April 7, 2014

Back From the Brink

It sure came down to the wire this weekend at Davis Cup, with three of the four quarterfinal ties undecided until the last minute. It took some clutch performances when it counted most and featured some big upsets from unlikely stars, and in the end we're left with a talented group of teams that could very well make history.

It wasn't all edge-of-your-seat drama, of course. The two-time defending champion Czechs were the first to clinch their spot in the semis against an upstart Japanese team. Even without their star Tomas Berdych, a wily team helmed by -- go figure -- Lukas Rosol and veteran Radek Stepanek put together a 2-0 lead going into the weekend, and the two paired in the doubles rubber to give the Czechs an insurmountable lead. Rising star Jiri Vesely's win Sunday wasn't necessary, but sealing the victory with a 5-0 sure put an exclamation point on the dominating performance -- when the whole team shows up in the next tie, it'll be hard to beat them.

The French had a little tougher task after their Day One. Against an underdog German team -- they're top four players were missing this weekend -- Julien Benneteau dropped his opener to world #96 Tobias Kamke and headliner Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was pushed in a long fifth set, ultimately losing to Peter Gojowczyk, who hadn't won a match since his stellar run in January. It was their doubles team that finally turned the tide in their favor -- Benneteau and Michael Llodra finally got the French on the board Saturday and Tsonga rallied Sunday to even the score with a win over Kamke. And in the final match for the weekend, Gael Monfils took the court against Gojowcyzk, built himself an early lead and never looked back. The French face off against the Czechs next -- their head-to-head record stands dead even at 7-7 -- so they'll need to up their game. But they've certainly shown they can never be counted out, and in a setting like Davis Cup, there's no reason they can't keep their streak going.

The Italians had slightly more breathing room going into the weekend, but not much. While recently strong Fabio Fognini scored the tie's first point against Britain's James Ward, formerly formidable Andreas Seppi wasn't able to keep the momentum going against two-time Grand Slam titleist Andy Murray. The Brits took the lead on Saturday too, with Murray teaming with doubles specialist Colin Flemings to grab a 2-1 lead in the tie. With Murray taking the court again against Fognini in the first reverse singles match, it seemed likely the Italians would be sent packing -- the pair had split their previous two meetings, but the last came almost five years ago, and while Andy had slipped slightly to #8 in the world, he was still the clear favorite. But Murray wasn't at his best on Sunday and Fognini scored the upset in straight sets. And Seppi regrouped for his final rubber, closing out Ward and sending Italy to the semis for the first time in over fifteen years.

Also reaching new ground this weekend -- somewhat surprising considering the individual success of their top star over the past decade -- were the Swiss, who reached their first semi since 2003, but not in the way you'd expect. Stanislas Wawrinka, the breakout star of this season, may have supplanted long-time top-five fixtures like Andy Murray and David Ferrer as the Next Big Thing with his 11-0 start to the year, but he hadn't reached even a quarterfinal since and he opened his campaign against the Kazakhs with a four-set loss to world #64 Andrey Golubev. Stalwart Roger Federer sent the Swiss into the weekend even, but they got behind again when Golubev teamed with even lesser-known Aleksandr Nedovyesov to take the doubles rubber. Like with the Italians, it all came down to Wawrinka in the first reverse singles match Sunday, and this time the favorite made it count. After losing the first set in a tiebreak to Mikhail Kukushkin, Stan pulled himself together and closed out the match. Roger did his part too, downing Golubev in straight sets and keeping the Swiss hopes for their first ever Davis Cup still alive. They get homecourt advantage against Italy too, and if they continue to play to their ability, they could just ride their streak all the way to the end.

The excitement and drama around Davis Cup is only going to intensify from here, but this weekend's winners sure proved they can deliver when times are toughest. There's still a lot of ball left to be played, of course, but it sure looks like we could be in for something completely different this year. And I can think of no better way to stir things up.

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