It was Friday, September 16, 2011 -- the start of the year's third big Davis Cup weekend. The card featured semi-final meetings among the four nations still surviving in the 2011 competition. On the same weekend at eight other sites worldwide, sixteen nations met to decide eight of the places in next year's World Group. It was an interesting menu.
DAVIS CUP WORLD GROUP
Two long-established Cup nations brought their top talent to Cordoba for their meeting on Spanish clay. France had won the Cup nine times since the start in 1900 -- only United States and Australia had won more often. Tsonga, Simon, Gasquet, and Llodra made for an impressive French squad list. But the hosts were even more powerful, Spain having won the Cup in two of the last three years, its line-up now led by singles top-tenners Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer.
Indeed, the first day, Friday, brought straight-set singles wins by Nadal and Ferrer, revealing that the Armada was all but invincible on home-nation clay. The final verdict was delayed when Llodra-Tsonga won the doubles for France the next day. But Nadal quickly collected the necessary third victory on Sunday, winning the first set at love over Tsonga without losing a serving point and then completing another straight-setter. Spain 3, France 1.
The second semi-final was marked by injuries. Serbia had won the Cup in 2010 behind its top player, Novak Djokovic, but Novak was now worn down from his winning of U.S. Open just four days earlier, when he labored to overcome back trouble in a brutal four-set final against Nadal. Meanwhile Serbia's opponent, Argentina, offered two potent and well-rested singles warriors, both formerly ranked in the world's first five. Juan Martin del Potro, 23, U.S. Open champion in 2009, had been sidelined in most of 2010 following wrist surgery, and David Nalbandian, 30, had been long out following 2009 hip surgery.
As host nation, Serbia chose an indoor hard court in Belgrade. Serbians Troicki and Tipsarevic were both ranked in the singles top twenty, and with Djokovic not ready for action on the first day, Friday, Argentina moved firmly ahead. (Nalbandian beat Troicki and del Potro beat Tipsarevic.) The Serbs stayed alive the next day, however, when Troicki-Zimonjic won the doubles.
Behind two matches to one, the Serbs inserted Djokovic against del Potro for the fourth match, Sunday. The first set went to tiebreaker, won by del Potro. Soon afterwards Djokovic screamed in pain, and a few minutes later the Serbian star was forced by the back problem to retire. Argentina 3, Serbia 1.
Thus 2011's champion nation will be either Argentina or Spain. The two teams will meet 2-4 December in Seville, with host-nation Spain likely to be the favorite, especially if Nadal is at full health. If successful it would be Spain's fifth Cup conquest, the third in four years.
Meanwhile there was plenty of theater in the promotion-relegation playoffs. Canada moved into next year's World Group by defeating host-nation Israel behind British Columbian Vasek Pospisil, 21, who won two singles and joined doubles artist Dan Nestor in defeating Israel's fine pair, Erlich-Ram. It was a superb lift to Pospisil's career, even as Canada's earlier sensation, Milos Raonic, 21, returned from post-Wimbledon hip surgery but lost in first-day action. Meanwhile in Kazan, Russia narrowly defeated Brazil behind two singles wins by Youzhny, who saved two match points in his five-set win over Bellucci on the final day. But the highest drama of the weekend happened on a grass court at Royal Golf Club, Sydney.
Switzerland 3, Australia 2
Interest was high worldwide as Roger Federer reopened his quest to lead his nation to a Davis Cup crown, an achievement not yet part of Sir Roger's resume. Both the Australian hosts and the Swiss visitors were under a host of physical disabilities, so that it became a tortured test for both teams, where all five matches would require at least four sets. The final verdict would become known only upon an unscheduled fourth-day session.
Worn from his great run at U.S. Open, Federer had little time to adjust to grass after traversing half the globe, even as Roger's Cup teammate, Stan Wawrinka, now required pain injections for thigh problems left from the Open. Meanwhile the Aussie leader, Lleyton Hewitt, had seen only sporadic action through an injury-troubled 2011, while his doubles partner, Chris Guccione, had been long plagued with an Achilles injury, which had sidelined him for nine months. Only Australian singles player Bernard Tomic, age just 18, seemed at his best physically. Reporters for Sydney Morning Herald and The (Melbourne) Age provided their readers with eyewitness accounts, drawn upon here.
The Australians had chosen grass, as that was Tomic's best surface and probably Wawrinka's poorest. The choice seemed vindicated in the opening match, as Tomic showed his ability to take away an opponent's best game with a diet of sliced and off-speed shots, even as Wawrinka soon slipped into many errors. Thus somewhat unexpectedly, the host Aussies captured the first match. Next, Federer lost the first set to Hewitt, but Roger then won the second in a tiebreaker and thereafter closed out strongly. With matters now tied at one match each, it seemed that the Saturday doubles would probably prove critical to the team outcome.
The Olympics-champion pair Federer-Wawrinka won the first set from another successful 2008 Olympics pairing, Guccione-Hewitt, after Guccione lost his first serving game. But despite their early misfortune the Aussie twosome hung together well, Hewitt encouraging his partner between points and contributing some superb net play. (Federer afterwards said it was like playing against Pat Rafter, so strong was Hewitt at net.) Meanwhile Guccione's "booming serve" became highly effective despite the red-head's further Achilles concerns, helping power the Aussies to capture the next three sets over the tired, sore, and afterwards disconsolate Swiss pair. It was Australia 2, Switzerland 1.
Sunday's singles took place amid blustery conditions. Federer defeated Tomic, though the teenager won the third set when Roger seemed to lower his concentration. Thus the deciding match would pit Wawrinka and Hewitt. For both men it was the third match in three days. After nearly four hours of play and simmering protest from Pat Rafter, the Australian captain, who wanted to stop earlier, darkness halted play. For Rafter, the whole weekend had been stormy in his new role as fiery team captain.
Now everything depended on the Monday resumption. It began with Hewitt serving, down 3-5, fifth set. It ended after only six points. Lleyton Hewitt, renowned for fighting through against any adversity but now showing a new knee strapping, donated the only game played this day, serving two double-faults and adding two forehand errors. The winner was Stan Wawrinka, whose superb backhand and severe serve-returning, aided by Federer's lively encouragement from the sidelines, had kept the struggle close throughout.
FED CUP 2011
The Fed Cup champion nation for 2011 will be either perennial women's tennis power Russia or a rising team from Czech Republic -- the two surviving nations of the eight that started the year as members of World Group I. The two will meet 5-6 November in Olympic Stadium, Moscow.
The Russian road to the final began in Moscow in February when the strongly favored Russkayas lost the opening two singles matches. But on the second day Pavlyuchenkova, who replaced Sharapova, and Kuznetsova reversed the first-day singles outcomes, and Pavlyuchenkova-Safina then won the deciding doubles. It was Russia 3, France 2. Then in April, again in Moscow, Zvonareva won twice and Kuznetsova once to sweep the first three matches against an Italian team that had won the Cup in both 2009 and 2010 but was now playing without its stars Pennetta and Schiavone.
Elsewhere Petra Kvitova, who would soon capture Wimbledon 2011, won two singles matches in each of the Czech victories over Slovak Republic and Belgium. The Belgians, lacking Kim Clijsters, nevertheless carried matters to a deciding doubles match-up, won by the Czech pair Benesova-Zahlavova Strykova.
The superior depth of the Russian talent seems likely to prevail in November. Petra Kvitova, 21, has shown fine triumphs in 2011, but there have also been surprising disappointments. But even if the powerful serving and stroking lefty proves the strongest singles player at Olympic Stadium, it remains hard to see where the Czechs can win a third point.
The outlines are already visible for next year's Fed Cup action. Russia, yet again a host nation, will first face Spain, while the Czechs must visit a dangerous German team. The Germans will be strong, likely led by Petkovic, Goerges, and Lisicki, all powerful,rising stars who led the team this year in earning upward promotion. At this distance, a 2012 final-round meeting of Russia and Germany seems likely, though a healthy Serena Williams or Kim Clijsters could change the scenario.
If Fed Cup is second in tradition and history to its counterpart in men's tennis, Davis Cup, the picture is gradually equalizing. Fed Cup history began in 1963 when its first final was held on grass at Queen's between Australia and U.S.A. Two of history's greatest superstars, Margaret Smith and Billie Jean Moffitt, each won her singles match, and in the deciding doubles Americans Moffitt and partner Hard defeated Aussies Smith and partner Turner. (Smith and Moffitt later became better known as Margaret Smith Court and Billie Jean King.)
HOPMAN CUP AND WORLD TEAM CUP
Each new year starts in Perth, Western Australia, where Hopman Cup combines men's singles, women's singles, and mixed doubles in an eight-nation team competition. It regularly attracts top players preparing for the forthcoming Australian Open. The teams compete in round-robin play in two groups, where the winners then meet in the final. This year's Cup went to U.S.A., represented by John Isner and Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
Bethanie won her three singles matches in round-robin play, as did Belgium's Justine Henin in the opposite half. Meanwhile Isner won two of three singles, losing to Andy Murray. The U.S. team then met the Belgians In the final round. There, Henin beat Mattek-Sands and Isner defeated Bemelmans. John and Bethanie then won the mixed doubles, thereby capturing the Cup for 2011.
World Team Cup happens in Dusseldorf in the week preceding Garros each year. Eight national teams compete on red clay in men's singles and men's doubles, where each team match-up consists of two singles and one doubles match.
Argentina won in the upper-group round robin, defeating second-place U.S.A. when Monaco and Chela scored close singles wins over Fish and Isner, respectively. Germany meanwhile outnosed Serbia to win the lower round-robin. The German team then defeated Argentina in the final, Germany's Florian Mayer beating Monaco in singles, and Kohlschreiber- Petzschner winning the doubles.
THE SLAMS AND MASTERS-1,000'S
The success of the different tennis nations at the year's big tournaments can be measured by unofficially counting match wins. Among the male pros this year, Spain and U.S.A. have fairly evenly divided outcomes. Spain's men won the most matches at Australian Open and Garros, and U.S.A.'s won the most at Wimbledon and U.S. Open. Of the seven Masters-1,000 tournaments completed to date, Spain and U.S.A. each took the honors at three, while Spain has a slight edge in second-place and third-place finishes. (In our tallying, each singles match-win counts one credit and each winning partner in doubles or mixed-doubles gets one-half credit for his or her nation.)
With two 1,000-Series events yet ahead along with the Year-End in London, the balance between Spain and U.S. could readily turn. Generally, the U.S. males have shown an edge in doubles behind the Bryans, while for Spain Nadal has been the top contributor, mainly in singles, with Ferrer also strong in singles. Probably the biggest surprise happened on clay at Rome where the U.S. contingent nosed out Spain. The Americans scored multiple wins in doubles thanks to Isner-Querry and Fish-Roddick, who met in the final, won by the former pair. (The latter had knocked out the Bryans in the quarters.) Fish helped out by winning two singles matches.
Third among the nations on the men's side has been France, which took second place at Garros, Wimbledon, and at four of the seven 1,000's. Close behind is Serbia, which scored third-best at Australian Open and was first at the 1,000 event in Canada and finished second or third at three other 1,000's.
As usual, the Russians commanded matters among the women, though at slightly smaller margin than in recent years. The U.S. females came out ahead at U.S. Open and in Canada, but the Russkayas were tops at the other three Slams and eight of the nine Premium Mandatory/Premium Five events. The women from Czech Republic did surprisingly well -- second place at Australian Open and Wimbledon and third place or better at seven Premium Mandatory/Premium Five events.
Although players compete in the Olympics as representatives of their nations, there is no officially recognized team championship. Here, however, we can tally unofficially the matches won by each nation. Four years ago in Beijing, for example, the highest scoring nations were France among the men and Russia among the women. The Russkayas captured all three medals in women's singles -- Dementieva the gold, Safina the silver, and Zvonareva the bronze. Meanwhile Nadal won the gold in men's singles, Federer-Wawrinka in men's doubles, and the Williamses in women's doubles, all of whom should return in 2012.
The 2012 Olympic competition will be held on grass at Wimbledon starting June 25, three weeks after completion of the Wimbledon Slam. Fresh grass will be grown in the period between the two events. (A test immediately after Wimbledon 2011 showed that the seemingly short growing interval should be sufficient.) Ten courts will be needed, in contrast to the nineteen used for the Slam. Mixed doubles will return to the Olympics for the first time since 1924. There will be departures from the predominantly-white-clothing rule and other conservative customs at Wimbledon.
The favorite tennis nations at Olympics 2012 will be, on the men's side, Spain, France, Serbia, and U.S.A, and, on the women's side, first Russia followed by Germany, Italy, U.S.A., and China. The current pro rankings suggest likely individual results in singles, but because the doubles and mixed require same-nation pairs only, many of the competing pairs will be first-time partnerships or nearly so.
TENNIS NATION OF THE YEAR
In December we will choose our Tennis Nation of the Year, revisiting the full year in both men's and women's pro tennis and choosing a single awardee nation. The totality of on-court success in the events -- where, as noted above, Spain, Russia, and U.S.A. now seem ahead -- is a foremost but not our only consideration . Thus last year we honored Serbia, primarily reflecting that small nation's remarkable success in the year's Davis Cup play.
TENNIS AS NATIONAL-TEAM COMPETITION
Is the cause of international good will strengthened or weakened by team competition in world pro tennis, indeed by all competitive pro tennis?
Pro athletes act as official or unofficial representatives of their nations, and most of them do so in a favorable way. Having reached the top echelons in their sport, they compete hard and within the rules, and they generally know to speak and behave publicly whether as winners or losers. Those who become world celebrities nearly always are admired by the sporting public in all countries. The tennis superstars from the U.S. provide a strong case, where past instances of poor behavior have been replaced by near-exemplary representation -- from the Agassi-Sampras-Courier cohort to today's era of the Bryans, Fish, Roddick, Blake, and Isner. Davis Cup, Fed Cup, indeed high-level pro tennis of all kinds contribute in enriching the human spirit and improving understanding among nations.
Violent behavior by partisan fans is absent in tennis. Paying spectators help their favorites by noisy encouragement in ways moderately unfair to one side, but such behavior is seen as acceptable and avoids later animosities. Occasional extreme examples of crowd misbehavior have sometimes marred Davis Cup play, though seldom at the Cup's higher levels in recent years. It can be noted that tennis's long tradition of fairness is violated when host nations in Davis Cup nowadays choose venues and surfaces openly designed to weaken the visiting team's chances. But the modern practice of alternating homeland sites tends to produce long-term equity.
I find it wonderful that more than a hundred nations compete in Davis Cup each year, generally amid scenes of healthy, moderate partisanship. Heros of Cup play spark development of the game among children in every country. The current generation of the game's players and promoters, working with International Tennis Federation, deserve vast credit for keeping the Davis Cup idea alive at the cost of four weekends of pro main-tour action. Prime sposorship by BNP Paribas is worthy. The spectacle of simultaneous meetings worldwide on Cup weekends honors the sport's past history.
If moderate changes to Davis Cup come under discussion, it seems to me that the 16-nation World Group could (and should) be reduced to 14 nations, with byes awarded to the two recent finalist nations. Nor would a reduction to just eight nations, as in Fed Cup, seem seriously destructive. Also, the severe physical demands on superstar players in the present best-of-five-set play should be eased by changing to best-of-three sets. At a minimum, tiebreak games should be used to settle present-day fifth sets. With the change to best-of-three sets, a #3 singles and #2 doubles match should be added, making for seven matches in the weekend following the old Wightman Cup format, thereby improving the team aspects of the competition.
2011 HOME STRETCH
Year 2011 in women's singles is nearly completed, as the WTA plan to finish earlier than in past years takes effect. The top eight finishers will compete in the Year-End event, which moves from Doha to Istanbul and starts October 25. On course to finish again in first place is Caroline Wozniacki. No single rival has emerged to displace Caroline, as the year's four Slams were won by four different women, even as superstars Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters were sidelined through much of the year. Presently directly behind Caroline in the year-to-date standings are Sharapova, Kvitova, and Azarenka. Surging upward has been Agniesza Radwanska, 22, who won the recent Premier Five tournament in Tokyo and Premier Mandatory in Beijing. Among the younger recent risers likely to appear on our fresh Watch List in December are American Christina McHale, 19, and Australian Laura Robson, 17.
Meanwhile there are still much to be done in men's singles -- 1,000-Series events in Shanghai, now starting, and indoors in Paris, followed by the Year-End in London. Novak Djokovic, having won three of the year's four Slams, has assured his place atop the men's sport. Almost surely the year-end top four will the same Big Four who also held the top places in the preceding three years -- i.e., Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, Federer. Who will be the first to penetrate this top group, perhaps next year?
Closest in the present rankings is David Ferrer, but the player who already has entered the top group counting only the results since early August is Mardy Fish. (Mardy reached the final in Canada, the final four in Cincinnati, and the final 16 at U.S. Open, so that his points in the year's third trimester surpass Federer's.) Another immediate threat is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who defeated Fish in a five-set thriller at Flushing Meadows and then won the tournament in Metz. Together with Tomas Berdych, who beat Tsonga in Beijing this month, these are the four presently on track to join the Big Four at the Year-End finals in London. An earlier threat to the Four was Robin Soderling, but the Swedish slugger has dropped back, having been sidelined with wrist trouble and illness.
Among the players whose strong rise since early August will probably result in places on our December Watch List are Americans Jack Sock, 19, and Donald Young, 22. Sock reached the second round in singles at U.S. Open. (He also won the mixed with Melanie Oudin.) Young reached the fourth round in singles.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
World Group Line-up, 2012 Davis Cup (10-12 Feb 2012)
Kazakhstan at Spain
Russia at Austria
France at Canada
U.S.A. at Switzerland
Italy at Czech Republic
Sweden at Serbia
Croatia at Japan
Argentina at Germany
World Group Line-up, 2012 Fed Cup (4-5 Feb 2012)
Spain at Russia
Serbia at Belgium
Ukraine at Italy
Czech Republic at Germany
World Group II
Belarus at U.S.A. (Worcester, MA)
Slovenia at Japan
Slovak Republic at France
Australia at Switzerland