages a win tomorrow he also has an outside chance to make it back to the semis.

Group B

There are still some ballots to be cast among the other London hopefuls, but long-standing seat-holder Roger Federer's performance so far has at least earned him a ticket to the semis. The six-time winner may have ceded the top ranking spot in recent weeks, but as the eldest statesman in the group, there should be no surprise he's been untouchable so far this week. He trampled sophomore senator Janko Tipsarevic on Tuesday and finally ended David Ferrer's eleven-match win streak earlier today. He still has one more round robin to go, of course, facing his Basel vanquisher Juan Martin Del Potro on Saturday, but even with a guaranteed spot on Sunday, I wouldn't expect him to give anything less than his all it that match.

The other spot will come down to either Ferrer or Del Potro, both of whom have had solid fall runs this year. Their two-plus hour match on Tuesday ultimately went in the Spaniard's favor, and after quietly winning two titles since the U.S. Open it seems only fair that he's so close to making another trip to the London semis. But DelPo just needs to repeat his win over Federer in Switzerland to keep that from happening -- and while the Argentine is 1-6 against the defending champ, he did take a two-set lead over the veteran in Roland Garros and very nearly defeated him at the Olympics. This spot, it seems, is hardly decided, and I really can't think of two people more deserving of the chance to earn it.

Only Janko Tipsarevic is wholly left out of contention after two rounds of play in London. He's been sick, yes -- since retiring from his quarterfinal against Jerzy Janowicz last week in Paris, he was crushed by Federer in his first match at the World Tour Final and lost the opening six games to Del Potro before finally getting on the board today. I can't say I'm too disappointed -- Tipsy lost himself a legion of fans after some controversial comments he made this summer, and while that certainly wouldn't have affected his play, in this day and age it certainly cost him some of the popular vote.

So while [most of] the votes have been tallied on this side of the Atlantic, there is still some more campaigning left to go in London, and after the handful of matches we've seen already it certainly looks like the most experienced have the advantage. Still we can't quite rule out an October surprise, even if it comes in the early days of November -- all we can know for certain is that the eventual winner will usher in the new year as the man to beat. And if he can continue to play with the power it'll take him to win this title, the future of this sport looks very bright indeed.

November 4, 2012

The Magic of Paris

Year after year we've seen some amazing things happen in the French capital -- whether it's been Rafael Nadal's domination on the Roland Garros clay or the steady stream of the sport's biggest stars claiming the crown in Bercy. But this year's action at the last Masters 1000 event of the season may have been the most shocking results we've seen in years.

The upsets at the BNP Paribas championship came early and came often. Former top-twenty player Sam Querrey has been climbing back up the rankings for most of the year, but he might have made the best case for himself just this week -- after stunning year-end #1 Novak Djokovic in the second round, he followed up with a win over fourteenth seeded Milos Raonic to make the quarterfinals. His run was eventually ended by wildcard Michael Llodra, once ranked #21 in the world, now a full hundred spots below that. He'd pulled off a straight-set win over American #1 John Isner and a match later halted Juan Martin Del Potro's ten-match win streak since the U.S. Open.

But the clear Cinderella story was that of a man way off the radar. "Jerzy Janowicz" was not a name many casual tennis fans had heard before Paris -- and I'm pretty sure most commentators are still pronouncing it incorrectly. The twenty-one year old had spent most of his career on the Challenger tour, and three titles on that circuit this year helped cut his ranking from #221 at the start of 2012 to somewhere in the sixties now. He'd also made a bit of a stink at Wimbledon -- he only reached the third round, but took then-#29 Florian Mayer to five sets, 7-5 in the decider before finally succumbing.

Janowicz did still have to suffer through the qualifying draw in Paris, though, but once he hit the main draw he really caught fire. The big serving Pole won more than ninety percent of his first serves against Philipp Kohlschreiber in his opener, rattled off twenty-two aces against red-hot Andy Murray two matches later, and rebounded heavily after losing his first set to London qualifier Janko Tipsarevic to make the semis. One win later and the unknown Jerzy Janowicz had reached the final in the first Masters event he'd ever qualified for.

The magic wasn't reserved for the underdogs in Paris. In the other half of the draw, fourth seeded David Ferrer quietly continued the run he's put together in October. After retiring in the first round of Beijing, he'd gone on to win his third title in Valencia, and with straight-set wins over Stanislas Wawrinka and fellow London qualifier Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, he somehow became the only seed to make the final four. After an uninspired first set against Llodra on Saturday, he eventually took hold of the match to make his fourth Masters final.

Ultimately Ferrer's experience would triumph Sunday. Janowicz squandered a break chance late in the first set and Ferrer responded by taking that and the next game. The world #69 got up early in the second, though, but his lead wouldn't last. Ferrer took advantage of a slump in his opponent's serve, winning half the points on return and finally closing out the match in just under ninety minutes.

Janowicz's run to the final won't be for naught -- he's expected to jump into the top thirty when Monday's rankings come out. But for Ferrer, winless in his first three Masters finals, his accomplishment may be slightly more sweet. With his first match in London just days away, last year's ATP semifinalist is now riding his own ten-match win streak, and should take a nice confidence boost with him to the year-end championship. With seven titles now on the year, easily the most prolific season he's had, there's no reason to believe he doesn't have one more in him.

And if the magic of this week stays with him just a little while longer, we might finally see Ferrer transformed into the kind of player who can prove why he's been at the top of the game for so long.

November 1, 2012

A New World: Fed Cup Final Preview

Twenty years ago the two countries contesting this year's Fed Cup didn't even exist. Part of an Eastern Europe undergoing serious revolutions in the early nineties, they were making the biggest headlines far from the tennis court. But the defending champion Czechs and the barely initiated Serbs, playing for just the second time in the World Group, sure have come a long way in the past two decades, and the battle they put on this weekend could be one for the history books.

The Czech Singles

The singles rubbers could provide fireworks from the start -- both teams come with some top-grade talent, but there are questions over everyone's heads. Petra Kvitova is coming off her second trip to the WTA Championships, but the 2011 winner had to pull out after one round robin match in Istanbul with a viral illness. She had a somewhat slower start to this season -- at this time last year she was a stone's throw from the #1 ranking, these days she's just within the top ten. Still, with two titles this year and a greatly improved hardcourt record, she's easily the most accomplished of the bunch. She doesn't have a lot of history against her opponents, but she has won both matches she's played against the Serb stars in the past two years and might be the Czechs best chance to get on the board early.

Lucie Safarova has had a slightly more volatile year. She began 2012 with wins over Vera Zvonareva, Caroline Wozniacki and Sam Stosur, and cracked the top twenty for the first time in her career back in August after reaching the Montreal semifinal. She's now at a career-high #17 ranking, but the twenty-five year old won only one match at her last three events and has notched eleven opening round losses this year. She also hasn't been the most clutch Fed Cup player for the Czechs, winning just six of ten rubbers she's played, and with a 4-7 record against her opponents it's going to be hard to turn that momentum around.

The Serbian Singles

The Serbs aren't without their own challenges, though, but Ana Ivanovic will be out to prove the comeback she's put together the last three year is worth some consideration. The former #1 hasn't won a title all year, but she did reach her first Major quarterfinal since 2008 and score victories over Caroline Wozniacki and Marion Bartoli in Indian Wells. Having almost halved her ranking in the past twelve months, she's starting to look like the player we know she can be -- she's only lost to three players out of the top fifty this year, and one of those was Venus Williams, so she's not putting up many "embarrassing" losses anymore. Still, it would be nice to see her perform more consistently against the top ten, and maybe score a victory or two against the biggest hitters.

Such consistency is exactly what Jelena Jankovic seems to be lacking these days. Another former top-ranked player, the twenty-seven year old has struggled to hold onto leads this year and squandered match points more than a few times during the season. She hasn't won a trophy in over two years and, while she made a couple finals this year, she lost both pretty handily and failed to make much of a dent at any of the Majors. Her only victory over a player ranked higher than her this year -- then-#5 Sam Stosur in Dubai -- came all the way back in February, and the vast majority of her losses since then have been to players ranked lower than her. On the plus side -- admittedly a small one -- she is 5-2 against the Czechs in singles and holds an impressive 27-7 career history in Fed Cup singles rubbers, so experience might give her and her team a lift. They might need it.

The Doubles Rubber

With the singles matches this weekend largely up for grabs, the doubles action takes on some added importance, and experience looks to be squarely on the side of the Czechs. Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka have both put in some solid singles performances this year, but together they've really shined. Runners-up at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships this year, they've also won four Tour titles and Olympic Silver. Comparatively the likely pairing of Bojana Jovanovski and Aleksandra Krunic is hugely untested. If the championship comes down to this rubber, odds certainly favor a repeat of last year, so the Serbs will certainly want to make a statement early, and hope they can wrap things up before it gets too heated.

With so much depth on the Czech team, it seems like the defending champions have the slight advantage in this weekend's play. But if the leaders on the Serbian team play to their potential, they could easily tip the entire apple cart. And while such a revolution may be nothing compared to what these countries have endured in the past, it could set the stage for a new era in their tennis histories.