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.

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