Amid persisting snow and ice, pro tennis fanatics hereabouts savor distant
Davis Cup play and look ahead to the coming outdoor tournaments in California
DAVIS CUP 07
In the six years of our century, Davis Cup has been captured by five
different nations, including Russia twice. The nation with the most triumphs
throughout Cup history, U.S.A., has not won since 1995.
Excellent competitive balance was also seen in early-2007 action among the
current World Group nations, 9-11 February. None of the eight first-round
engagements produced 3-0 sweeps, so that in all cases the winning nation remained
unknown until the third day. This had never happened since the introduction of
World Group play in 1981.
Host nations won only three of the eight meetings. Seven were held indoors
amid Northern Hemisphere winter--five on hard courts, two on clay. The eighth
meet provided the weekend's choice match-up, where defending champion Russia
faced host-nation Chile on outdoor clay at La Serena, a pleasant seaside city
known to the world's astronomers as gateway to the great telescopes in the
FIRST DAY, FEBRUARY 9
The first-day action at La Serena produced a large surprise. Just two weeks
earlier, Chilean star Fernando Gonzalez had reached the final round at
Australian Open, having found superior consistency to accompany his always dazzling
game of unrelenting power. But now, Fernando lost in four sets to Russian player
Andreev, whose victories had been few over the last year or so. Marat Safin
then gave Russia a two-match lead, defeating Massu in straight sets.
Meanwhile seen here in America via The Tennis Channel were the Czech-U.S. and
Croatia-Germany engagements. Both produced a split of the Friday singles.
Playing on indoor clay in Ostrava, Andy Roddick divided the first two sets
with Ivo Minar. The 22-year-old Czech player in his first-ever Cup match showed
an excellent clay-court game behind strong ground-strokes, good court
mobility, and tactical sense. Roddick, however, pulled comfortably ahead in winning
the third and fourth sets. Andy's foremost asset was his strong serving,
especially his kicking second serve, but he also showed surprising success in using
In the day's second match, Tomas Berdych played with perfection in
one-sidedly winning the first set against his American opponent, James Blake. Berdych at
age 21 is now 6-5 in height, and against Blake he used his physical assets
well in comfortably producing excellent power and court coverage. Blake
equalized the score, however, breaking serve twice and then narrowly closing out the
second set. The final two sets were closely fought amid many breathtaking
exchanges, where Blake's athleticism and stroking largely balanced Berdych's heavy
hitting. Berdych made more errors than seemed justifiable, but the tall Czech
star managed to win both sets by score 75. Blake contributed two late
double-faults in yielding set three.
Meanwhile in Krefeld, Germany, on Rebound Ace, Mario Ancic, stroking with
excellent accuracy, won the first set from German veteran Tommy Haas. But the
21-year-old Croatian then began to show effects from recent illness. Summoning
excellent concentration in employing his strong game, Haas claimed his victory
by winning the next three sets. An hour or so later, Ljubicic safely defeated
Ben Becker, whose fine all-around game could not match Ivan's stronger
firepower in serving and stroking.
The indoor clay in Liege yielded another unexpected result, when Australian
Lleyton Hewitt lost in five sets to Kristof Vliegen, who is 6-4 at age 24. The
Australian team's chances seemed doomed when O. Rochus then gave the Belgians
a two-match lead.
In other action, Swiss player Chiudinelli defeated Verdasco to give
Switzerland a first-day split with Spain. Nadal was absent because of injury, while
Federer had chosen to skip the event to strengthen his chances in coming
tournaments. Also absent was the Swiss #2 player, Wawrinka. Meanwhile France, Sweden,
and Argentina all took two-match leads over their opponents.
As Saturday began, five nations were ahead of their opponents by two matches
to none. Amazingly, all five of these nations became losers in the second-day
The most stunning reversal was the victory by Romanians Margea-Tacau over the
French world-class pair Clement-Llodra, in five sets. Likewise, underdog
Austrians Knowle and Melzer defeated Argentina's Acasuso-Prieto, while
Mirnyi-Voltchkov kept Belarus alive against Sweden. Hanley-Hewitt did the same for
Australia against Belgium, as did Gonzalez-Massu against Russia.
In the other three engagements, the doubles outcomes broke 1-1 first-day
ties. The Bryan twins collected their expected win against the Czech pair
Dlouhy-Vizner, who at last year's Wimbledon had taken the brothers to tiebreakers in
the first two sets. Now, the Czech pair showed a knack for anticipating
aggressive net moves by the brothers, often directing shots behind the poachers. But
the Americans nevertheless prevailed, breaking Dlouhy's serve in the tenth
game of each set, 64 64 64. The Czech pair gained more service-break
opportunities than did the Americans, but Bob Bryan's strong serving repeatedly saved the
brothers when in jeopardy.
Meanwhile Lopez-Verdasco of Spain fashioned a five-set victory over their
young Swiss opponents. In a critical match-up at Krefeld, Kohlmann-Waske moved
the host German squad ahead of Croatia, defeating Ancic-Ljubicic in three.
Hail to the third-day singles winners who lifted their nations into the
second round. High honors go to Tommy Haas, who against higher-ranked Ljubicic
played firmly and with few errors, staying strong mentally enroute to a
straight-set win. American Andy Roddick performed just as solidly, defeating Tomas
Berdych in four sets to complete the U.S. team win. The young Czech star again
played extremely well at first, then faded midway amid too many errors, then
competed well thereafter, yielding closely the match-ending tiebreak game. Roddick
again showed good adaptation to clay, using his serve well to score aces or
set up points, driving off the ground firmly throughout, mixing in occasional
net attacks or drop shots. The droppers seemed awkwardly delivered but most of
them were effective.
Meanwhile Gonzalez defeated Safin to equalize matters between Chile and
Russia, 2-2. But Igor Andreev then added to his first-day laurels by defeating
Nicolas Massu to give the nod to the visiting Russians, 3-2. Other stars who
followed up first-day wins by winning on Sunday to complete their nation's
victories were Robin Soderling of Sweden, Kristof Vliegen of Belgium, and Richard
Gasquet of France.
Also advancing to the second round were Spain and Argentina, both winning as
visiting nations on indoor carpet.
NEW CUP PROGNOSIS
In evaluating the chances of the eight nations still in the Cup chase, we
give heed to player results of recent months, to likely changes in squad lists,
and, especially, to host-nation advantages including choice of surface. The
second round will be played 6-8 April, the third round September 21-23, and the
championship round starting November 30. The strongest teams on nonclay
surfaces appear to be Russia and U.S.A., where Spain (with Nadal) is next and the
others slightly behind. On clay, Spain and then Argentina seem clearly the best,
with U.S.A and Russia at the next level, France and Belgium another level
The nation that was the visitor when two opponents last met is always the
host nation for their next meeting, where the host is favored by the right to
choose court surface--a critical factor in deciding many outcomes. Knowing the
court surface for every conceivable match-up ahead, we can deem numerical
probabilities for all possible outcomes. Then, knowing the draw, we can calculate
each nation's overall chances for winning the Cup. Shown here are the resulting
current odds to win Davis Cup 07:
Russia, odds 2-1
The nation most likely to reach the final round is Russia, at a likelihood of
66%, reflecting its host-nation advantage against its second-round opponent,
Germany, and its most likely semi-final foe, France. The U.S.A. is less likely
than Russia to reach the final, at probability 40%, as it may have to face
Argentina on clay in the semis, where the Argentines would be clear favorites.
(The Argentines must first defeat Sweden, however, which as host nation is a
slight favorites.) But if the U.S. team indeed reaches the championship round
against Russia, host-nation advantage would make the Americans the slight
favorite.. But since Russia is much more likely than the U.S. to reach the final,
noted above, the calculations make Russia the current favorite to claim the Cup.
Note that Spain (with Nadal) is a stronger team than Argentina but is weak in
our calculations because (1) in the second round it must visit the U.S. on
nonclay and (2) must also visit Russia if these two nations reach the final.
Argentina's overall chances are better than Spain's, largely because if
Argentina reaches the final against Russia it will be host nation, favored to win that
tie by probability 65%.
Meanwhile those nations not in the 2007 World Group are competing in groups
within each geographic zone. Group winners advance to the next-higher group in
each zone; while some group losers will be relegated downward. Four Group 1
survivors will emerge April 6-8 from the Europe/Africa zone, two from
Asia/Pacific, two from the Americas. These eight nations in September will join the
eight first-round World Group losers in head-to-head showdowns for places in World
Group 2008. Among those winning early-round Group 1 matches in their zones on
9-11 February were Israel, Canada, Peru, Japan, and Thailand.
The spectacle of many Cup match-ups, World Group and zonal, played
simultaneously at many locations worldwide in a single weekend, is one of the glories of
tennis. This year the phenomenon occurs on the weekends aforementioned in
February, April, and September.
INDIAN WELLS AND MIAMI
The month of March will bring the year's first Masters Series tournaments--at
Indian Wells in the California desert and at sub-tropical Miami. Both will be
played on outdoor hard courts, both will feature 96-player singles draws, and
both will occupy two weeks on the pro tennis calendar, concluding in
final-round play on March 18 and April 1, respectively. Several years of data show
that playing conditions should be somewhat slow at Indian Wells, comparable to
those at Australian Open, while conditions at Miami will be fast, like those at
Roger Federer will be the strong favorite at both Indian Wells and Miami,
having won both tournaments in 2005 and 2006 and having dominated the sport
since. Offered here are approximate odds for triumphing at Indian Wells.
Federer, 1-2 (odds on)
Roddick, Murray, Blake, Haas, Gonzalez, each 20-1
Nadal, Youzhny, Davydenko, Berdych, Ljubicic, each 50-1
Baghdatis, Soderling, Safin, Gasquet, Djokovic, Simon, Karlovic, each 120-1
The players at the second level closest to the King were the 2006/2007
runner-ups to Roger at Indian Wells (Blake), U.S. Open (Roddick), Masters Cup
(Blake), and Australian Open (Gonzalez), along with the winners of recent indoor
tournaments at San Jose (Murray) and Memphis (Haas).
Women's Tier One tournaments will be held concurrently with the men's at
both Indian Wells and Miami, likewise with 96-player main draws. In here
evaluating possible outcomes we look most closely at results of 2007 to date.
Serena Williams's stunning demolition of Sharapova in the final round of
Australian Open 07 vaulted the American once again to superstardom. But Serena has
not played since Melbourne Park and indeed withdrew from her expected
appearance at Dubai in late February. Almost surely, she and sister Venus will miss
Indian Wells, where neither has played since 2001. (In that year Venus, with
knee problems, probably unwisely withdrew from an Indian Wells semi-final
against Serena but then captured Miami 01 starting a few days later.) Injuries kept
both sisters from competing at Miami 06.
An interesting theme of the new year has been the showdown between (1) the
dominant players of 2006 and (2) the strong population of rising stars aged 21
and below. The first group consists of last year's royal family of women's
tennis (Henin, Sharapova, and Mauresmo) along with members of the close nobility
(Clijsters, Petrova, Hingis, and Kuznetsova). We add Serena to the group.
Members of the second group, the ladies-in-waiting, are Chakvetadze, Ivanovic,
Peer, Safina, Safarova, Golovin, and Vaidisova. The second group placed four
members into the Final Eight at Melbourne Park 07, though none of them reached the
In head-to-head play across the two groups, the royalty is showing that the
gap persists, though it is probably narrowing. By my count, during January and
February the royals won 15 of the 23 matches played across the groups. Of the
eight wins by the ladies-in-waiting, three were won by Czech player Lucie
Safarova, who at age 19 defeated Kuznetsova and Henin in the Paris indoors and
Mauresmo at Melbourne Park. Ivanovic shows two wins, having beaten Petrova at
Sydney and Sharapova at Tokyo.
The present royalty thus remains prominent atop our odds chart for winning
Indian Wells, here shown.
Henin, odds 3-1
Clijsters, Sharapova, each 8-1
Hingis, Petrova, each 12-1
Safarova, Ivanovic, Vaidisova, Jankovic, Chakvetadze, Kuznetsova, Peer, each
Henin's place at the top rests on her success in February despite having
missed the Australian season for personal reasons. Against Kuznetsova in the semis
at Dubai, Justine played poorly at first. But her stamina was impressive at
the end, when she found her shot-making in convincingly defeating a tiring
opponent. In then winning a straight-set final against Mauresmo 64 75, Justine
started out at her best, fought through the evenly played middle stages, and then
showed her steel nerves at the end. It was an extremely attractive match,
both players producing their usual power and speed, both playing with good
variety, both coming to net often and well. The difference was probably Justine's
frequent brilliance at net and in passing Amelie.
Mauresmo's good showing at Dubai along with her victory over Clijsters in the
final at Antwerp the week before, justify her second-place ranking here.
Sharapova defeated Clijsters enroute to the final at Australian Open but then
retired at Tokyo with hamster injury and has not competed since. Bothered with hip
trouble in February, Clijsters reached the final at Antwerp. Hingis won the
tournament indoors in Tokyo, Petrova indoors in Paris.
A future odds chart for Miami must also include the Williams sisters. Serena
will probably belong at about the level of Henin and Mauresmo, while Venus
should be close to the other royals listed above, having defeated Peer in the
Memphis final by comfortable scores.
Let springtime soon be upon us.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.