Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Thorn in the Paw of the Lion

In a phenomenal weekend of Davis Cup tennis, that saw World #1 Novak Djokovic steer a solid Serbian team to a unanimous victory over a burgeoning Belgian squad, the French dominate an Israeli side totally out of their depth and defending champions The Czech Republic crush Swiss spirit in Basel after a 7 hour doubles match, two ties were fuelled by the fire of the underdog to ignite the competition.

Rallying Bellucci shows more heart than Isner
Indoors in Jacksonville, the USA, comprising two top-20 singles players - John Isner and Sam Querrey - and the number one doubles team in the world - Bob and Mike Bryan - took on Thomaz Bellucci's middling Brazilians for a place in the next round.  With both Querrey and Isner taking their opening singles games against the #36th seeded Bellucci and his compatriot Thiago Alves (ranked outside the top 110) without the loss of the set, the Americans were two thirds of the way there heading into the doubles rubber.

Arguably the best doubles team ever to play the game, the Bryan Brothers would have been reasonably confident of a defeat of a team some 15 places below them in the rankings.  However, Marcelo Mela and Bruno Soares pulled out an astonishing upset, taking the Bryans to 5 sets.  Their opponent's history of 20 wins to 2 losses in Davis Cup competition meant very little to the Spanish duo who are on their way to some equally impressive percentage stats, taking their DC tally to 5 wins and 1 defeat.

In what looked like an off-day for the American duo, they pulled out to a 63 lead in the opening set tie break, only to pass over 3 set points and the next two points to hand the first set to the Brazilians.  Mirroring its predecessor, set two saw Mela/Soares hold set points at 63 in the breaker.  But their nerve deserted them at the crucial moment and their opponents took the set.  With the third going to the Brazilian pair, and Bryan/Bryan rallying in the fourth, the tie inevitably went to a decider.  For most of the opening games, the Americans looked to hold the upper hand, but after failing to convert break points they saw their momentum stutter and the Spaniards took their first opportunity on the Mike Bryan serve.  Some error-ridden play from the usually solid Americans handed the Brazil pair an unanticipated 5-set victory, keeping the South Americans in the tie.

Heading into the reverse singles, the higher-ranked American team stuck with Isner and Querrey.  With the lanky Isner taking on Bellucci, all seemed to be going to plan when he pulled out a 62 opening set.  However, Bellucci hit back in set two, taking it to 4.   With a tie-break needed to separate the two in the third (which eventually went to the American) it appeared that fatigue was to play a part as an increasingly-wearied Isner, who had skipped the Australian Open with a suspected knee injury, faltered as the game hit the final stages.  A break for Bellucci in the final game of the fourth set levelled the match, before he claimed victory in the decider on his 8th opportunity, drawing Brazil level with the USA and forcing Querrey and Alves to play out the final deciding match.

With the US in trouble, following the 5-set take downs of their bankable big names, Querrey looked to be suffering from the pressure in the opening set, handing an early lead to Alves who played it out 64.  However, Querrey rallied continuously to draw level, before taking the final two sets to seal victory for the Americans, an unlikely hero of the tie that should have been sealed before he began his match.  Waiting for the US in the next round will be the Serbian squad, and the realisation that such last ditch tennis will need to be improved if they're to secure a victory.

Elsewhere an even mightier Davis Cup performer, the five-time winners, Spain, were undone by a thorn of their own creation during their tie against Canada.  With singles competitors that could be selected from 4 players within the top 20 (Rafael Nadal, Fernando Verdasco, Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer) and the reigning ATP World Tour doubles champions Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez, Spain would have been confident of victory against a Canadian side with only Milos Raonic (singles) and Daniel Nestor (half of a doubles team) of any note amongst their otherwise middling squad.

Raonic serves up a Canadian victory
However, with none of the big four names making themselves available for singles duty (injuries and conflicting focuses precluding them from participating), the responsibility of the singles fell to the less-experienced Spanish journeymen, who struggled under the weight Raonic's barrage.  And with the Spaniards travelling away from their beloved clay onto the hard and fast courts of Montreal, their substitute team repeatedly looked vulnerable.  Despite Spanish solidity in the doubles, they were severely lacking in the singles matches and what should have been a favourable outcome for the Europeans was soured when Canada's #166-ranked Frank Dancevic pulled out a convincing 3-set victory over a sluggish Granollers by playing some of the most inspired tennis of his long career.

Dancevic's victory placed Canada in the stronger position, needing just one win from their two final day singles games.  Raonic duly obliged to notch up a roaring win for the little mouse of Canada's Davis Cup team.  Spain, whose deep pool of committed singles players has previously proved a strength that secured them trophy moments in the tournament finals, discovered that if that commitment suddenly evaporates, they're just as average as their opponents.

Images from Davis Cup site

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