Davis Cup: Emotions run high in World Group openers
The patriotic fervour of team tennis still packs a punch as Serbia begins its Davis Cup defence
In the packed tennis calendar, the timing of Davis Cup ties often gets sucked into the debate about too many matches and too few breaks for exhausted players to rest and recuperate.
This century-old event is shoehorned into four small, rare windows in the year: a March weekend before two back-to-back hard-court Masters; a July weekend after the tightly-woven run from Roland Garros to Wimbledon; a September weekend after the US Open and -in the most emotional contest of all -immediately after the ATP rollercoaster climaxes at the World Tour Finals.
The Davis Cup is talked of as a moveable feast or as an event that should be played only in alternate years, yet it is an event that reaches the parts other tournaments cannot touch.
Patriotism, camaraderie and a rich tradition draw many players like moths to a flame. They will leave their blood, sweat and tears on the court whether they win or lose. They will turn up to play even when hampered by injury. And if they can’t play, they will simply don their nation’s colours and cheer on their team-mates.
So stimulating and rewarding is the competition that it has been credited in recent years -when the burden of the schedule has come in for some of its most vociferous criticism -with the blossoming of Fernando Verdasco after he helped Spain to the title in 2008.
Last year, Serbia’s win engendered such pride in Novak Djokovic that he cracked open his shell of inhibition to confidently grasp the 2011 season at the Australian Open and Dubai.
Even at the start of this year’s race, with the best 16 teams in the world competing for a place in the quarter-finals, the themes have been compelling and the results revealing.
Only three of the opening eight ties were decided in the first two days of competition: Spain over Belgium, Argentina over Romania, and Sweden over Russia. So with all the other ties poised at two rubbers to one, there was much to play for on first-round Sunday.
Defending champions Serbia may have expected a relatively easy ride against India, but with Djokovic resting a sore shoulder after his wins in Dubai and Melbourne, the responsibility fell to Victor Troicki and Janko Tipsarevic to hold their own.
Somder Devvarman upset Tipsarevic in straight sets, but Troicki repeated his tie-winning heroics of the 2010 final to seal both his singles, and the doubles went Serbia’s way as well.
However, Serbia will hope to have Djokovic back in harness when they face Soderling -already with three ATP titles to his name this year -in July.
In Zagreb, Marin Cilic reinforced his gradual return to form after months in the doldrums in 2010 by winning both of his singles rubbers, but the German team proved too strong for the rest of the Croatian squad.
However, it will be one of the defeated team who goes down in the record books after this weekend: Ivo Karlovic. During a marathon doubles match, he struck a 251km/h serve -that’s 156 mph -which broke Andy Roddick’s previous record of 249km/h (149 mph). It will, though, be Germany that goes on to meet France.
Tomas Berdych was another top player unable to save his country from defeat despite the Czech Republic being favourites against new entrants to the world group, Kazakhstan.
The World No7, thankfully recovered from a leg injury in Dubai last week, won his first singles match and took the Czech team to a 2-1 lead in the doubles as well. But then he was shocked by the fast-improving Andrey Golubev in his second singles, losing in four sets.
Without the back-up of Davis Cup stalwart, Radek Stepanek, to bolster the Czech cause, it will be Kazakhstan who faces the unenviable prospect of Argentina in the quarters.
The most highly anticipated match-up of first round, though, was located in one of the more unusual venues to have hosted a the Davis Cup event.
When Austria was offered the home advantage for their tie against France, all the usual arenas were unavailable. Their solution was to build an indoor clay court at Vienna Airport -Hangar 3 -a huge, metal, echo-chamber of a place.
To make matters yet more bizarre, it was built ‘airside’ so the players were treated to jet engines revving up for take-off, and spectators and the media had to run through three security checkpoints on their 10-minute journey from hotel to arena.
Yet the crowds came in their thousands and they were treated to the kind of competition that makes the Davis Cup so special.
France is one of the world’s best teams, with 11 players in the top 100, while their opponents, Austria, have just one. Last year’s runners-up, however, were missing their top three players with injury: Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet. Austria therefore fielded the highest ranked player in the tie, Jurgen Melzer, and he very nearly became the hero of the weekend in his match against Gilles Simon.
Melzer is a story all on his own. At 29, he has just entered the top 10 for the first time in his career. A year ago he was outside the top 30, but then reached his first Major semi-final at Roland Garros, beat Nadal for the first time in Shanghai, and completed 2010 by winning his only title of the year -in this very city, Vienna.
Already in this tie, he had lost his opening singles but won the doubles. He now had to step up for a third consecutive day to keep Austria in the tournament. And for more than four hours, it was uncertain whether his powerful all-court tennis would win the day or whether the extraordinary defence, speed and nimbleness of the Frenchman would triumph.
At two sets apiece, however, Melzer showed just what has made him such an exciting addition to the top 10. His tennis soared to near perfection as he dropped barely a point either on his own serve or on Simon’s, and he dropped not a game. The tie was level.
The burden on fellow Austrian Martin Fischer, though, was always going to be great, despite a spirited opening set against a nervous Jeremy Chardy. The Frenchman won the next three sets to seal an emotional and exhausting victory.
Ahead lies Germany for the French team, and even without their top three men, they will surely be hard to beat. But beyond that, the semis hold Spain or the USA in what may be the title-deciding tie for 2011.
For while France is one of the strongest tennis countries in the world, the most successful country in recent years -a nation that has 14 players in the top 75, four of them in the top dozen -is Spain. Yet as the 2009 title-holders, the Spanish team made a shock exit in the quarter-finals last year in a 5-0 humiliation by France.
This year, the Spanish squad has already welcomed back a fit Rafael Nadal to the fold, ably assisted by Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez, and they won their opening three matches in straight sets.
Nadal has committed to the squad for the year -subject to injury -and there will be no shortage of other support -David Ferrer in particular -when they take on the USA.
Andy Roddick has made an enthusiastic return to Davis Cup, and new team captain Jim Courier, after a year away. In his country’s 4-1 away win in Chile, he recorded his 33rd singles rubber win and his 12th tie-clinching match.
He is a fervent participant in his country’s campaign, and will draw huge home support if, as is touted, the quarter-final tie takes place in Roddick’s home town of Austin. Spain against the USA and Nadal versus Roddick against the backdrop of the most vociferous supporting teams in the world. Expect more blood, sweat and tears on the court, as Davis Cup fever notches up to another level.