Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Updated: April 10, 2:40 PM ET
U.S.-France likely to come down to the wire; Spain, Argentina should cruise
By Ravi Ubha
Special to ESPN.com
The U.S. is the most successful team in Davis Cup history, and France has an impressive pedigree, too, so this one was supposed to be good. Then Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet pulled out for the visitors.
Can you say "cakewalk?"
Germany faces an uphill struggle against a full-strength Spain, Argentina is heavily favored against past powerhouse Sweden, and Russia will move a step closer to making a third straight final if it beats the Czech Republic.
We could have a pair of mouth-watering semifinals -- the U.S. back in Spain in a repeat of the 2004 final, and Argentina tackling Russia in a replay of the 2006 finale.
Here's a closer look at the quarterfinals.
France vs. U.S. in Winston Salem, hard surface, indoors
A little bad blood between players is never a bad thing, especially in the mostly genteel tennis world. So Andy Roddick's Day 1 encounter with the sport's latest idol, Tsonga, promised to be a thriller.
Tsonga, the athletic Australian Open finalist, claimed last month the U.S. had reason to fear the French, which prompted Roddick to fire a verbal volley, in typical Roddick fashion.
"Last time I checked, we were the champions," he told reporters at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, Calif. "Of course we respect them, but I think I might be able to get out there and play a tennis match without shaking."
And that was just the latest installment.
Last year in Melbourne, Roddick drew rebuke for apparently verbally abusing Tsonga, then ranked outside the top 200, following an exchange at the net in their first-round battle.
Then Tsonga pulled out yesterday due to an injury to his right knee, sustained when he was playing doubles with good pal Gasquet in Miami. In came bashing baseliner Paul-Henri Mathieu, actually ranked one place ahead of Tsonga at a career-high 12th.
At that point it still wasn't too bad for the French, even though Mathieu's temperament in big matches continues to be suspect.
Gasquet's own performances have been routinely called into question, yet, as he showed by overcoming a two-set deficit to beat Roddick and reach the Wimbledon semifinals in July, he's got plenty of game (and is the French No. 1).
Guess what happened next? Gasquet bailed due to blisters on his right hand, which means Michael Llodra plays singles.
The eccentric Llodra, one of the few serve-and-volleyers around, is no slouch: He's ranked 41st and has won two titles this year. He's untested, though, in crucial singles matches over five sets. Llodra opens against Roddick, and James Blake tangles with Mathieu tomorrow.
The Bryan twins, Bob and Mike, almost invincible in the Davis Cup, will face Clement and Llondra, who beat the brothers to win the Wimbledon doubles title last year.
Ubha's pick: U.S.
Spain vs. Germany in Bremen, hard, indoors
The good news for German captain Patrik Kuhnen is that Nicolas Kiefer's return following a two-year absence gives his squad a viable No. 2 and the explosive Philipp Kohlschreiber has won five of six so-called live matches in the competition. (Yes, two of those were against substandard opposition from South Korea.)
The bad news, or the first bit of bad news, is that the fragile Tommy Haas, coming back from a third operation to his shoulder, decided not to play.
Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, who skipped the first-round rout of Peru, are back in Emilio Sanchez's squad. Ferrer flourishes on a hard court, though he's failed to live up to last year's late-season form, and Nadal, well, is the world No. 2.
"I expected the Spanish team to be that strong because they have great players, and I also know they're going for the title this year,'' Kuhnen said. "I was hoping a little bit that Tommy would decide to play, but then I had to respect his decision. He's fought back from so many injuries.''
Kohlschreiber, one-handed backhand in tow, demolished Ferrer in their last hard-court encounter in Indian Wells two years ago, and is inching closer to beating Nadal on a hard court, taking him to three sets in Dubai last month.
Kiefer, the former world No. 4 with the all-around game, impressed upon returning to the tour in June after a serious wrist injury. The 30-year-old, though, was crushed by Nadal in their first meeting last week in Miami 6-2, 6-4. Nadal didn't face a break point and said the first set, in which he dropped 13 points, was one of the best he's contested in a while.
"At least now Nicolas knows a little bit what to expect,'' Kuhnen said. "They have pretty much all the odds on their side. We'll have hopefully a huge crowd behind us, and we have to deliver our absolute best tennis. If we can do that, then maybe we have a chance.''
Ubha's pick: Spain
Sweden vs. Argentina in Buenos Aires, clay, outdoors
An Ivan Ljubicic-inspired Croatia toppling the U.S. in California in 2005 and Belarus humbling Spain at home a season later could be considered two of the biggest Davis Cup upsets in recent years.
This one would fall under that category -- and top the list -- if the Swedes triumph.
Already formidable, Argentina's squad was bolstered when Guillermo Canas and Juan Monaco, unavailable in the first round against an Andy Murray-less Great Britain, replaced Agustin Calleri and Sebastian Prieto.
Argentina hasn't lost a home tie in 10 years, beaten only twice in live matches during that span.
"If you put some money down on Argentina in the tie, I don't think you'd get a whole lot of money back,'' said Mikael Stripple, Sweden's Davis Cup manager, "but if we win, it would be quite the opposite." (He was being purely hypothetical, so no need to launch an investigation.)
Swedish captain Mats Wilander at least has the benefit of having Robin Soderling back, although the big and big-serving right-hander excels on faster surfaces. David Nalbandian meets Thomas Johansson Friday, then Soderling battles Acasuso, who always appears to be on cruise control.
This is the third straight year the countries have faced off, with the home team winning in the previous two. Argentina hammered Sweden 5-0 in the 2006 opening round.
"We know we have to play at least 110 percent to win the tie, but we feel we're better prepared this time than the first time around,'' Stripple said. "We have to win one of the singles on Friday to put more pressure on their guys in the doubles.''
Argentina probably won't have a better chance to win its first title, or at least make the final. If things go as expected, Alberto Mancini's team gets a home series against Russia in the semis, and its next matches against the U.S. and Spain would be played in Argentina, too.
Ubha's pick: Argentina
Czech Republic vs. Russia in Moscow, clay, indoors
The last two times these sides have met, Russia has won 3-2, including five years ago, when Nikolay Davydenko bageled Radek Stepanek in the fifth set of the decider. The "worm'' was surely nowhere to be found.
Davydenko also impressed in Miami, though Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev always keeps people guessing with his picks. Remember Tarpischev inserting Dmitry Tursunov against Roddick in the 2006 semifinals, on clay in Moscow? That one paid off.
Davydenko and Tursunov were joined on the initial roster by Mikhail Youzhny, now a YouTube favorite for whacking himself in the head with his racket in Miami, and Igor Andreev, ousted by Czech No. 1 Tomas Berdych in the Miami quarterfinals but much better suited to clay. Marat Safin wasn't included.
Well, that was last week. Tarpischev surprised again and inserted the slumping Safin, with only one win all year, into Friday's singles against Berdych, and Andreev meets Stepanek. Out went Tursunov.
Berdych's showing in Miami probably boosted his confidence, and he's won a title on clay. Stepanek prospers on slicker surfaces, yet he's a gritty competitor and reached the Hamburg Masters final two years ago, taking advantage of a weakened field.
The visitors have the edge in doubles. Lukas Dlouhy and Pavel Vizner reached a pair of Grand Slam finals last year before teaming with different Czech partners in 2008. They'll face Davydenko and Youzhny -- Russia's two-highest ranked singles players.
Ubha's pick: Russia
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.