This year, some eighty nations participated in Fed Cup action, while a
hundred nations competed in Davis Cup. Fed Cup action is now complete for the year,
Russia having emerged as champion. Meanwhile two nations have advanced to the
Davis Cup championship round in November. The Cups remain centerpieces of
women's and men's pro tennis, respectively.
The quest for Fed Cup 2008 produced interesting, though scarcely memorable,
competition. First-round action for the eight nations in World Group I took
place in early February. France and China, playing in Beijing, divided their four
singles matches equally. Then Yan-Zheng won the doubles, completing a 3-2
victory for the Chinese team. Also advancing were Russia, Spain, and U.S.A., in
each case gaining their victory by winning three singles matches. Then in
second-round play in late April, Russia beat U.S.A. on Moscow clay, while Spain
defeated China in Beijing. Both meetings were decided in sweeps of the first
three singles matches, in all cases in straight sets. Russia and Spain thus became
the finalist nations. Meanwhile Argentina and Czech Republic emerged from
lower-group play to advance upward as members of next year's World Group I.
FINAL ROUND: RUSSIA d. SPAIN, 3-0
The championship round opened on the red clay in Madrid, September 13.
Russia's Vera Zvonareva faced Valencia-born Anabel Medina Garriguez, the action
televised to America by Tennis Channel. For most of the match Zvonareva was the
heavier striker, the more-aggressive player, certainly the more active in coming
to net and the more effective once there. The Muscovite also brought a
surprising defensive excellence whenever her opponent held the initiative. Behind a
frequently crushing forehand, Zvonareva prevailed in two straight sets. Then
in the day's second match, Svetlana Kuznetsova unleashed a heavy-hitting,
moderately high-risk game, generally keeping 20-year-old Carla Suarez Navarro deep
behind baseline and winning comfortably in two sets. The result of the first
day became a sweep of both singles matches for Russia.
The third match, played the next day, produced the meet's most interesting
tennis. At the outset Kuznetsova dominated play with her heavier hitting,
winning the first four games. But with little warning, Lana began committing more
errors than her opponent. Meanwhile Medina Garriguez gradually worked away at
the Russian's lead, eventually capturing the first set. But Kuznetsova replied
successfully, in each of the next two sets taking the early lead, then losing
it, and then finally prevailing, using her superior power more judiciously but
still boldly. It was the third Russian point of the weekend, completing that
nation's conquest of Fed Cup 08.
The fourth singles was not played, and the Russians won the now-meaningless
doubles, so that the official final score became 4-0. It was Russia's fourth
Fed Cup triumph in the last five years, a run matching Spain's in 1991-1995. The
Russkayas also led in the major tournaments of 2008, having won more matches
than the females of any other nation in three of the year's four Slams and
also in all seven Tier I tournaments played to date.
OUTLOOK FOR 2009
Next year's first round will be played February 7-8. The four leading
competing nations--Russia, U.S.A., France, and Spain--will each host a seemingly
weaker opponent. Another Cup triumph for Russia seems likely unless the Americans
offer a team that includes the Williams sisters. Serbia, with superstars
Ivanovic and Jankovic, might have been a strong challenger next year, perhaps the
favorite, but that nation will not be a part of World Group I in 2009.
The ineligibility of Serbia offers an argument against the present scheme,
which limits World Group I to eight nations and prevents a rising team from
qualifying for Group I unless it first spends a year in Group II. Serbia was not a
member of Group II in 2008, having lost in its bid for membership against
Slovak Republic back in July 2007. Jankovic played on that occasion but Ivanovic
did not. Both played last April when Serbia beat Croatia and earned entry to
Group II for 2009.
Over the years Fed Cup has lagged in attracting attention, probably in part
because only a few nations have been plausible contenders for the crown.
Another problem has been non-participation by some top players. Sharapova and the
Williamses have played minimally for their nations, seemingly only enough to
attain eligibility for the Olympics. Henin and Clijsters together captured the
Cup for Belgium in 2001 but after that it was rare that both superstars
participated. Meanwhile the Fed Cup authorities have been willing to trying new
formats, but none has produced clear success to date.
DAVIS CUP 08
Davis Cup action during the weekend of 19-21 September added to the greatness
of this historic competition. In semi-final round play in the 16-nation World
Group, Spain hosted U.S.A. in Madrid, while Argentina faced Russia in Buenos
Aires. In both cases the playing surface was clay. Satisfactory late-season
weather, outstanding attendance, and high crowd engagement marked both meetings.
SPAIN 3, U.S.A. 1
Tall American Sam Querrey, age 20 and height 6-6, showed several promising
recent results, including three clay-court wins this spring at Monte Carlo and
reaching the fourth round at U.S. Open 08, where he competed well in losing to
Rafael Nadal. Now, in the opening match at Madrid as replacement for James
Blake, Sam again made trouble for Nadal. Sam's best weapon, his serve, proved
surprisingly effective on the red clay, especially when sliced wide to the
backhand of Nadal, who stood unusually deep behind baseline in receiving. Sam's
forehand also carried plenty of mustard, and it often drove Rafa deep or to the
sides. The 2,100-foot elevation probably helped the through-the-air velocities
of Sam's serve and forehand. There were also some stunning forehand volleys by
Sam. But as expected, in the many extended exchanges Nadal was unquestionably
the stronger of the two, though the American showed more-than-adequate
movement and good ability in exploiting his long reach. Querrey's height also helped
him in handling Nadal's high-bouncing offerings.
Using his assets well, and also assisted by Rafa's more-than-usual errors,
Sam carried matters to six games all in the opening set. In the ensuing tiebreak
game, Sam captured the early minibreak with a stunning forehand cross-court
volley. Rafa regained equality several points later, but then contributed the
critical gift of a second serve into the netcord and lifted outside the service
box. Sam then captured the final point of the tiebreaker with a fine serve
opening up two forcing forehands to opposite corners.
The first set thus went to Querrey, but after that the expected pattern began
to emerge. Amid temperature in the 80's and facing increasing pressure from
Rafa's relentless game, gradually the snap in Sam's movement and shotmaking
declined. Seemingly miraculous plays by Rafa became more frequent. Rafa took a
close second set when Querrey contributed two bad errors at the end, and then
the third and fourth sets behind his own growing dominance. Querrey's
competitiveness stayed to the end, but it was first rubber to Spain.
Next, Andy Roddick faced David Ferrer, both men top-tenners. Andy lost the
first set in a close tiebreaker, then won the second and third handily, coming
to net sometimes but winning mainly by virtue of his own strong serving and
steady hitting aided by an uncharacteristic number of errors by David. But as set
four began, Ferrer again found his usual air-tight game, breaking Andy's
serve early. For the rest of the set, Andy continued to serve strongly, but
David's own serving games proved secure. The Spanish player's wonderful court
mobility frequently gave David time to set up for his accurate and punishing
forehand. It was now two sets all.
The fifth set was tight throughout, both men defending their own serve well
after exchanging early breaks. Andy was now playing almost entirely from back
court, showing impressive consistency, power, and aggressive direction.
Meanwhile David was regularly unleashing a surprisingly deadly first serve. Matters
reached six games all. With the tiebreak rule not in effect, Andy was the first
to falter, missing an angled volley by an eyelash to lose serve in the
thirteenth game. David, under pressure, then managed to hold his serving game, and
it was over. Two rubbers to Spain.
Bob Bryan was out of the doubles because of a bad shoulder, but replacement
Mardy Fish held up well on the second day, Saturday, contributing his potent
serve, good serve-returning ability, and generally solid doubles skills. After
losing the first set, the Americans broke the Verdasco serve late in both the
second and third sets and then broke Lopez early in set four, now seemingly in
commanding position. But with the Spanish crowd and players seemingly lifting
one another, the Spanish pair broke back to equalize at four-games all. Two
games later, it was Fish's serve broken--by an excellent backhand serve-return
rocket from Verdasco and then a fine low reply by Lopez that handcuffed Mardy.
A fifth set would decide matters.
The Americans won that set, thanks to some aggressive net play by Fish in a
serving game nearly lost and then some superior serving by Mardy in the final
game. The tall Californian clearly made the difference in the outcome, leaving
little doubt that Mardy could be a success on the doubles tour if he played
regularly. The U.S. team on Saturday night thus remained alive, though needing
to win both third-day singles.
But on Sunday, Rafael Nadal found his best tennis. The errors of the first
day were now fewer, Rafa's forcefulness again at high level. Morning rains had
also made the court slower than before, further sealing Andy Roddick's fate.
Andy made it close for one set, coming to net behind every first serve and a few
seconds. But in game seven Rafa's passing shots began to outnumber Andy's net
winners, producing the first set's only break of serve. From then on, with
Rafa's game at its peak, Andy had no answers. It was Nadal at close to
perfection, a straight-set winner, sealing Spain's 3-1 triumph. The official score
became 4-1 when Lopez won two tiebreak sets from Querrey.
It had been a worthy meeting with plenty of competitive tennis amid
good-natured behavior by players and watchers alike. The Americans could be pleased in
the worthy performance of their team, and the Spanish could take pride not
only in their victory but also in the splendor of their large outdoor arena,
converted from bull-fights, filled to 21,000 capacity on all three dates.
ARGENTINA 3, RUSSIA 2
It was still officially winter in Buenos Aires, bringing cool, cloudy
conditions at 35-degree latitude--about the same as that of the Carolinas.
Argentina's Nalbandian and Russia's Andreev opened the action, both finding it hard to
strike winners given the slow clay and the temperature. Andreev seemed slightly
superior in serving and forehand power, while Nalbandian was slightly the
more varied in shotmaking and slightly more willing to come forward aggressively.
The first-set tiebreaker was marked by several shots landing extremely close
to the lines where Nalbandian was the more fortunate in these cases. The
deciding point in the tiebreak was the twelfth, Andreev serving, when Nalbandian
broke the pattern of a long rally by slipping unexpectedly to net and putting
away the easy volley.
Nalbandian moved ahead early in the second set, then almost lost his
advantage in a seventh game marked by multiple deuces and two break-point
opponrtunities for Andreev, then closed out by Nalbandian quickly. The third set was
settled in the tenth game, when Nalbandian ripped three outright winners to break
serve. It was a worthy straight-set win for the Argentinian.
In the second match of the day, Juan Martin del Potro, age 19 and height 6-6,
impressively powered his way past Nicolay Davydenko. The Argentine youth
showed fine court presence, good mobility, and a reliable backhand. But his
superiority over Davydenko lay in his thunderous serve and forehand, both often
forcing errors or producing winners. There was momentary doubt when, del Potro
having temporarily softened his game, Davydenko nearly equalized the second set
at five-games-all. But after multiple deuces, del Potro managed to close out
the game, soon afterwards the set, and finally, less than an hour later, the
match as well.
Russia had lost both first-day singles matches in straight sets, and their
chances of winning the meeting now seemed close to zero. Apparently bidding for
quick victory, the Argentines changed their doubles line-up, replacing Calleri
with first-day hero Nalbandian as partner for Canas.
But on Saturday the Russian pair Kunitsyn-Tursunov quickly took a two-set
lead, often playing with only one man at net, the other deep, doing so expertly.
Tursunov contributed a potent overhead game, well supported by Kunitsyn's
variety and quickness, the two blending their efforts very well in closing down
court openings whenever they arose. The cool temperature and the slow court
seemed to favor the Russians in blasting away at opponents at net. But Argentina's
Canas-Nalbandian, generally employing the net-attack tactics conventional in
top men's doubles, overcame several match points and managed to win the third
and then the fourth sets. But in the fifth set, score six games all and with
the tiebreak rule not in effect, Canas served a wobbly game, including a
double-fault on the next-to-last point. Throughout that disastrous game, Canas
stayed in back court after each serve. A few minutes later the victory by
Kunitsyn-Tursunov reignited Russian hopes for the weekend.
Might the Argentine decision have been mistaken to use Nalbandian in what
became an exhausting doubles thriller? At first it seemed not, as David began the
third-day singles playing at his best, his doubles outing seemingly having
tuned up his shotmaking. Moving and striking with full authority, Nalbandian won
the first set and took an early service break in the second. But Davydenko's
superb court movement kept points long, making Nalbandian work hard. In a set
diminished by many service breaks, Davydenko finally equalized at one-set all.
As the third set unfolded it became clear that Davydenko was now the fresher
player. Nicolay's near-perfect performance in winning the set-ending tiebreak
game magnified the mental devastation of his two-sets-to-one lead. The match
ended not long afterwards, a very tired Nalbandian unable to win a single game
in the fourth set against a Davydenko now unwilling to contribute any unforced
So it came down to a fifth rubber--Igor Andreev against Juan Martin del Potro,
the latter the clear favorite by evidence of the weekend's play to date. The
start was nervous, Andreev losing serve in the opening game, and the teenager
then narrowly avoiding the same fate. For the rest of the first set, however,
both men played steadily, holding serves, and eight games later del Potro
closed out the set, still ahead by that initial break. The holding of serves
continued into the second set as neither del Potro's effortless steady power nor
Andreev's more-aggressive overspin forehands could overcome the slow conditions
to produce more than an occasional winner. The set's first service break came
in a long fifth game, del Potro profiting on the last point from a lucky
Now ahead by a set and a break, as if on cue the tall Argentine stepped up
his game, raising his power and aggressiveness. Almost simultaneously from
Andreev there came a dismal string of unforced errors, probably the result of
tiredness, the noisy crowd support of del Potro, and the growing certainty of
defeat. Del Potro took the last five games of the second set and the first four
games of the third. The finish came moments later. Argentina, which has never won
the Cup, had earned its place in the 2008 final round.
The promotion/relegation meetings at eight locations worldwide the same
weekend added to the grandeur of the Cup weekend. Moving into next year's World
Group was Switzerland, led by Roger Federer. Both Federer and teammate Stan
Wawrinka won first-day singles matches and both shared in the doubles win,
relegating visiting Belgium downward. Also moving up was Croatia, whose two singles
wins by Karlovic and one by Ancic overcame the absence of that nation's newest
sensation, Cilic. Chile too gained promotion, Gonzalez and Massu joining in
defeating the Australians. Meanwhile Serbia avoided relegation when Djokovic and
Tipsarevic won first-day singles and Troicki-Zimonjic won the doubles against
Slovak Republic. The only superstar who failed to lift his nation was Andy
Murray, who won two singles matches while Britain lost by 3-2 to Austria on
The 2009 draw has been announced. First-round action on March 6-8 will
include a visit by Switzerland to U.S.A., where the verdict could lie in the
doubles, likely to feature Olympics champions Federer-Wawrinka against the American
brothers Bryan. Another mouth-watering match-up will pit Serbia's strong
line-up against host Spain's.
AHEAD: SPAIN vs. ARGENTINA
Argentina will host Spain in the 2008 Cup final, November 21-23. I had hoped that the choice of playing surface would be clay, thereby facilitating what could be a historic confrontation of the world's two clay-court superpowers. But officials of host-nation Argentina stated the intention to choose a hard court, in order to improve that nation's chances of winning. The International Tennis Federation has acknowledged that Argentina has the right to make that choice, but it also noted that the seating capacity in the originally specified arena is well below that required by ITF rules for staging the Davis Cup final. The matter awaits resolution.
The belief that Argentina's chances are stronger on hard courts is probably correct. Clay is the best surface for Spain's Nadal especially but also for Ferrer. A contrary consideration would be that Spain's doubles pair Lopez-Verdasco would be most effective on a hard surface.
Shown here are my estimated probabilities for Spanish success, Psp, on clay and on hard surface, respectively. Each match-up is estimated independently, and the values are then converted numerically to the overall team probability shown.
If clay is chosen:
Nadal vs. del Potro, Psp = 75%
Nadal vs. Nalbandian, Psp = 90%
Ferrer vs. del Potro, Psp = 35%
Ferrer vs. Nalbandian, Psp = 60% (note Ferrer career 4-0 on clay vs. Nalbandian)
Lopez-Verdasco vs. Canas-partner, Psp = 60%
from the above, Spain over Argentina, Psp = 76.6%
If hard is chosen:
Nadal vs. del Potro, Psp = 60%
Nadal vs. Nalbandian, Psp = 75% (but Nalbandian 2-0 over Nadal indoors in fall 2007)
Ferrer vs. del Potro, Psp = 35% (see hard-court performances US Open vs. Nishikori)
Ferrer vs. Nalbandian, Psp = 45% (but Nalbandian hard-court showing better at Olympics)
Lopez-Verdasco vs. Canas-partner, Psp = 75%
from the above, Spain over Argentina, Psp = 65.6%
OLYMPICS AND THE CUPS
The tennis competition in Olympic Games 2008 resembled the major tournaments held earlier in the summer, which featured nearly all the same players in similar format. Watching from afar, it seemed to me that the tennis was diminished, almost lost, amid the daily goings-on in the many other Olympic sports. All players at the Olympics are identified by nation, but in tennis there is no official team competition, as prevails in some other individual sports. Our tallying of Olympic tennis matches won by nation provided an unofficial team competition, where Russia was the winning nation among the women, France among the men. The doubles seemed more interesting than usual, as all doubles pairs were same-nation combinations.
Many alternatives have been offered for enhancing Fed and Davis Cups. My outlook is that moving away from traditional ways always carries some penalty, though sometimes for justifiable reasons. For example, the logic seems compelling for reducing the Davis Cup World Group to 14 nations (awarding first-round byes to the previous year's champion and runner-up nations) or perhaps fewer. Skipping Cup play in Olympic years seems acceptable if it leads to improvements in the year's tennis schedule and if nation-team competition in tennis is made official at the Olympics. Readers already know of my wish to see World Group meetings increased to seven matches (adding another singles and another doubles match) and Davis Cup matches reduced to best-of-three sets. Doing so would improve the team aspects and be less physically demanding of the top superstars. I like spreading the Cup competition, especially the Davis Cup's, over the long season, as at present, rather than trying to squeeze it into a single fortnight.
Stay alert for the indoor events in Europe and the final runs, male and female, to the year-end crowns.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.