Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Surprises big part of Davis Cup takeaways
By Richard Pagliaro
Screaming vuvuzelas, smacking thundersticks and singing chants charge Davis Cup with a festival feel in which athletes and audience both crank up the intensity.
Three of the four World Group quarterfinals rocked into a decisive fifth match last weekend. Let's look into the reverberations.
Here are five takeaways from the quarterfinals to consider while Davis Cup pulls the plug on the party for the next five months before two-time defending champion Czech Republic visits France and Switzerland hosts Italy in the Sept. 12-14 semifinals.
Roll Player Italian No. 1 Fabio Fognini isn't the best Davis Cup player in the world, but he might be the most entertaining when he's conjuring his all-court magic on clay. The Fog rolled over Andy Murray to level the quarterfinal with Great Britain and set the stage for Andreas Seppi to clinch Italy's first trip to the semifinals in 16 years.
Fabio Fognini's enthusiasm and all-around game served him well against Andy Murray.
Fognini not only produced under the burden of looming elimination (and British fans chanting "Fabio, we are in your head!"), he made the Wimbledon champion's game look mundane in comparison. The 13th-ranked Italian scored his 13th straight Davis Cup singles win and snapped Murray's 19-match Davis Cup singles winning streak.
Fognini's game reminds me of another Davis Cup stalwart, the retired David Nalbandian. Both are creative sub-6-footers who can take the ball on the rise, as well as savvy doubles players moved by the Davis Cup muse to play their most inspired tennis.
The question is whether Fognini, who is 12-1 in Davis Cup singles matches contested on clay and 14-2 on dirt this year, can translate his game to the faster court surface he will see in Switzerland. Fognini owns a .390 career winning percentage on hard court.
Star power Pluto was still a planet that last time Roger Federer led Switzerland to the Davis Cup semifinal in 2003. This year, the stars are aligned for Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka to carry the Swiss to their first Davis Cup.
Complications arose against Kazakhstan when world No. 64 Andrey Golubev tripped up Wawrinka 7-6 (5), 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (5) in the opener, then knocked Stan down with a roundhouse forehand return on match point to seal Kazakhs doubles victory, giving the visitors a 2-1 lead and bracket-busting visions.
Wawrinka slammed 25 aces and did not drop serve to level, and Federer defeated Golubev to clinch the semifinal spot, then played with finesse when asked about playing the semifinals.
"The only hope I always have is that we will be healthy," said Federer, who has processed recent developments -— recovery from a back injury that contributed to his fall in the rankings, transitioning to a larger Wilson racket, the new partnership with Hall of Famer Stefan Edberg -— and channeled them all into a sharper attacking approach.
The 2008 Olympic doubles gold medalists make the Swiss the team to beat, but they are not invincible. Federer and Wawrinka have lost four straight Davis Cup doubles matches together, and the Swiss face the prospect of a road final if they beat Italy in the semifinals.
Home runs Though three home teams were wobbled and one was done heading into the reverse singles play, host nations Italy, France and Switzerland roared back from 2-1 deficits last Sunday to reach the final four.
Japan, playing without its No. 1 Kei Nishikori -- who suffered a groin injury during his run to the Miami semifinals -- and in the absence of a Top 100-ranked singles player, was swept by two-time defending champion Czech Republic.
In 2014 World Group play, the host nation has won eight of 12 ties. Semifinal hosts are tough outs at home: France is 7-1 and Switzerland is 6-2 in their past eight home ties.
David's cup The quarterfinals reinforced Davis Cup's reputation as the ring where inspired Davids can teeter and sometimes even TKO twitchy Goliaths.
You can argue Golubev's win over Wawrinka isn't that big of a shock, given Golubev's 11-1 record in Davis Cup singles matches on hard court and the fact the Kazakhs swept the Wawrinka-led Swiss team, 5-0, in a humbling 2010 playoff thrashing.
But how do you explain 119th-ranked Peter Gojowczyk fighting off a pair of match points and cramps to shock Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 5-7, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 7-6 (8), 8-6 and give Germany a 2-0 lead over host France? Still, Tsonga and Gael Monfils restored order on the final day.
"This victory is logical and was expected, but we know nothing is logical in the Davis Cup," French captain Arnaud Clement said in comments that also sum up the extremes of his team.
France has the most depth of any team in the final four with enough talent to win its first Davis Cup in 13 years, but can its sometimes temperamental cast manage their nerve and quiet the noises in their heads when it matters most?
Lion tamer When Czech Davis Cup hero and doubles wizard Radek Stepanek unveils the lucky lion shirt he wears in Davis Cup play, it's a bit like seeing KISS hit the stage in full makeup: If you're not a fan, the old-school theatrics might seem a contrived cheesy affectation, but if you're an enthusiast, then you know you're going to see a showman ready to rock on all levels.
Stepanek made history last November when he clinched the defending champion's 3-2 triumph over host Serbia in the final, becoming the first man in the 101-year history of the Davis Cup final to clinch decisive matches in successive years. Last weekend, the 35-year-old won the opening singles match and partnered with Lukas Rosol in a doubles victory, extending the Czech Republic's winning streak to 11 ties.
Stepanek's soft hands around net, his flat strokes, guile for playing angles and gift for annoying opponents all play well in the Davis Cup cauldron. Who knows what the reigning U.S. Open doubles champion will bring to the semis, where France and the Czech Republic have split 14 prior meetings, but something tells me it will be worth watching.