Friday Topspin: Davis Cup Starts Now

As I write, the first rubbers of the weekend are getting underway.  That means I had better get right to the remaining pair of previews:

Argentina vs. Romania: This is the one tie in which home-court–and by extension, surface–may be a deciding factor.  The Romanian team’s hopes rest on Victor Hanescu and the doubles pairing of Hanescu and Horia Tecau.  But against Argentines David Nalbandian, Juan Monaco, or even Juan Ignacio Chela, it’s hard to imagine Hanescu triumphing in singles on the clay.

With Nalbandian, health is always the issue, and he’s not at 100% right now.  If he feels well enough to play, that’s probably sufficient for his country to win this round.  My prediction is that Romania will win the doubles, and Hanescu will manage to win one of his singles matches, still giving the victory to Argentina, 3-2.

USA vs. Chile: The surface is important here as well, but switching to clay isn’t enough to give Chile the edge over the strong American team.  The Bryan Brothers are as close to an automatic point as they come, and Andy Roddick isn’t helpless on clay, and John Isner reached the third round of the French Open last year.

If Fernando Gonzalez (who is planning a return to the tour soon) were available, it would be a different story–one top-ranked player comfortable on clay could reverse the outcome of this tie.  But as is, I have to give the nod to USA, 4-1.

Kudla out: I watched most of Denis Kudla‘s match yesterday with Australian Greg Jones.  Kudla lost in three, as his focus wavered and his game deserted him midway through the second set.  He owns huge groundstrokes, flat and deep shots you don’t expect to come off the racquet of someone shorter than six feet.  Those types of strokes also give him less margin for error, which was evident in the third set.

In the first and second sets, though, Kudla would string together one sensational groundstroke after another.  Even the sound off the racquet was different–it sounded like he was hitting with a giant ping-pong paddle.  Jones would think a rallying shot would come back, and then Kudla would launch a down-the-line backhand fully out of reach.  Impressive.

While Jones won yesterday, it’s clear which player has more potential.  The Australian, with his big but inconsistent serve, is a one-dimensional player who will have a hard time ever sticking in the top 100.  Kudla needs to get more experience under his belt, but if he can improve his serve (especially his second), he’s a player to watch.

Also in Dallas: Ryan Harrison won handily over Lester Cook to reach the quarterfinals.  He’ll play the second match today, against Alex Kuznetsov, while Jack Sock vs. Matthew Ebden is the first match.

Other results: Through to quarterfinals in challengers are Nicholas Mahut, Grigor Dimitrov and Horacio Zeballos.  Mega-underdog Stefan Seifert faltered, though, losing in straight sets to Stephane Robert.

Also, Benjamin Mitchell, the young Australian I mentioned yesterday, is into the semifinals at Australia F2, where he’ll next face top-seed Vishnu Vardhan, a 23-year-old from India currently ranked 363rd in the world.

Enjoy Davis Cup today!

Thursday Topspin: Wins for 18-year-olds

We’ll resume the Davis Cup previews in a bit, but first, I want to send out a salute to the guy who found this site yesterday by googling “Arnaud Clement v Stefan Seifert preview.”  I knew you were out there, crazy men’s tennis fans, and I’m glad you found me.

As it happened, Seifert (remember, ranked outside of the top thousand two weeks ago) defeated Clement in straight sets.  He’ll face Stephane Robert today.

In Dallas: It continues to be a successful week for American youngsters.  Yesterday, Jack Sock had an easy time getting past Bjorn Phau, a match I had expected to go the almost exact opposite way.  Sock will advance to the quarterfinals and next face Matthew Ebden, and you have to figure the American has a good shot at going even further.

Denis Kudla also has a chance to make further inroads, matching up with Australian Greg Jones later today.

Mighty Milos: Carl Bialik in the Wall Street Journal writes about Milos Raonic‘s epic serving of late–he’s on a pace to take down the all-time single-season ace record, among other things.

In light of my discussion yesterday of the career trajectory of tall, big-serving players, one wonders just how much farther Raonic can go.  Certainly he hasn’t reached his peak yet, but is he a top-10 player?  Personally, I think he has a huge amount of development left.  By the time he’s done, he’ll be less of a one-trick serving pony and more like Andy Roddick in his prime, a huge server with a game that (mostly) backs it up.

Speaking of Milos: Raonic is one of the five men awarded a wild card into the main draw at Indian Wells.  With his ranking in the 30’s, he certainly deserves to be there, but the entry list was determined before he started reeling off match wins, so he just missed the initial cut.

Other WC’s go to James Blake (of course), Ryan Harrison (ditto), Bernard Tomic, and Kei Nishikori.  We’ll have to see about Tomic’s status, as he retired from yesterday’s singles match in Dallas.

Futures update: Here’s one player to watch who isn’t in the draw in Dallas: Australian 18-year-old Benjamin Mitchell.  Mitchell has strung together some success of late, reaching the final of Australia F13 in November, then winning five matches in January to qualify for and reach the quarters of the Burnie challenger before losing to Tomic.  He’s among the top 10 ranked players in the world aged 18 or younger.

This week, he’s the 5th seed at Australia F2 and has had two easy matches to reach another quarterfinal.

Oh, and the tournament, in Berri, Australia, is played on grass.

Davis Cup update: Before we preview two more ties, a quick update: The Serbia-India tie has gone from “lopsided but still mildly interesting” to “why bother?”  Novak Djokovic is out, as are Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi.  I guess the one positive is that Rohan Bopanna will get to play doubles.

Preview: Croatia vs. Germany: This one should be fun.  The Croats have Marin Cilic, who matches up favorably with both Phillip Kohlschreiber and Florian Mayer, the German singles players.  But Kohlschreiber and Mayer both outrank the other Croatian singles nominee, Ivan Dodig, and the German doubles team of Phillipp Petzschner and Christopher Kas looks better than any pairing the Croats can come up with.

And while Cilic is the superior player, he’s hardly known for his steel under pressure.  Dodig, while new to the top 100, won a title last month and played well in Delray Beach.  I’m going to predict Croatia, 3-2, but I can imagine it going as far as 4-1 in either direction.

Austria vs. France: Like Robin Soderling for Sweden, Jurgen Melzer needs to have a big weekend if Austria is to get out of the first round.  France is weakened by injury, missing Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Richard Gasquet, but they still sport one of the best Davis Cup squads in the world.

Melzer is slated to play all three days, and he’ll have to win every match he plays.  The singles are within reach, as he’s scheduled to match up with Gilles Simon and Jeremy Chardy.  The doubles could be tougher, and the French are sending out a team of Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra.

It’s a tall order for any player, and Melzer hasn’t had any major recent success since October, when he beat Rafael Nadal and won Vienna in successive weeks.  I’ll predict France, 3-2.

See you tomorrow!

Wednesday Topspin: Young Americans

Before we continue with our Davis Cup preview, let’s start with the young Americans in Dallas.

Harrison and Kudla: Nothing came easy, but it has been a good tournament so far for the local teens.  Yesterday afternoon, Denis Kudla beat Izak van der Merwe, looking strong as he served out the third set.  That’s a big result for someone outside the top 400.  In fact, it’s Kudla first match win at the challenger level.

After one set, it didn’t look nearly as rosy for Ryan Harrison.  Robert Kendrick was serving well, crushing forehands all over the court.  Ultimately, Ryan wore him down, serving a little better and playing more consistently while Kendrick did the opposite.  Harrison took the match in a lopsided (7-1) third-set tiebreak.

Kendrick is always frustrating to watch–such big shots, so little to show for it.  He can play a string of points that makes you wonder why he never cracked the top 20, and then, as we saw last night, he starts playing (and acting) like a frustrated rookie.  With a bit of recent success and a strong history in Dallas, I thought he would overcome Harrison.

American tennis: What follows is all speculation.  I’d love to be able to prove it, but I’m not sure how.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing of late about the dearth of strong young American tennis players–with the exception of Harrison, of course.  John Isner and Sam Querrey are solid, but it’s tough to see them making it much further than they have already.  Yet, there always seem to be young Americans have some success; we just haven’t seen anyone take it to the top 10 since Andy Roddick and James Blake.

Here’s my theory.  The rigid structure of youth tennis in the U.S. allows fast-developing (often tall, big-serving) players to win early, which in turn encourages them to keep playing, and attracts the attention of coaches.  That’s how you have Querrey.  That’s how Isner got good in a relatively short period of time.  You see the same thing in Australia, I think, with the likes of Carsten Ball, Chris Guccione, and Greg Jones.

The problem isn’t attracting kids to tennis–it’s keeping them.  As a 13-year-old, I lost my share of matches to guys who were way bigger than I was, and would win service games at love while I waved hopelessly at their serves.  The big guys have skills that will lead to success in juniors, in college, and for some, a degree of success in the pros, but will only take them so far.

What I will figure out a way to study is this: What are the career patterns of very tall (and/or big-serving) players?  It seems that they rise fast, stagnate, and retire young.  A generation ago, someone like Mark Philippoussis could live on only a serve; now, the return game has been forced to improve, meaning that the big servers themselves have to improve the rest of their game.  If my theory about the career patterns of this sort of player is true, American tennis is a breeding ground for kids who will be impressive 21-year-olds and fizzle early.

That’s what’s gratifying about watching the 6’0″ Harrison and the 5’11” Kudla win matches–they don’t fit that mold.

Back to Davis Cup!

Davis Cup: Czech Republic vs. Kazakhstan: When Kazakhstan is in the world group, you know things have changed.  They dominated a Federer-less Swiss team last fall, and they might get lucky again this weekend.

The Czech team is already without Radek Stepanek, and you have to wonder about the availability of Tomas Berdych, who was forced to retire in the semifinals of Dubai.  Without Stepanek, it’s possible Kazakhstan could beat a Czech team with Berdych.

The Kazakhs feature Andrey Goloubev and Mikhail Kukushkin, both 21-year-olds on the way up.  Both have proven they will show up in Davis Cup play, having defeated Stanislas Wawrinka in their last tie.  There’s no obvious doubles team, but neither does the Czech team have one.

Perhaps more than any other tie this weekend, this contest rests in the hands of one player: Berdych.  If he’s healthy, he will probably be asked to play two singles matches and a doubles match.  If he does, the Czechs will probably win.  If he only plays his two singles matches, that leaves the door open for Kazakhstan; if he can’t play two singles matches, then we can look forward to the unlikely event of Kazakhstan in the world group quarterfinals.

My prediction: Czech Republic, 3-2.

Belgium vs. Spain: This reminds me of those matches I mentioned earlier, when I was 13, losing comprehensively to kids who were six inches taller than I was.  I can identify with the Belgians.

Rafael Nadal playing Davis Cup is good for Spain and good for the sport.  But this week, it’s just rubbing salt in the wound.  Spain boasts three players in the top 10, plus a very good singles and doubles player in Feliciano Lopez.  Belgium has a 30-year-old Xavier Malisse.

You’ll be shocked to find that I predict: Spain, 5-0.

Serbia update: Apparently, Novak Djokovic may not play this weekend.  That has to give India a bit of hope, but Serbia’s other singles players will still prove too strong.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the remaining European ties and keep tabs on the challenger action.  See you then!

Tuesday Topspin: Davis Cup and Dallas

The first round of the 2011 Davis Cup begins Friday.  This week, I’ll be previewing the eight Davis Cup World Group ties.  Let’s start at the top of the draw:

Serbia vs. India: If it were the Davis Cup of doubles, India would be in good shape.  As it is, the defending champions from Serbia are good enough to beat anybody, let alone a side with only one singles player in the top 500.

India does boast one of the best doubles teams in Davis Cup play, with Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi.  That’s one rubber.  If Somdev Devvarman has a great day, he might be able to beat Janko Tipsarevic or Viktor Troicki.  That’s two rubbers–maybe.  No matter how you slice it, you’re not going to come up with any more.

Novak Djokovic, fresh off another victory in Dubai, is just about unbeatable on hard courts, and no one’s going to challenge that this weekend.  My not-very bold prediction: Serbia wins, 4-1.

Russia vs. Sweden: This one is a little more interesting.  I wrote last week about Russia’s solid Davis Cup team a few years down the road, but this year things don’t look so rosy.  The Russian side is relatively deep, but with Nikolay Davydenko and Mikhail Youhzny sitting it out, they don’t have a singles player currently inside the top 75.  Igor Andreev has had some doubles success, but the Russians are lacking in doubles expertise, as well.

Sweden is the exact opposite.  The presence of Robin Soderling would make any squad a fearsome one, but beyond that, you get the impression that they didn’t quite know how to find three more players.  Among those three are two doubles specialists, Simon Aspelin and Robert Lindstedt.

It all pivots on the doubles match.  Soderling gives the Swedes two easy victories.  Joachim Johansson, at this point in his career, will probably not beat any of the Russians in a singles match.  That leaves Aspelin/Lindstedt against Andreev and maybe Igor Kunitsyn.  It could go either way, but I’ll pick Sweden, 3-2.

Challengers: There’s a free live stream for the Dallas challenger this week, which gave me the opportunity to watch some truly mediocre tennis yesterday.  I missed the one notable result from yesterday’s action, in which American 18-year-old Jack Sock took down Rik De Voest, a veteran South African currently ranked 160th.  Straight sets, no less.

If you’re a fan of American tennis, today’s card is for you.  Five of the seven singles matches scheduled are between two U.S. players, including the main event: #1 seed Robert Kendrick against super-teenager Ryan Harrison.  Also of interest is the second match, pitting South African Izak van der Merwe against another American teen, Denis Kudla.

Only two other challenger results worth mentioning.  Grigor Dimitrov had an easy time advancing over David Guez to the second round in Cherbourg, while in Salinas, Horacio Zeballos needed a third-set tiebreak to overcome American wildcard Eric Nunez.

See you tomorrow!

Monday Topspin: A Title for Del Potro

Long-awaited return: Juan Martin Del Potro won his first title since the 2009 U.S. Open, defeating Janko Tipsarevic in straight sets in the final at Delray Beach.  The 6-4 6-4  result isn’t surprising, but it is gratifying to see Del Potro continue his ascent back to the top level of the game.

It was a tighter match than I expected.  Tipsarevic rushed out to a 4-1 lead, but Del Potro reeled off the next five games to win the set.  The Serbian had more success with his first serve, while Delpo won an impressive 63% of his second serve points.  The Argentine also fought off 10 of 11 break points–impressive enough, but if Tipsarevic hadn’t been playing well, he wouldn’t have had to work so hard.

The tournament win rockets Del Potro up the rankings–he now sits at 89th, 77 spots up from last week.  Of course, few rankings are less meaningful at this point than his.  He’ll get a wild card into any tournament he wants, at least for the next few months, and it’s just a matter of time before he works himself back into the top 20.  If not higher.

Other rankings movement: Other big movers this Monday are Richard Gasquet and Thomaz Bellucci, both of whom lost in semifinals last week.  They each gain 7 spots: Gasquet to 21, Bellucci to 29.

Evgeny Donskoy, who I’ve been writing about for the last few days, jumped to 200th in the world with his win in Casablance.  Belgian Ruben Bemelmans, who won in Wolfsburg, gains 36 spots to #144.

From the challengers, the biggest gainer is someone who didn’t make a final.  That’s Stefan Seifert, a 25-year-old German who came into the tournament ranked outside of the top 1,000.  He was wild-carded into qualifying and ultimately lost a three-setter to Bemelmans in the semis of the main draw.  He ascends to #591.  Best of all, his semifinal performance earned his entry to the main draw in Cherbourg, where he’ll face Arnaud Clement in the first round.

Davis Cup this week: Some first-round matches in the World Group are shaping up to be more unpredictable than usual.  The Russians and Czechs are limited by injuries, while the U.S. must compete on clay, without last year’s hero Mardy Fish.  Except for India-Serbia and Belgium-Spain, every tie is within reach of both countries.

I’ll preview some of the matchups in more detail starting tomorrow.

At the Challengers: With no ATP events this week, we have to look to the minor leagues for tournament action.  Fortunately, there are three such tourneys starting today.

Of the three, Dallas probably has the strongest field.  Among the seeds is the usual mix of veteran Americans, such as Robert Kendrick and Michael Russell.  What makes the event interesting is the smattering of young players.  Ryan Harrison is in the mix, and wild cards were awarded to Denis Kudla, Jack Sock, and Bernard Tomic.

Most of the Europeans, including a vast array of Frenchmen, are playing in Cherbourg.  Headlined by Grigor Dimitrov, the seeds include Nicolas Mahut, Clement, and Benoit Paire.

Finally, there’s clay court action in Salinas, with a draw including two of my favorites, Horacio Zeballos and Federico Del Bonis.  Plenty of tennis to follow between now and the weekend Davis Cup action.

See you tomorrow!

Sunday Topspin: Wins for Djokovic, Ferrer, and Donskoy

Novak Triumphant: It’s tough to imagine Roger Federer looking much worse than he did yesterday in losing to Novak Djokovic 6-3 6-3.  If anything, it wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.  Federer barely won half of his own service points.

The statistical profile of the match is very similar to that of Federer’s loss to Andy Murray in Shanghai last year.  That day, he lost 6-3 6-2 in 85 minutes, winning only 52% of service points.  It’s amazing that someone who can play so flawlessly against a lesser opponent can miss so many relatively easy balls on a bad day against Djokovic or Murray.

For Djokovic, the story is all positive.  Despite some lapses in earlier matches against Florent Serra and Tomas Berdych, he executed perfectly in the final, and is making a case that he is the best player in the world on hard court.  He has now won half of his last six encounters with Roger, including the last two in a row.

Streak over: Finally, someone managed to beat Nicholas Almagro on clay.  In contrast to the final in Dubai, the match in Acupulco took three sets, two tiebreaks, and a grinding two hours and forty minutes.  In the end, David Ferrer cruised through the final set 6-2.

I will be interested to see whether Almagro can keep his momentum going through the hard-court circuit coming up; his game does not seem as clay-specific as Ferrer’s, but he has never had the same success on hard courts.  If he does, he’ll have to serve better than he did yesterday: He made only half of his first serves, and a mere 45% in the final set.

JMDP cruising: Mardy Fish didn’t prove much of a challenge yesterday for Juan Martin Del Potro.  Fish failed to win even half of his service points, as the Argentine was in control of the match from the beginning.  In the other semifinal, Janko Tipsarevic made a date with Del Potro by beating Kei Nishikori, 6-4 6-4.

I don’t want to underestimate Tipsarevic, but it’s hard to see him giving Del Potro much of a challenge.  Janko has had a very easy draw–he won’t play a seeded opponent all week–and he just doesn’t have the game to match up with the Argentine’s.  Del Potro is gunning for his first title since the 2009 US Open.

One more final: Yesterday I introduced you to Evgeny Donskoy, a promising young Russian who reached the final after qualifying in Casablanca.  In three sets, he beat Alessio Di Mauro to win his first challenger-level title.  In fact, it was his first final on the challenger tour, and only the third final of his pro career; his biggest triumph to date was winning a 2008 Futures tournament in the Ukraine.

If my arithmetic is correct, his ranking will land somewhere between #200 and #205.

See you tomorrow!

Saturday Topspin: Roger, Novak, and Evgeny

The rematch: Once again, it’s Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in a big match.  Last time they played, of course, was in Melbourne, when Djokovic scored a big win in straight sets.  The previous three matches, however, went Federer’s way.

I’ve watched pieces of all of Roger’s matches this week, and it’s amazing how much he pushes opponents around the court.  The commentators talked continuously about how far back Richard Gasquet was playing.  Djokovic (along with Juan Martin Del Potro) is one of the few guys with the guts and the skill to hold his ground near the baseline.

Neither player has had a particularly challenging road to the final.  Federer hasn’t played a seeded opponent, and the second set against Gasquet yesterday was the first time this week he was pushed to 5-5.  (In fact, Gasquet served for the second set at 5-4.)  Djokovic faced tough matches against Feliciano Lopez and Tomas Berdych, but the latter match was ultimately decided by injury.

Today, I’m betting on Federer.

Czech out: Another day, another Davis Cup withdrawal.  The Czech team is in trouble, as Radek Stepanek is out with the flu.  Berdych’s status must be in doubt, as well, after retiring from yesterday’s match in Dubai.

The 3rd-ranked nation suddenly looks very weak; if Berdych can’t play, their top singles player is 102nd-ranked Jan Hajek.

More young Russians: Yesterday I mentioned the strong future of Russian men’s tennis, with two players under 21 inside the top 250.  Just missing that cut was another up-and-comer, Evgeny Donskoy.  Currently ranked #259, he won’t turn 21 until May.

And he’s about to get a boost in the rankings.  He had to play qualifying at the Casablanca challenger, and has now won seven matches there.  He’s set to face Alessio Di Mauro in the final.  If he loses, he’ll be up around #225; if he wins, he’ll just miss the top 200.

Oddly enough, while Donskoy was one of the youngest players in the Casablanca draw, Di Mauro was the oldest, at age 33.

Di Mauro is also a clay specialist; he only played 1 of his 46 matches last year on a hard court.  Donskoy had more success on clay last year, as well.  I’m working on surface-specific rankings, and for 2010, I have Di Mauro as #133 on clay and Donskoy as #139.

Acupulco: Can David Ferrer stop Nicholas Almagro?  Ferrer dropped the first set to Alexander Dolgopolov last night, but came charging back, ultimately winning 5-7 6-1 6-1.  Almagro played a tight contest with Thomaz Bellucci, triumphing in straight sets for his 13th straight victory.  He’ll try to make it three straight titles tonight.

Delray Beach: For all of the withdrawals and upsets in Florida this week, everything went according to plan in yesterday’s quarterfinals.  Today, Kei Nishikori will face Janko Tipsarevic, while Mardy Fish will play Del Potro.  The latter match should another interesting test for the Argentine, as Fish plays a style of game that he hasn’t seen for a while.

Giant-killers: The doubles team of Feliciano Lopez and Jeremy Chardy beat yet another top seed yesterday, eking by Michael Llodra and Nenad Zemonjic 10-8 in a super-tiebreak.  To get to the finals, they had to win three matches, two against the 2nd and 3rd seeds, the third against Bopanna/Qureshi.

They’ve just taken the first set from the similarly-unheralded team of Mikhail Youhzny and Sergiy Stakhovsky.

See you tomorrow!