Featuring only one WTA tournament and four Davis Cup quarterfinal ties, this relatively quiet week did not end without a few sprinkles of news on which to comment. We rewind our main reactions to the week that was.
More than meets the eye: In 2007, an American squad of Roddick, Blake, and the Bryan Brothers won the Davis Cup title. Except for the legendary twins, the team has changed completely more than once since then, but the exemplary leadership of Jim Courier has fashioned a new contender much more swiftly than one might have expected. Forced to contest a dismal playoff tie in Colombia less than two years ago, Team USA now has vaulted itself within two victories of another title. At the core of this team lies John Isner, who has defeated a top-eight opponent in each of his 2012 ties. His maturity and composure should help Courier in developing the temperamental Ryan Harrison into a regular part of this overachieving squad’s nucleus. For now, though, American fans should appreciate the commitment of this teenage prodigy to a team that now has recorded consecutive upsets over a heavily favored and a slightly favored opponent on their least successful surface. Or should we start to question that stereotype? While Spain undoubtedly will host the USA on clay, other countries less skilled on the dirt might think twice before choosing that surface whenever the Americans visit.
Less than meets the eye: After losing just three total games in the semifinal and final at the Family Circle Cup, Serena may have caused some observers to wonder whether she can mount a legitimate title threat at Roland Garros, where she has won just one of her 13 titles. While the American deserves applause for securing her 40th trophy (third-most among active women), this week did not prove anything significant from a broader perspective. In her four completed matches at Charleston, Serena defeated just one player whom she might plausibly encounter during the second week of Roland Garros (Stosur). The remaining trio of Elena Vesnina, Marina Erakovic, and Lucie Safarova provided little more than pleasant foils for an opponent whom none of them ever has defeated. When she last won Charleston four years ago, she reached no semifinals at any of the prestigious red-clay events and fell to Srebotnik in the third round of Roland Garros. With the third title since her return last year, then, Serena proved that she can take care of second-rate competition efficiently—something not to be underestimated—and traveled some distance towards putting her disappointing start to 2012 behind her. But last week did not greatly augment her prospects for Paris, where she can expect to face foes more worthy of her steel.
Signs of life: Having profiled their recent underachievements justtwo articles ago, we gained satisfaction from seeing Zvonareva and Lisicki win consecutive matches at Charleston, where both have reached the final before. The latter’s second retirement of the season resurrected the perpetually hovering concerns about her durability, but she must have built confidence from snapping a five-match losing streak in three-setters that extended back to the Australian Open. Although a 7-6 record does not impress for a world #10, Zvonareva at least has regrouped from her own injury woes and settled into a steadier rhythm. Her countrywoman Pavlyuchenkova also finally won her first match since Melbourne and acquired a most unexpected doubles title with Safarova. A quarterfinalist at two of the last four majors, this formerly rising star needs any morale boost that she can find to restore her spirits.
No need for Nadal (for now): More than capable of dispatching Austria without their top player was a Spanish team headlined by Ferrer and Almagro. As long as they play at home on clay, that combination should overcome almost any opponent even with their mediocre doubles duo of Granollers and Lopez. When they travel to the nation of a more intimidating foe and play on a hard court, however, life will grow much more complicated for Spain. In the likely event that they play Argentina in the final on an indoor hard court, will Nadal reconsider his decision to forgo the Cup this year? No, we haven’t forgotten that a Nadal-less Spanish squad toppled the Argentines in that situation four years ago, but a far more dangerous Del Potro (and no Lopez/Verdasco in doubles) probably would forestall an encore.
Need for Nole: No longer one of the world’s most formidable doubles players, Nenad Zimonjic does not provide Serbia with the advantage in the third rubber that he once did or that the Bryans still do. Moreover, this nation’s third-ranked singles player lately has lacked the stomach for competition at any level and crumbled predictably to Berdych’s assault in the opening rubber. With one aging teammate, one spineless teammate, and an almost nonexistent supporting cast, world #8 Tipsarevic cannot shoulder the burden alone. His national pride and appetite for seizing the moment have earned him many Davis Cup triumphs, exemplified by a five-hour comeback against Stepanek on Friday in which he saved three match points. Outstanding as a #2, he does not fit the leadership role that Djokovic occupied so well during their championship run. Serbia will not capture another Cup title until (and perhaps unless?) the top-ranked man returns to lead them, although nobody can fault him for taking the advice of captain Bogdan Obradovic and prioritizing other goals this year.
Hero of the weekend: Four men won two singles rubbers for their nations, but only one man participated in three victories across the span of three days. Not losing a set in singles, Berdych throttled Troicki to start the weekend in the best possible manner and then edged past Tipsarevic in a three-tiebreak encounter that clinched the tie. Between those two efforts, he collaborated with Stepanek on yet another victory for one of the Cup’s most accomplished doubles duos. After dispiriting performances in Indian Wells and Miami, the 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist signaled that he may strike a richer vein of form during the clay season.
Villain of the weekend: Despite various replays, courtside reports, and interpretations of ambiguous gestures, we probably never will know what precisely transpired between Tipsarevic and Stepanek at the close of their 309-minute epic. The incident did not reflect creditably upon anybody, but Stepanek apparently instigated it and thus receives the greatest proportion of fault. Often a favorite among fans with his quirky brand of charisma, he revealed why he is hardly a favorite among fellow players.
E for Effort: Battling on the hostile Argentine clay for thirteen sets and more than twelve hours, Cilic emerged from the weekend with only one victory in three matches. His first opponent, Nalbandian, spent more than ten hours on court over a span of less than thirty notwithstanding his age and a body hobbled by manifold injuries. While Del Potro’s two straight-sets wins played the central role in this quarterfinal’s outcome, the relentless dedication of his compatriot and the Croat illustrated a key reason why Davis Cup continues to ignite the imagination of those who watch and those who play.