The clay-court swing is officially underway, the first blow struck by Andrea Petkovic of Germany, who won on the green clay of Charleston last Sunday.

There are WTA events underway this week in Katowice, Poland, and Bogota, Colombia, where top seeds Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic (respectively) are rolling along.

On the ATP side, the clay season is off to a bizarre start.

The top seeds in the two ATP 250 events now underway (Casablanca, Morocco and Houston, Texas) didn’t get a win between them: ATP No. 9 John Isner was dusted in Houston in the second round (he had a first-round bye) by Dustin Brown. Ditto for No. 19 Kevin Anderson, who was busted in Morocco by 32-year-old No. 89 player Victor Hanescu. He’s exactly the kind of clay-bred warrior who presents often unsolvable problems for players such as Isner and Anderson, whose power isn’t complemented by the kind of patience -- or consistency -- that wins matches on clay.

[+] EnlargeAna Ivanovic
Ella Ling/BPI/Icon SMIDoes early 2014 success have Ana Ivanovic primed for wins on clay?
The results thus far seem emblematic of what lies in store on both tours in the coming weeks. The women are loaded with players who enjoy the clay and know how to play it, like the those mentioned above.

And let’s not forget that the winner in Monterey, Calif., (a last lingering hard-court event) last week was former French Open champ Ana Ivanovic. The women’s tour is chockablock with contenders on clay. Jankovic has been No. 1 in the world and, like current No. 3 Radwanska, she’s been a Grand Slam finalist.

Should Serena Williams surrender the stranglehold she has on the WTA tour in the coming weeks, it’s really impossible to say who, if anyone, might take her place. No. 2 Li Na has been more consistent than ever in recent months, but she’s wandered off-script before. Victoria Azarenka has been out with a foot injury, and she’s not due back until Madrid in early May; who knows how long it will be until she’s match tough again? Maria Sharapova, down to No. 8, hasn’t made a final this year.

The ATP side of the game offers a clearer picture. Rafael Nadal has shown no signs of being anything less than the ruthless, implacable, inexorable punisher of the Euroclay segment. Over the last nine years, he’s won Monte Carlo (the first of the red clay Masters 1000 events) eight times, and the Madrid and Rome Masters titles a combined nine times. He’s feasted on red clay, and he’s coming back for more like he always does.

Nadal, current ATP No. 1, lost exactly one match during the two-month clay-court season last year, and that was to Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final. It strains credulity to envision Nadal losing more often this year, unless Djokovic can hit the level he found when he hammered Nadal in the recent Miami Masters final. That match reminded pundits of 2011, when Djokovic won six straight against Nadal (two of those wins in the two major Euroclay Masters, Madrid and Rome).

Djokovic has to prove that he can resurrect -- and sustain -- that level on clay. Nadal is 13-3 against Djokovic on the surface, and while many of those wins were early in the rivalry (Djokovic is 3-4 in their last seven meetings on dirt), clay remains the surface on which Nadal is most effective against his nemesis.

Roger Federer, back up to No. 4, was feeling so exuberant after clinching the Davis Cup quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan that he took a wild card into Monte Carlo. It was a bold and confident move, but let’s remember that Nadal is even more dominant over Federer on clay than he is over Djokovic. Nadal is 13-2 against the all-time Grand Slam singles champ. He hasn't lost to Federer on clay since May 2009.

As for the rest of the ATP cast, Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka has slowed down in recent weeks, faltering in the fourth round at Indian Wells and Miami. Top 10 staples such as Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (now down to No. 12) and Richard Gasquet have failed to deliver when it most counts. Andy Murray, No. 8 and the defending Wimbledon champ, always seems to struggle on clay.

If we’re going to witness a shake-up in the pecking order, it’s more likely to occur on the women’s side. Nadal is a Superman on red clay; only Djokovic has the kryptonite, and Nadal is usually immune even to that.
Let’s assume you’re new to tennis and have heard mostly negative things about the Davis Cup.

You’ve been told that nobody cares, that the top players don’t feel passionate about it, that the best-of-five-sets format (with no tiebreaker in the fifth set) is outdated, and that tennis isn’t a team sport, so trying to make it one makes no sense.

Have I covered most of the bases?

Well, if you then watched Davis Cup this past weekend, here are the surprising things you might have learned on what has been one of the finest exhibitions of Davis Cup tennis over a full weekend in a long time:

Passion overflows
[+] EnlargeAndreas Seppi
AP Photo/Salvatore LaportaDavis Cup fans were firmly behind Andreas Seppi and the Italians -- and everyone else -- over the weekend.
"Nobody cares" should read "nobody cares more than Davis Cup fans," as demonstrated by the crowds that filled the venues where the four World Group quarterfinals were played.

You know how conservative and boring those Swiss are, right? Well, if you tuned in to the Kazakhstan at Switzerland match at any point in the weekend you saw how the Swiss fans, so many of them decked out in bullfighter red and white, shook the rafters with their stamping, hooting and hollering.

In Italy, Andy Murray actually petitioned chair umpire Pascal Maria for help during his match with his No. 1 counterpart, Fabio Fognini. The Italian fans were shouting and screaming at Murray even as he tossed the ball to hit a second serve. It might have been ugly, but it wasn’t like nobody cared.

Big effort from big names
Although the demands of Davis Cup lead most top players to pick and choose the years and/or ties in which they play, almost all of them hold the competition in high regard, and once they sign up, they’re all-in.

The major heroes of the weekend for the winning teams were big names. World No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka overcame a bad case of nerves in the critical, fourth-match battle of each country's top players to stave off elimination for the heavily favored Swiss.

World No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did the same for the French after they fell into a 2-0 hole against Germany, and No. 25 Gael Monfils ultimately clinched it. Also, No. 4 Roger Federer clinched for the Swiss in the fifth and final match of that tie.

Murray of Great Britain, now No. 8 in the world but the defending Wimbledon champ, almost had a heroic moment of his own before running out of gas on Sunday after having to play most of two matches on clay on Saturday in Naples.

The format works
The format of the Davis Cup certainly is not television-friendly. That’s one of the reasons broadcasters have shied away from it. A five-set Davis Cup match can go on for five or six hours, wreaking havoc with programmers. But so what? Sometimes you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

I’m in favor of fifth-set tiebreakers. But those epic overtime matches (like German Davis Cup rookie Peter Gojowczyk’s 8-6 fifth-set win over Tsonga on the first day) become part of the lore and legend of the game, especially when they feature underdog heroes like Gojo.

And the fact that the two singles players each play two matches (barring a second-match substitution) means redemption is a frequent Davis Cup theme. Just ask Wawrinka or Julien Benneteau. The latter was a surprise selection to play No. 2 singles for France over No. 25 Monfils despite being ranked No. 50 overall and just ninth on the French depth chart.

Benneteau was crushed by Germany’s Tobias Kamke (No. 96) on the first day but then partnered with Michael Llodra on “double Saturday” to stave off a humiliating German sweep with an excellent win over Andre Begemann and Kamke.

There’s a lot more strategy in Davis Cup than you might think, given the four-man teams and five-match format. Had the French lost the doubles, captain Arnaud Clement would have been the goat of the tie for promoting Benneteau ahead of Monfils. Davis Cup may not be chess, but it isn’t checkers, either.

Team angle brings intrigue
As for the team aspect of the competition, most players will tell you that being on a team and playing for your nation puts you under loads of pressure. That helps account the frequency of Davis Cup Cinderella stories and improbable upsets, like the four that occurred over the weekend.

But the agony of defeat and thrill of victory are unparalleled in the sport.

I don’t know about you, but for me, any event in which the likes of Federer and Wawrinka (themselves an Olympic gold-medal doubles team) end up with their backs to the wall and fighting for their lives is a very good thing.
French Davis Cup Dennis Grombkowski/Getty ImagesDon't tell the French team that Davis Cup tennis has lost its relevance.
The Davis Cup World Group quarterfinals will take place this weekend, with the U.S. already out of the competition thanks to that shocking first-round loss to Great Britain back February.

Of course, that won’t stop American fans from spending the weekend floating their cockamaimie plans for altering Davis Cup -- for making it more “relevant,” for making it more “promotable,” for making it what it hasn’t really been in the U.S. since the dawn of Open tennis: a premium event attracting the interest of the general sporting public and media.

But while so many fans in the U.S. are criticizing the Davis Cup for being the vestige of a bygone era and small beer compared to the Grand Slams, the rest of the world is thinking, “Who cares what the Americans think? They stink at tennis anyway.”

It’s astonishing that American tennis has come to this juncture. Remember how much stock Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith put in Davis Cup? Remember how John McEnroe always made room for Davis Cup on his schedule? Remember how often Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick answered the Davis Cup call?

I’m not saying the American men’s game wouldn’t be in its present state of decay if Davis Cup were more highly valued. What I am saying, though, is that anti-Davis Cup sentiments are a pretty good indicator of just how out of touch so many Americans are with the global tennis community.

Guess what? Most of the world loves Davis Cup, and takes particular pleasure in watching players from what once were “have-not” countries compete for glory in the most legitimate -- and storied -- annual international team competition in sports. Much of the world also enjoys watching some upstart nation take the once-mighty USA down a peg or two, although the pegs are admittedly running out. How much worse can we get?

Granted, not all of the top international stars play Davis Cup all the time - the four-week commitment required of a squad that has a realistic shot at winning (see: “S” for Switzerland this year) is significant. It’s also true that because the event is owned and staged by the International Tennis Federation and its member nations/federations, Davis Cup suffers from a fair amount of fuddy-duddyism.

The federations are run by well-meaning amateurs whose demands on the players are more onerous than those of the typical tournament promoter, who’s just happy the players showed up to vie for and carry off the prize money. Davis Cup ties aren’t big money-makers. The players generally compete out of a desire to represent their respective nations, and to give a little back.

We also know the problems associated with the long interval between Davis Cup weeks, as well as how the unique rules governing where any tie is played (the teams take turns hosting) makes long-range planning and promotion difficult.

Yes, in many ways Davis Cup is a drag for the players. Yet the competition flourishes almost everywhere else in the world because players still are willing to make sacrifices in order to represent their country -- to play for the glory of the nation, rather than self.

Back in the day, it seemed that the baffling indifference of the U.S. audience to Davis Cup held back the competition. That indifference no longer matters. The world has passed us by.

While we sit here talking about playing Davis Cup every two years, or eliminating the things that make Davis Cup great (like the alternating host rule) and settling the whole thing in some giant two-week festival at a single site, the rest of the world is wrapping its arms around Davis Cup just the way it is.

On the whole, our national attitude toward Davis Cup is not a symptom not of the Davis Cup’s irrelevance, but ours.

Davis Cup

Bum wrist has del Potro down again

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
video Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, is giving American Brian Baker a strong run for the title of Unluckiest ATP Pro. That’s a particularly stinging loss for the game because unlike Baker, Delpo is an established, elite player -- and one of the most well-liked players of any level on the ATP World Tour.

Just 26, del Potro has had to pull the plug on another season in order to undergo surgery on his left wrist.

Back in 2010, he was poised to take the place Andy Murray currently occupies in the Big Four alongside Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Just months earlier, he had pulled off one of the more stunning upsets in tennis history at Flushing Meadows. He handcuffed and steamrolled through Federer at the peak of his powers in the US Open final as the sporting public watched in stunned silence -- and awe.

Del Potro hit that glitzy No. 4 ranking in early January 2011, shortly before the Australian Open. In the ensuing major, he survived three rounds and lost a tense and bitter five-setter to No. 14 Marin Cilic. Then he abruptly announced that the chronic pain in his right wrist had not responded to rest or treatment, and he vanished for the better part of the year to undergo surgery and a long process of rehabilitation.

It took del Potro a long time to come back; he started the following year ranked No. 259 and didn’t make a final until the ATP 250 at Delray Beach, where he won the title over No. 52 Janko Tipsarevic. But by the time Wimbledon ended, he had clawed his way back up to No. 19 and finished the year ranked No. 11.

The following year, del Potro won four titles. More impressively, he had a host of wins over top-10 rivals, including two (in eight matches) over Federer. Del Potro also snatched the bronze medal out of Djokovic’s grasp at the London Olympics. Year-end ranking: No. 7.

Last year was theoretically the one in which del Potro would make another big push to join what had become the elite Big Four -- or turn the posse into a Big Five. He continued to solidify his position. He logged his first win over Nadal since that glorious 2009, and he carved out his first win over Djokovic since their Olympic third-place match. He seemed to be on the cusp of the big, permanent breakthrough.

This was supposed to be a big year for the big (6-foot-6) man with the weak wrists, and nobody can accuse him of not giving it his best shot this year, despite his aching wrist. (He’s right-handed, but he hits a two-handed backhand.)

Del Potro won at Sydney to start 2014, but things quickly began to unravel for him once again. He was beaten in the second round of the Australian Open by No. 62 Roberto Bautista Agut, and that debilitating five-setter punished his left wrist. He played with the pain in Rotterdam, losing in the quarterfinals to Ernests Gulbis. By the time del Potro started in Dubai, his wrist was shot. He quit after losing a first-set tiebreaker in his first-round match with No. 78 Somdev Devvarman.

Hoping against hope, he entered Indian Wells and Miami, but he pulled out of both. Shortly after informing the Miami Masters tournament that he was a nonstarter, he posted the following message on his Facebook page:

"I want to tell you that after a period of medical treatment, in which we tried to be competitive on a tennis court, and following new examinations done today, my doctor Richard Berger, decided that I should have surgery to fix the problem on my left wrist. It will be tomorrow, Monday, 24 March."

Of his travails since that magical September night in 2009, he said: "I experienced a similar situation and I know how hard it is to be out of the tour -- the desire to return, the endless weeks of recovery and how difficult it is to start fighting for the top spots in the rankings again."

This is a huge disappointment to tennis fans because, with the exception of Nadal’s continued excellence, the established order in tennis seems somewhat shaky. Nobody was better positioned to force his way into the conversation at the top of the game than del Potro, and now the gentle giant with Achilles' heels at the ends of his arms can only leave his friends around the world with this message: "The strength you send me and my desire will be crucial during my recovery."

Here’s hoping that his recovery will be a swift and successful one.

Andy Murray doing the wrong things

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21

Among all the people who are out of work in our struggling republic, the one I’m least worried about is Ivan Lendl. Coach to Andy Murray until a few days ago, Lendl was as prudent as he was spectacularly successful in his salad years on the pro tour. He doesn’t need Murray’s money, and Murray got what he needed from Lendl -- a leg up over the final hurdle in his career.

But while winning a Grand Slam title (two, in Murray’s case, as well as a gold medal in Olympic singles) is the ultimate capstone on a player’s career, the difference between a player and a coach is that the former can’t drop the racket and walk away as easily as the coach can put away the wrench and put his feet up when he’s fixed a guy.

That final hurdle? It multiplies. Murray has four lying in his path as I write this, and that’s just this year. That’s why this is an important week for the 26-year-old from Dunblane, Scotland. He’s the defending champion at the Sony Open an ATP 1000, which started Wednesday. He’s said all the right things since his return from minor back surgery, but lately he’s doing some of the wrong things.

In his tournament appearances thus far in 2014 (he missed the entire fall of 2013 because of his back problems), Murray is 14-5. He hasn’t made a final. More telling, he’s lost to three guys outside the top 20, including No. 40 Florian Mayer in Doha.

The loss to Mayer was understandable; it was in the first week of the new tennis year. Murray, still ranked No. 4 at the time, then had a good Australian Open, losing in the quarters to No. 6 Roger Federer. Murray was feeling so exuberant and optimistic afterward that he jumped into the fray in Rotterdam after further boosting his confidence with two sleek and slick Davis Cup wins over unthreatening Americans.

You could forgive Anglophiles from all over the world -- those folks from whom Murray has never been able to hide -- for leaping to their feet, waving their Union Jacks and screaming, “Go-o-o-o-o An-dey.”

But not so fast.

In the weeks since he made the quarters in Rotterdam (losing to Marin Cilic), things got a little dodgy for Murray. He had a good tournament in Acapulco, taking a semifinal loss to No. 22 but oncoming sensation Grigor Dimitrov. After the loss, Murray declared that his workload (matches over four consecutive days) for the week convinced him that he was finally, fully and hopefully irrevocably fit and in full control of that hard-to-characterize game. (Murray plays jazz compared to Federer’s classical or Rafael Nadal’s heavy metal.)

Murray seemed set to dole out some punishment at Indian Wells, in the first Masters 1000 of the year. Then the pre-Lendl Murray re-emerged. He made baffling decisions, blew leads, and he created problems and then bitterly complained about them as he lurched through three tough matches, flaming out after being in firm control of his fourth-round match against No. 11 seed Milos Raonic. (Now there’s a guy who could use Lendl’s services).

Perhaps it’s significant that Lendl was not present. In Lendl’s absence, Murray once again fell into the clutches of the Whine Monster. All the negativity that once seemed to hold Murray back appeared to return, flowing into the vacuum left by Lendl like scotch whiskey filling a flask.

Since his return, Murray has fallen from No. 4 to No. 6, for which his reward has been a potential Miami quarterfinal against No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic.

Murray might not be out of work, but I’m more concerned about him than about the guy who is.
Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer finally restored order to men’s tennis after a wild 10-day shootout in the California desert, while the women left Indian Wells in a more chaotic state than when they arrived. But there will be a new sheriff in town in Miami come Wednesday: Serena Williams.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. Or are we making the familiar mistake of confusing the Williams sisters again?

Take a closer look at the season standings. Venus is 1-1 in finals this year (winning in Dubai) and 9-3 overall. Serena, who’s 9-2, has made just one final in 2014, bagging the title in Brisbane in the first week of main WTA tour play.

Serena has been flying well under the tennis radar in recent weeks, trading air kisses at fab Oscars parties in Hollywood rather than swapping forehands with the likes Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka. When last seen by us, she was stewing in Dubai on the eve of what might have become another in that dwindling series of Williams family crises.

Another sister-on-sister clash seemed inevitable as the Dubai tournament wound down, and both women reached the semifinals. At least this time they were on opposite sides of the draw. But then Serena lost her semi to Alize Cornet, thereby holding the door open for Venus to win for the first time since she triumphed in a tiny event in the tiny country of Luxembourg in October 2012.

In Miami, which has always been a home game for the sisters, Serena is the top seed and Venus sneaked in just under the wire at No. 29. The good news for the Williams clan is that once again the sisters are on opposite sides of the draw. They haven’t met in a tournament final since Serena beat Venus at Wimbledon and then the WTA Tour Championships in 2009.

In case you’re wondering, Serena leads the head-to-head 14-10, but the fine print reminds us that Serena hasn’t lost to Venus since Dubai of 2009, when Venus eked out third-set tiebreaker. Of course, that was before either of them turned 30, but these two have aged extremely well.

Venus can, and has been, written off by many -- but for so long that the pundits increasingly sound as if they’re crying wolf. Sure she’s 33 (a year older than Serena) and forced to manage her case of Sjogren’s syndrome, a condition that leaves its victims susceptible to, among other things, fatigue. But as an athlete, she’s in the same league with Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, and when it comes to age in women’s tennis, 30 appears the be the new 20.

Venus showed us just how explosive and dominating she can still be with that run in Dubai. The lowest-ranked player she faced was her first-round opponent, No. 33 Elena Vesnina. After that, she knocked off, in succession, some worthy names: former No. 1 and Grand Slam champ Ana Ivanovic; Flavia Pennetta, who was Saturday’s winner over top-seeded Li Na and Sunday's winner at Indian Wells; and two-time year-end No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

Venus didn’t lose a set in the tournament, and she obliterated Cornet in the final, three-and-love. Some would say Venus earned that smooth ride, given that she might easily have won every match she’s lost this year. Two of those three defeats were 6-4 in the third; the other was a third-set tiebreaker loss to No. 6 Petra Kvitova.

Granted, the heat and humidity in Miami could present a problem for Venus, especially if she becomes embroiled in a few tough back-to-back matches. And her draw doesn’t look very kind. She starts with Cornet (again), but she might then have to face No. 6 Simona Halep followed by a confident lady who would have no compunctions about trying to run Venus into the ground, No. 10 seed and recent Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova.

So yes, Venus has her work cut out. But I wouldn’t pin that tin star on Serena’s chest just yet.

In Roger Federer we trust

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
Guess who has emerged as the one person upon whom you can rely as a desert storm ravages the ATP and WTA pecking order heading into the final weekend of the first Masters 1000 of the year, Indian Wells?

Roger Federer.

Many of you know that the door through which the waiting players must pass to walk out onto Centre Court at Wimbledon has a sign above it. On it is written a verse from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If.” But some less familiar lines from “If” may be even more relevant to Federer now than those oft-quoted ones about triumph and disaster:

“If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too.”

If you’ve been following the results at the Indian Wells Masters combined event, you’ll see how the stanza applies to Federer. He’s in the semifinals now, and he’ll the favorite to beat Alexandr Dolgopolov to a place in the title match. He’s been the most solid of the elite players (and I’m talking about both draws), keeping that well-groomed head as others are losing theirs, trusting himself when so many of us out in fanland doubt him.
There was top-seeded Rafael Nadal, tournament owner Larry Ellison’s bro and house guest, unable to handle the explosions coming off Dolgopolov’s racket in the third round. There was Andy Murray, breaking Milos Raonic’s 140 mph serve but then failing to hold his own one round later. Novak Djokovic, seeded No. 2, is still alive and kicking, although his last two opponents, Alejandro Gonzalez and Marin Cilic, both took sets off him to fuel the litany,”What’s wrong with Nole?”

All Federer has done, meanwhile, is surpass his No. 7 seeding and rip through guys just like he did back in the day, when that enterprise was just considered due diligence en route to a semifinal against Djokovic and a final against Nadal -- or vice versa.

But you know what? It’s not those days anymore, as this tournament has suggested. Granted, even a seemingly compromised Djokovic remains a solid favorite, both officially (thanks to his No. 2 seeding) and in the imagination of pundits and commentators.

That brings us to the second part of that hypothetical question in “If,” that bit about trusting yourself while the minds of others are laced with doubt. That’s the most relevant part for Federer now that he’s 32 and hasn’t won a Masters 1000 title since Cincinnati in 2012.

Few people expected Federer to come on strong early in 2014. Another comprehensive beating laid on by Nadal in the semis of the Australian Open seemed to justify the theory that while Federer could trip up lots of good players with designs on the throne room, he had no more chance of occupying that room himself than did they.
But Federer surprised everyone when the tour set up camp in Dubai. He slashed through the field and grabbed the title on the strength of back-to-back wins over Djokovic and No. 6 but always dangerous Tomas Berdych.
Now here we are, at another desert outpost, and Federer is taking it all in stride with nary a wag of the finger nor a chilly rebuke aimed at his doubters or critics.

“A lot of the guys in the top eight have lost,” he remarked after his quarterfinal win. “That’s unusual. But then again, it's the first Masters 1000 of the year.

For some it's still maybe early in the season. … I don't overanalyze draws or anything. At this point I need to just focus on my matches anyway.”

When Kevin Anderson, the man Federer beat Thursday night, was asked about his opponent, the South African just said, “Roger sort of speaks for himself. There is not too much I can add from that.”

Maybe Anderson can’t speak for Federer, but at least one other guy can. And his name is Kipling.

Indian Wells crowns up for grabs

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
The most refreshing thing about the Indian Wells tournament that is taking place in the California desert is that both titles appear to be up for grabs in a way they haven’t been for a long time, particularly on the ATP side of the pro fence.

Now that the first weekend is over (you can think of that first Wednesday through Sunday as a kind of mega-qualifying event for the week that begins Monday), a pattern is beginning to emerge from the confusion that is part and parcel of any major or combined 10-day event.

The two No. 4 seeds, Tomas Berdych and Victoria Azarenka, have bitten the desert sand. Berdych was upset by an emerging talent, Roberto Bautista Agut. Azarenka has larger problems -- mainly a nagging foot injury so serious it might jeopardize her entire spring -- or worse. That’s noteworthy for the WTA contenders because Azarenka, a former No. 1, also has been the champ on the gritty and slow desert hard courts.

The No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany also has gone kaput, as has that unpredictable but deadly desert flower Daniela Hantuchova. Although her seeding was a lowly No. 29, Hantuchova improbably won this event twice. That makes her a force to reckon with, but now she’s just one less thing to worry about for top seed Li Na.

Li, the recent Australian Open champ, is on a mission to prove she’s a worthy Grand Slam champ and potential No. 1. That means she’s making an effort to perform at her highest level more consistently than ever. With Serena Williams once again taking a pass on this event, Li has a terrific opportunity to walk the walk.

Of course, an opportunity so big for a player so capable of seizing it also brings to bear a certain amount of pressure. And that’s something Li has not always handled well. One of the major obstacles in Li’s path is ultratalented but power-challenged Agnieszka Radwanska, who also has performed unpredictably in big matches. The other, Maria Sharapova, can be terribly erratic. Her scream is often louder than her bite.

Given that Li herself has been prone to lapse into ugly and counterproductive moods and attitudes, we might even see a relatively fresh face accepting the winner’s trophy: long-overdue Caroline Wozniacki, Dominika Cibulkova, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur or perhaps even Sloane Stephens.

The tale of the men’s draw is surprisingly similar, which is saying a lot given the way Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have dominated the conversation in recent years.

The back problems Nadal experienced at the Australian Open haven’t cleared up despite a significant break and rehab. And, although the top seed and world No. 1 likes to put a brave face on, we all know back injuries are the trickiest and potentially most problematic of all.

Partly because of continued back pain, Nadal barely pulled out a win over 35-year-old Radek Stepanek in the second round this weekend. With his service motion altered in response to pain, Nadal banged out eight double faults (a career high) and gifted Stepanek with 10 break points.

That probably was welcome news to Djokovic, Roger Federer, Stanislas Wawrinka et al., given Nadal’s record at Indian Wells. (He has won the title three times and has made at least the semis every year except in his debut in 2014.) Add to this cloud hovering over the head of Nadal the apparent resurgence of Federer, the emergence of Wawrinka, the fitness of Andy Murray and what appears to be the pulsating motivation of Djokovic and you can see why nobody, not even among the pundits, is conceding the title to anyone.

It’s difficult to imagine someone other than the men mentioned in the above paragraph winning this thing, but take a look at that third quarter of the men’s draw -- the one with the huge hole in it thanks to losses by No. 4 Berdych and lesser seeds Florian Mayer and Philipp Kohlschreiber (both of whom are tough outs).

Grigor Dimitrov, the talented No. 15 seed who needs to make a move to justify all the hype that has surrounded him, is in that quarter, and he just might fit through that gap, and once he pops into the semis -- who knows?
The Indian Wells Masters 1000 is underway, and Miami follows immediately on its heels. Sweeping the two events is a major accomplishment (among the Big Four, only Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have done it). Call the accomplishment a Masters mini-Slam. The feat may not yield the same prestige as winning a Grand Slam title, but it does pay off with the same number of ATP ranking points (2000).

That raises two interesting questions: Who’s got the best shot at completing a North American Masters mini-Slam, and who’s got the most to gain from doing it?

Let’s start with Federer: The guy has been saying all the right things about his motivation and his new racket. Besides, he’s still the only man to have accomplished the mission in back-to-back years (2005 and ’06). A hat trick on the U.S. hard courts would be a second cherry on top of his Masters resume.

As little as two weeks ago, the very idea of Federer slashing his way to the title at Indian Wells and Miami seemed untenable to all but the most blinkered of his fans. Then he won Dubai last week, with back-to-back wins over Djokovic and Tomas Berdych. Federer has shown, once again, that you count him out at your peril.

The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. How much success does Federer need or crave? And what real motivation does he have to go big at this point in the year?

Granted, a Federer revival that leaves him with two Masters and the Dubai title as the tour heads to Europe would be a major story. But Federer isn’t focused on publicity; he’s concentrating on the major events and Davis Cup this year. A win at either one of the upcoming Masters would boost his momentum, but it isn’t something he really needs at this stage of his career.

Rafael Nadal has been denied the honor of a hard-court spring sweep, and he’s certainly demonstrated the ability to pull it off. But as good as he’s been at Indian Wells (three titles, including last year’s) is as unlucky as he’s been in Miami, where he’s never won (three-time runner-up).

Given Nadal’s proficiency on clay (where he’s completed the Masters mini-Slam of Madrid and Rome three times), it wouldn’t exactly be stop-the-presses news if he won a pair of Masters on hard courts in successive fortnights.

It all may be moot anyway. The maintenance of his troublesome knees may dictate that he take a pass on Miami, as he did last year. If he defends successfully at Indian Wells (where the court speed is said to be very slow), I can’t imagine Nadal even showing up in Miami.

There’s not much for Nadal to gain by winning both of the events -- not when you factor in the physical toll the feat would take with all that low-hanging fruit waiting on the European clay circuit. Nadal likes playing at Indian Wells, and he’s good buddies with billionaire tournament owner Larry Ellison. But I don’t think he’s dying to win Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back.

And how about Andy Murray, who’s a little bit like the poorest guy in a club composed of billionaires (still not bad work if you can get it)? A sweep of the spring hard-court Masters would be a powerful statement. At this point, though, it may be too much to ask, and not just because he’s the most junior member of the Big Four.

Murray missed most of the fall because of back surgery, and he’s reluctant to push himself. He’s down to No. 6 in the rankings and has a 13-4 record in tournaments this year, but he hasn’t been beyond the quarterfinals. Making a final in either of the hard-court Masters coming up would be a big step forward for him.

As for the benefit, Murray has proven to be a Masters 1000 warrior. He has just two Grand Slam titles, but nine Masters shields -- a situation that has led to much speculation in the “horses for courses” vein. Murray is healthy now, and he’s had a good dose of match play. He could really benefit from winning one of these Masters events, and winning both would be a declaration of war on Nadal and Djokovic.

That leaves Djokovic, who won Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back in 2011. Djokovic sorely needs to recapture the magic he had in that dazzling year, and his trials and tribulations this year -- the first year since 2006 that he’s without a title on the eve of the these two big events -- only adds to the urgency.

Djokovic has absorbed some unexpected losses this year, but he’s played very well for pretty long stretches. The slow hard courts are his best surface. What questions swirl around him have more to do with motivation than the X’s and O’s of his game.

I can’t imagine a better time for Djokovic to re-invent himself by repeating his feat of 2011. Nobody would benefit more from completing a Masters mini-Slam than Djokovic, and the time for him to get his game in gear again is right now.
Although Monday’s World Tennis Day festivities in Madison Square Garden are merely an exhibition, the matchups in the BNP Paribas Showdown are fraught with meaning when it comes to the short- and/or long-term status of the competitors.

In the main-event singles, ATP No. 2 Novak Djokovic will meet his pal in No. 6 Andy Murray. The doubles will be a battle of the brothers: John and Patrick McEnroe will bump up against Mike and Bob Bryan, the Grand Slam doubles record-holders (15 major titles). They also, in the eyes of many, are the greatest doubles team of all time -- eclipsing, among others, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming.

John McEnroe does not like to be eclipsed. But more on that later.

Everyone knows this exhibition is mainly a chance for tennis nuts to get together to celebrate and feel good about tennis. And though this World Tennis Day concept may not be quite ready to challenge Super Bowl Sunday or the day they run the Kentucky Derby in terms of single-day public interest, it is beginning to develop some legs -- thanks partly to the number of nations where tennis is a popular spectator (and participant) sport, and the way the various national federations affiliated with the ITF can whip up interest in this kind of thing.

"Hit-and-giggle" tennis is all well and good, but it just so happens that both Djokovic and Murray could use a little more hit and little less giggle these days. This doesn’t mean the two junior members of tennis’ Big Four (the other two are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) will go at each other hammer and tong, but at this stage you could say both men could use a win -- any win.

Djokovic, so recently the dominant No. 1, hasn’t won a tournament yet this year, and the two big U.S. hard-court Masters 1000 events are just around the corner. You have to flip back through lots of calendars to find the last year he found himself in that fix. (It was 2006, so early in his career that it was no fix at all.)

Granted, Djokovic has played just two tournaments this year, the Australian Open and Dubai. With scheduling like that, you’d better do a lot of winning. But Djokovic is 6-2 and coming off what must be a sobering and perhaps demoralizing semifinal loss to Roger Federer in Dubai. Among other things, the loss enabled Federer to keep Djokovic at bay in the head-to-head rivalry. The Swiss icon still leads it, 17-15.

Murray isn’t much better off. He’s just 9-3 in three tournaments (Rotterdam, Australian Open, Dubai), and only one of those losses was to a peer. Federer took him out in the quarterfinals Down Under. His other losses were to talented but flawed Marin Cilic and, last week in Dubai, to solid but unspectacular Florian Mayer.

Down to No. 6 on the ATP computer now, Murray had pronounced himself fit and glad to be playing pain free again following minor back surgery last fall. The best rationalization of his struggles is that he still lacks match toughness. Unfortunately, he’s suggested otherwise, and that puts him in the same boat with Djokovic, and that vessel is leaking.

Happily, the doubles pairing also is intriguing -- mainly because John McEnroe has been complaining recently about the state of doubles. In a thinly veiled criticism of the Bryans' success and claim to honors as the best doubles team in history, the older McEnroe brother said:

“I don’t know what doubles is bringing to the table. The doubles are the slow guys who aren’t quick enough to play singles. Would it be better off, no disrespect, but would it be better off if there was no doubles at all and we invest all the money we save elsewhere so that some other guys who never really got into a good position in the sport end up playing more in singles?”

Ouch. I have a feeling that "no disrespect" qualifier fell on deaf ears in the Bryan camp, so I'm expecting those point-blank volleys hit right at an opponent's body traveling with a lot zip, and perhaps leaving a mark.

The best days of Roger Federer's life?

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
If you didn’t know better, you might be convinced that these are the best days of Roger Federer's life.

The way he's been telling it, winning 17 Grand Slam titles is nice, but how can you compare it with the fun of trying a new racket? Being the guy who steps into the locker room and causes a hush to fall over the place is kind of cool, but it just isn't in the same league as being a guy who fits in -- a schmoe who loses a lot of matches, just like everyone else.

And shattering all those Grand Slam records? Sure it's a good feeling. But challenging the record book is like tilting at windmills. Why bother, when you can play for yourself and your loved ones and leave it at that? You know, do your own thing, live by your own lights, and to heck with what the world says about it.

Legions of the Federer faithful have been tearing out their hair and running their fingernails through the flesh of their cheeks as they've watched their hero slide to No. 8 in the computer rankings. But the icon himself claims to be loving his new life as an also-ran's also-ran, and acting as though he's got all the time in the world to add to his trophy collection.

"Now my situation is comfortable, too," Federer told reporters at the beginning of this week's tournament in Dubai. "I feel like I am enjoying myself out on the court. I don't get too carried away or too nervous necessarily every single match. I don't get stomach cramps like I used to when I was younger. It's a bit more enjoyable now these days."

Imagine if Federer had arrived at this place a few years ago. For one thing, this column probably would be about Rafael Nadal's quest to equal Pete Sampras' Grand Slam singles title record. What we have here is a New Age Federer -- or is it just a newly aged Federer?

Whatever the case, Federer doesn't appear to have a care in the world. And the really scary thing, at least for those who will come up against him in the weeks and months to come, is that this indifference to what some would describe as the death spiral of his career seems genuine.

This isn't a guy who's just whistling past the graveyard. He's either figured out how to accept the first, major obstacles that lie on the far side of the peak of his career, or he's as good a liar as he is a tennis player.

"I feel as if I'm in as good a shape as I have been for a year, so that's very encouraging," he said. "I feel my best tennis is around the corner. I know I've said that a few times, but this time I really feel it's the case."

Give me a break. Federer even admits that he's made comparably rosy diagnoses of his chances in the past, only to see them discredited, and he seems OK with it. He seems to think we ought to be OK with it, too. What's this world coming to?

I don't know what's going to happen to Federer in the coming days, but I do know this: This man is 32 and writing the book on aging gracefully in tennis. There was a time when he won more tournaments in a month than he has in the past two years, but he's so levelheaded and emotionally strong that he makes it sound as if the trials he has faced lately have just made his life more interesting.

Federer also has backed up his attitude with some clever strategic thinking. Now that his Swiss compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka is No. 3 in the world and a Grand Slam champion, Federer's appetite for Davis Cup has been miraculously rekindled. He may not be able to cross the finish line first at a Grand Slam ever again, but he has figured out that together with 28-year-old Wawrinka they could bring home to Switzerland the team championship. It would increase Federer's status as a national treasure. And did you notice that it also would fill the only glaring hole in Federer's résumé?

When Federer was asked if it was important to him to win one more Wimbledon title, which would make him the only player to win the event eight times (one better than his pal Sampras), he replied: "That's not what I'm playing for. I'm playing for myself, for my team, for my country, you name it."

It was an interesting choice of words, saying "you name it." It suggests that he knows deep down that you need to play for something, but just what that something is may be immaterial. That's a real bit of wisdom, and a wise man can be a dangerous one. Maybe these really are the best days of Roger Federer's life.

Team competition has its faults

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
The Davis Cup and Fed Cup were played on back-to-back weekends, and once again the results -- and reviews -- for the most credible and storied of annual international team sports competitions were mixed.

There was some controversy as well, coming out of the Davis Cup World Group play. Team Germany, after having swept Spain in Frankfurt, declared that since the tie was decided, the meaningless match (or “dead rubber” in Davis Cup patois) between Germany’s No. 1 Philipp Kohlschreiber and Nadal-less Spain’s top player, Feliciano Lopez, would not take place.

Thus, the only match that the faithful in Frankfurt were offered on that Sunday that began with Germany already having won 3-0 was the fifth match, another meaningless “dead rubber” in which Germany’s Daniel Brands salted away Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut in two desultory sets.

The sweep is always a problem in Davis Cup, because it renders the third day of the tie is meaningless. That’s a tough pill to swallow for some potential or actual ticket-buyers, but judging from the reaction in Germany it’s not as tough as being told that no matter how happy you are to see your boys sweep, you’re not going to see what you paid to see.

That didn’t sit well with the German fans. They booed and protested the announcement that the fourth rubber was canceled, and a terrific moment for the German team was ruined by the ugly mood that descended on the venue in what ought to have been a moment of shared pride and joy.

This is a persistent problem in Davis Cup, because the sweep isn’t uncommon. Three of the eight ties in the first-round of World Group play ended in sweeps. This challenge is particularly acute because of a different, otherwise terrific Davis Cup rule that mandates that the No. 1 players meet in the fourth rubber, which is the first match on Sunday. It’s generally the most anticipated match of any tie, and canceling it entirely just puts salt on the wound.

The ITF ought to come up with a way to keep ticket-buying fans entertained and happy in the event of a sweep. It can demand that the Davis Cup nations make provisions for giving the fans some kind of legitimate show instead of telling them to just go home on the final day of play. Perhaps No. 1 singles players ought to be obliged to play a doubles match of some kind. The options are numerous. The important thing is that some fans travel from afar to make a three-day weekend out of Davis Cup, so why force them to endure a preventable “rainout” on Sundays?

The Fed Cup doesn’t have that problem, and in some ways its format is more suitable for this era. Fed Cup is played over the weekend with two singles matches on Saturday and three matches on Sunday, culminating with the doubles. Thus, the tie is “live” both days, even when it’s destined to be a sweep.

I don’t think Davis Cup needs to adopt that two-day format; the middle “doubles” Saturday is a great Davis Cup tradition for good reason -- it enhances the strategic maneuverings of the captains. And given that the men play best-of-five sets, a three-match day would be too much like a death march for all concerned.

The three-day Davis Cup format is brilliant, showcasing doubles and encouraging strategy without overinflating its importance. The competition doesn’t need changing, it just needs a better insurance policy against meaningless Sundays.

How about respect for Fed Cup?

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
When it comes to the upcoming Fed Cup battles this weekend in the first round of World Group play, that sound you hear isn’t that of fans banging their feet or chanting. It’s those danged crickets chirping.

Why Fed Cup can't get even a modicum of attention and respect is beyond me. I mean, there isn't even anything else going on in the WTA, never mind anything compelling, and the net result isn't the hoped-for focus on Fed Cup. It's radio silence.

The two lead stories on the WTA website as I write this are, on top, "WTA Stars: Fave Winter Olympic Sports" and "Vika and Maria's Brilliant Babooshkas." That second one is about how Azarenka and Sharapova are "still not too cool to hang out with their grandmothers."


Even if you're not a Fed Cup or Davis Cup fan, you probably can see that the U.S.-Italy meeting (at Cleveland; hold the jokes) could provide some really interesting tennis.

That's because on paper the teams look really competitive. The likely U.S. singles players, Madison Keys and Alison Riske, are ranked Nos. 37 and 46, respectively. They're also charged with the unenviable task of trying to prepare American fans for a world without Serena and Venus Williams, who are unlikely to play forever.

The Italians arrived with Karin Knapp and Camila Giorgi, ranked Nos. 40 and 84, respectively. They have their own reality-check cross to bear: Italy needs to get accustomed to a world without Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci -- three stalwarts who helped Italy win the title four times since 2006.

OK, American fans want to see stars. I get it. But with all the hoo-ha about "girl power" and the march of women's rights, why does Fed Cup seem like one of the very few internationally prominent and marketable events that doesn't get any respect at all? Where are all the feminist voices, demanding that Fed Cup get its just reward for being the oldest and -- by far -- most big-time women's international team competition?

This is a particularly big problem in the U.S., which ironically has been at the cutting edge when it comes to advancing women's sports. Granted, the Davis Cup also suffers from lack of hype here, which is a baffling and perhaps inexplicable thing. But the conspicuous lack of enthusiasm for Fed Cup is astonishing.

Lest you think that the Fed Cup suffers from the lack of star power exemplified by the U.S.-Italy tie, the Slovak Republic vs. Germany tie features four singles player ranked No. 37 or better, including No. 8 Angelique Kerber of Germany and recent Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova.

Maria Sharapova may be swanning around Sochi, leaving Russia’s Fed Cup chances in the hands of women ranked in the netherworld (Russia is led by Victoria Kan, No. 158). But the Australians have the services of their two best players, Grand Slam champion and WTA No. 16 Samantha Stosur and No. 80 Casey Dellacqua.

Russia at Australia is the only tie that looks like it could get really ugly, although Stosur has a history of buckling under the pressure of playing at home, and Dellacqua is far from a star. The point is that the other three ties are likely to be competitive -- and spiced by the usual strategic jockeying thanks to the format.

It will surely be a tough week for Fed Cup, what with the Olympics starting, but the problem is much larger than that. Maybe the ITF should just cancel the Fed Cup, knowing that the outrage the move might trigger in the "equal opportunity" community could give Fed Cup and the WTA players who take part in it just the attention it needs -- and deserves.

From bad to worse for U.S. Davis Cup

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
Here’s how bad it is for the U.S. team in the Davis Cup: The squad lost in the first round of World Group play this past weekend to Great Britain, a nation that had not won a single WG match (a “tie” in Davis Cup patois) in 30 years.

Not bad enough for you? Try this: The previous time a visiting British team beat the U.S., we were just three years into the new century -- the 20th century (1903).

As U.S. Davis Cup coach Jim Courier said sardonically, when he was asked Sunday how all of that felt: "It feels great to be alive in 2014. We certainly don't feel a lot of kinship to the last team that lost to the Brits on American soil since they've been dead a long time."

The man most responsible for the breakthrough win by the Brits in San Diego was Jamie Ward, a 26-year-old English journeyman ranked No. 175 in the world. His upset of Sam Querrey in the second match (or "rubber") ensured that as long as heavily favored Andy Murray -- by far the best player on either team in this matchup -- won his two singles matches, the Brits could salt away the tie.

Granted, John Isner is the highest ranking U.S. player (No. 13 in the ATP rankings), and he had to withdraw from the team at the 11th hour because of a continuing right ankle injury. He was replaced by Donald Young, who got blown to pieces by Murray in the opening match in San Diego. But that was just a preview of “ugly.” Ward then recovered from a terrible start to beat Querrey in four sets -- the final one so dismal that Querrey won just one game.

This latest insult to the great tradition of U.S. tennis seems emblematic of our woes in the larger picture. It just seems that the U.S. never could get traction in the effort to find Grand Slam contenders to pick up where players like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Courier and Andy Roddick left off. Young, once a prodigy, has become just another struggling ATP journeyman. Ryan Harrison, another highly touted youngster, is flailing around outside the ATP top 100. And Isner and Querrey, though solid ATP pros, just haven’t produced the impressive wins. They’ve been to a grand total of one Grand Slam quarterfinal between them (Isner, US Open, 2011).

The Davis Cup gives us a pretty good lens through which to view this struggle. Though U.S. fortunes were already crumbling during the Roddick-James Blake-Mardy Fish years, the U.S. was at least competitive in Davis Cup play, and it won the event in 2007. Granted, the singles guys got tremendous help from Bob and Mike Bryan, the superb doubles specialists who have played an outsized role in the consistent success of the American squad.

Isner and Querrey were the heirs apparent in singles, and they were gifted the Bryan brothers to take some of the pressure off (the Bryans did their job in San Diego, winning the doubles). Isner and Querrey made a promising debut as the singles players in a World Group first-round tie in March 2010 against Serbia. At one point that year, both were ranked in the top 20 and considered potential future stars. The U.S. lost that tie, but there was no shame in it -- the tie was in Belgrade, on red clay, and the Serbs had Novak Djokovic.

Fish saved the U.S. squad from the humiliation of falling out of the World Group later that fall by winning two singles and teaming with Isner to take the doubles in the playoff round later that year (only the winners in the playoff round remain in the World Group, tennis’ major league). In subsequent years, Roddick, the Bryan brothers and Isner kept the United States in the World Group. The squad even made the semifinals in 2012 before losing the away tie to Spain.

Isner emerged as an excellent Davis Cup player. Unfortunately, Querrey did not. His singles record has fallen to 3-6, if you discount two meaningless dead rubbers (those are matches played after the five-rubber tie is already decided).

The Davis Cup mirrors Querrey’s day-to-day struggles on tour. He’s down to No. 55 now, but he certainly has time to get his game together before the Davis Cup playoff round in September. If he can’t manage to improve, though, the U.S. -- still the most successful of all Davis Cup nations -- could very well stumble out of the World Group for the first time since 1987.
Until Wednesday, the first round of Davis Cup World Group play shaped up as a low-key spectacle. Andy Murray, the most junior member of tennis’ suddenly beleaguered Big Four, was the only member of the quartet who volunteered to do national service.

All that changed in the blink of an eye when Roger Federer, the most prolific of all Grand Slam champions, threw his hat into the ring. He announced that he will be joining newly crowned Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka (now No. 3 in the world rankings) on Team Switzerland.

Who knew that the smooth, diplomatic, straight-arrow Federer had such a wicked sense of humor?

Switzerland is visiting Serbia, the 2010 champion and last year’s runner-up to the Czech Republic, on an indoor hard court in Monica Seles’ home town of Novi Sad. Does anyone else get the feeling that, somewhere, smoke is pouring from the ears of Novak Djokovic?

You could hardly blame Djokovic, whose allegiance to Davis Cup thus far in his career has been unimpeachable. He decided to take a break this year, partly because the Serbs couldn’t muster an adequate supporting cast. Viktor Troicki, who was ranked inside the top 40 at the start of the year, is sitting out a suspension for violating the anti-doping regimen. Janko Tipsarevic, who was No. 10 as late as May of last year, has been plagued by injuries and mired in a rankings free-fall. Given that Marco Chiudinelli, the likely Swiss No. 2, is ranked No. 180, the Serbs were in with a fighting chance even in the event that Wawrinka wins both his singles rubbers.

Now it just looks like the Serbs are in for humiliation. What’s worse for Djokovic is that losing teams this weekend will be obliged to play -- and win -- later in the year in the Playoff Round to remain in the elite World Group for 2015. So though Federer and Wawrinka might be hogging the limelight in the September semifinals, Djokovic may find himself pressed into service in some far-flung outpost of the game just to keep Serbia up in the big league.

Thanks, Roger.

Federer’s decision to play automatically overshadowed the commitment made to this round by Murray. While No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Djokovic are cooling their heels, Murray is leading an overmatched British team against the U.S. in a tie at Petco Park in San Diego.

It’s a sign of changing times that the U.S.-Great Britain tie will be played on outdoor red clay, a surface on which No. 13 John Isner has had terrific Davis Cup results in the past. However, Isner pulled out of the competition Thursday with an injury. He will be replaced by Donald Young, who had a bit of an auspicious run in Australia. Although both Young and No. 49 Sam Querrey, now the United States' No. 1 singles player, could easily lose to Murray, the No. 2 singles for the Brits probably will be an overmatched No. 175, Jamie Ward. It’s times like these that make U.S. captains like Jim Courier and his predecessor, Patrick McEnroe, fall to their knees and thank the heavens for the doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan.

This year’s first round has some intriguing matchups: Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil of Canada challenging the Japanese team led (at home) by Kei Nishikori and a crafty Italian team featuring Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi ought to give host Argentina all it can handle. There probably will be some tense moments and intense competition this weekend in many nations, if not Serbia.