We break down the heroes and villains of the Davis Cup semifinals and World Group playoffs this weekend, which featured 20 countries from every continent but Antarctica.
Ferrer: Although he lost the first set in each of his singles rubbers, the anchor of the Spanish team recovered quickly from reaching the semifinals at a hard-court major last weekend to secure two of the three victories that his team needed this weekend. The defending champions returned to the final largely because Ferrer’s competitive vigor and crisp returning, combined with the clay, first withstood and then ground down the towering serves that a dangerous American squad threw at them. As he ages, he has evolved into an increasingly formidable force in Davis Cup, and he likely will earn the opportunity to play the hero’s role in the final that Ferrero, Nadal, and even Verdasco have enjoyed.
Berdych: Destined to face Ferrer in the fourth rubber of that final, his fellow US Open semifinalist mirrored if not surpassed his feat of transitioning to a different continent and a different surface days after his last match in New York. Berdych navigated through a five-set challenge from the vastly improved Juan Monaco in essentially a must-win match for the Czechs, who trailed 0-1 when Del Potro routed Stepanek. Sweeping three rubbers in three days, he will look forward to a second final in four years against Spain, this time on home soil and without Nadal. For much of his career, Berdych has labored under the reputation of a mental midget, but he stood tall this weekend under pressure in hostile territory, just as he did against Federer at the US Open.
Amir Weintraub: The improbable hero of a consistently overachieving Israeli squad, he defeated not one but two higher-ranked opponents while yielding just one total set. Able to level the tie on Friday with a dominant effort against Tatsuma Ito, Weintraub achieved the uncommon feat of capturing a decisive fifth rubber in an away tie against world #53 Go Soeda. This anonymous journeyman outside the top 200 started the match without a flicker of nerves and weathered a comeback surge from his opponent as well as a potentially momentum-defusing rain delay. (Watching his versatile serves and flashy net play, however, one wondered why his ranking has languished so low.)
Mikhail Kukushkin: Like Weintraub, he spearheaded another overachieving squad back into the World Group with two singles victories in a bizarre tie between Russians turned Kazakhs and Uzbeks. While a Friday triumph over a player outside the top 300 does not deserve undue praise, he dispatched opposing #1 Istomin in a comfortable four sets despite the significant gap in their accomplishments. An enigmatic character who unexpectedly reached the second week of the Australian Open, Kukushkin can produce spells of effortlessly precise tennis when he finds his range, which does not happen often but did happen here.
Raonic: Clearly favored against both of his overmatched opponents, the rising Canadian star powered through both of his singles rubbers without losing a set or even reaching a tiebreak. Considering the massive gap in talent separating him from the South Africans, Raonic should have recorded those results. But a player still relatively raw, playing on a national stage with a berth in the World Group at stake, plausibly could have met the moment in less resolute fashion.
Americans: In view of the lofty challenge that confronted them, this plucky squad that toppled a Federer-led Switzerland and a Tsonga-led France—both on clay—recorded a thoroughly respectable result. Team USA won at least one set in all four of its rubbers and might well have carried a 2-1 lead into Sunday had not Isner grown tired yet again in a final set. While superior clay talent eventually prevailed, the Americans continued to prove that no team should want to face them on any surface, at least as long as the Bryans lock down the doubles rubber.
Home-court advantage: While this factor may have assisted Germany in squeaking through a five-rubber duel with Australia, it certainly did not help Japan dispatch an inferior opponent (on paper) in Israel, or Argentina ambush the Czech Republic. Influencing both of those results were injuries to the #1 singles players of the two host squads, but the choice of ground and the partisan fans could not offset those setbacks. Also unimpressive on home soil against an appallingly overmatched Chilean team was an elite group of Italians, who nearly made this weekend much more suspenseful than they should have. All the same, home teams did win six of eight playoff ties overall.
Fognini: At the core of the Italy-Chile battle lay the epic between the Italian #2 and Chilean #1 Paul Capdeville, stretching across five sets and two days. On the one hand, Fognini should have devoured this opponent like a bowl of penne pasta. On the other hand, he regrouped when play resumed on Saturday to polish off the last set with ease and deny Chile its last improbable shred of hope.
Federer: Balanced against two straight-sets victories over indifferent opposition was a surprising loss in doubles amidst comments about his lack of commitment to this competition. Few would fault Federer for prioritizing individual tournaments, especially late in his career, but his oscillations in attitude towards the Cup have cost Switzerland in team chemistry at times and complicated the atmosphere surrounding ties, perhaps distracting his more committed compatriots.
Australia: Compiling a 2-1 advantage after the first two days, the visitors must have fancied their chances of collecting a victory from either future star Tomic or faded star Hewitt against a German team without Haas or Kohlschreiber. On a disastrous Sunday, they failed to win so much as a set when a dispiritingly listless effort by the youngster preceded a ragged display from the veteran against unlikely home hero Cedrik-Marcel Stebe. (In fact, Hewitt dropped both of his singles rubbers in straight sets, a disappointing end to a fine Cup career if he retires during the offseason, as some suspect.) Among the nations that have won the most Davis Cup titles, Australia does not look likely to escape its exile from the World Group in the foreseeable future.
Russians: Since Davydenko has receded, Russian tennis has focused ever more heavily around the women upon whom it initially built its reputation. Nevertheless, one solitary set won in five rubbers this weekend against a team without a top-30 player will not digest well in the stomachs of this proud nation. Maybe Shamil Tarpischev should have substituted Sharapova for one of his feckless men.
Daniel Nestor: Perhaps succumbing to the march of time, the aging doubles specialist faltered in his cameo this weekend, partnering the promising Vasek Pospisil against two South African journeymen. His decline merely illuminates the remarkable durability of the Bryans ever more brightly.