Roger Federer, Switzerland, Italy and the Winners and Losers of Davis Cup Week

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2014

Roger Federer, Switzerland, Italy and the Winners and Losers of Davis Cup Week

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    Mic Smith

    Roger Federer saved the Swiss team from a shocking upset at Davis Cup. But is everything OK with his teammate Stanislas Wawrinka?

    Andy Murray failed to be perfect, and Italy's clay feet proved to be the difference. It helps to have a solid team as demonstrated by one country in Davis Cup play this week. Find out which country continues to fly under the radar.

    There was also the very pleasant WTA Family Circle Cup on Charleston's green clay. Would tennis fans support this surface for Miami's Sony Open? We will lead off with a pitch from a respected tennis writer.

    All of this and more in our weekly "Winners and Losers" column. As always, we will hand out our Golden Breadstick award to one deserving tennis athlete and our Burnt Bagel award to someone or something that is less than stellar.

    This is your guide to the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Winner: Ed McGrogan Support for Miami to Green Clay

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    Mic Smith

    Props to Ed McGrogan for his recent article on Tennis.com Blog as featured on ESPN Tennis. McGrogan expounds simple and sensible reasons for why Miami's Sony Open should turn to a green clay Har-Tru surface.

    McGrogan first explains that Miami has regressed with its facilities and status as a Masters 1000 tournament. It pales in comparison to Larry Ellison's first-class attention at Indian Wells. Miami needs an upgrade.

    Why the green clay? McGrogan points out the success of Charleston's Family Circle Cup: "Now its 42nd year, the green-clay tournament has been an unqualified success story at a time when tournaments are leaving the United States in droves."

    The U.S. Open did turn to green clay for three years, between 1975-77, before ripping it out for a variety of reasons. But this brand of clay is an American staple and perfect for Miami's climate. McGrogan explains:

    The surface is a pleasure to play on -- it’s easy to move around and forces you to hit a lot of shots -- and gives the U.S. something no other tournament offers. Think of Charleston as everything that Madrid wasn’t, when that tournament infamously switched to blue clay for one year.

    Best of all, it would be a wonderful link between the hard courts and European red-clay season. It's a happy medium of surfaces and would generate more interest and a unique identity amongst the Masters 1000 tournaments.

    These are the kinds of changes that can help tennis move forward. Fresh thinking and innovation are always welcome, and it's great to have a respected and bright writer throw out his support. Not everyone has to agree, but we need ideas and good thinking from tennis supporters.

    How do the rest of you feel about this proposal?

Loser: Mandatory Tournaments

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    Mic Smith

    Right on the heels of her Miami Masters championship, Serena Williams was bounced in the first round at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston. Serena admitted to the common affliction of tennis burnout in the South China Morning Post: "I am really just dead. I need some weeks off where I don't think about tennis and can kind of regroup. I've had a long couple of years."

    Serena, like every star tennis player who makes a championship final, had to play six tough matches and then travel up to her next event with little recovery. It's also fair to point out that Serena did not play the Indian Wells tournament, so she may have been fresher than some of her competitors at Miami.

    This is only the latest example of an ongoing problem that never seems to find a satisfactory solution for players and tournaments. Pete Bodo's book The Courts of Babylon explained this conundrum years ago, citing examples of players such as Pete Sampras who were obligated to show up and play, but then tried to go through the motions of playing their best while not being at their best.

    Meanwhile, the matches and money must go on.

    The quick explanation is that the ATP requires that Top 30 players play in eight mandatory Masters 1000 tournaments (Monte Carlo is optional), and four ATP World Tour 500 Events. For a full study of the rankings policy, participation and penalties/withdrawals and approved injuries, see this document.

    But why not allow players to manage their schedules the way they want? The rankings points and dollars will be incentive enough. If a player wants to skip a couple of months, let him or her do so.

    If, for example, Andy Murray wants to bypass the clay-court season at the expense of his rankings and legacy, let him. If that is the strategy to be fresh for Wimbledon, more power to him. Nobody should care if he was fresher for Wimbledon because he rested from injuries on clay. If that was actually the edge for him to win Wimbledon, then this needs to happen for all players.

    If Rafael Nadal doesn't want to play the indoors season, shouldn't that be his choice? If he needs the points to close out No. 1, he will be there. If he would rather be fresh for the Australian Open or pace himself until clay, why not?

    This is the only career these stars get. They must take care of their bodies and maximize their opportunities.

    Of course the ATP wants early commitments and full draws with superstars, but perhaps they could dole out incentives rather than penalties to lure them over. Tournaments often do this anyway, paying monies and perks out to top players. The downside is that if this became a free agent kind of bidding, players could hold the big tournaments hostage.

    It's a lengthy conversation with many details and imperfections, but when Bernard Tomic gets bounced from Miami in 28 minutes after recent surgery on both hips, because he is worried about ATP penalties, then something is definitely wrong.

    And Serena? She is relieved to recharge her batteries, again explaining via South China Morning Post, "I am going to go on a vacation for sure. I just need to take a deep breath and regroup. I think it will help me for the rest of the clay court season coming up."

    Good for her.

    But until the ATP can loosen up regulations that need at least a few sensible tweaks, we will dump the Burnt Bagel into its lap. Of course the ATP wouldn't mind sitting on a mountain of burnt bagels as long as the revenues could haul it all away.

Winner: Young WTA Players at Charleston

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    MIC SMITH

    Many of the WTA's top seeds dropped like flies following the Miami Masters. While fatigue and low energy struck many of these veterans, young players stepped up. Here were the semifinalists:

    By now, tennis fans are aware of 20-year-old Eugenie Bouchard, who reached the Australian Open semifinals two months ago. She crashed the semifinals on Charleston's green clay, keyed by a quarterfinals win over Jelena Jankovic.

    Then there was 17-year-old Belinda Bencic who scored a monster victory over World No. 11 Sara Errani, on her opponent's favorite surface (even if it was the quicker green clay rather than the slower red). She had also defeated 10th-seeded Maria Kirilenko in the first round and will now move her ranking into the top 100.

    Jana Cepelova, age 20, defeated Serena Williams in the second round. She eventually triumphed over Bencic to reach the final, although she fell to Andrea Petkovic (the aging veteran of 26 years) for the title.

    Are younger and more enthusiastic players taking advantage of veteran malaise, or is the WTA finding a deep crop of talented newbies who are already laying the foundation for the next generation of tennis champions?

    Throw in other promising young players like Simona Halep, Sloane Stephens and Tornado Black, and it might be sooner than we realize before new names take center stage.

Loser: Stanislas Wawrinka

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    Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

    Did the clock strike midnight for the Cinderella story of Stanislas Wawrinka? After a few weeks of lackluster play, it seems like another lifetime ago since his Australian Open title.

    It's defensible that he lost to hot-serving Kevin Anderson at Indian Wells. It's understandable he was outplayed by rejuvenated and talented Alexandr Dolgopolov.

    But losing his first match at Davis Cup for Team Switzerland, on home courts, to No. 64 Andrey Golubev was downright troublesome. Wawrinka coughed up 70 unforced errors in the four-set loss and smashed a racket at one point.

    Wawrinka and Roger Federer then lost the doubles match to Kazakhstan. Wawrinka was bailed out from being the goat when he bounced back to win his second singles match versus Mikhail Kukushkin in Switzerland's eventual victory.

    But this concerns Wawrinka personally in evaluating him as a top star. Has the quest of being the hunter become uncomfortable pressure because he is now the hunted?

    "For the first time I was a little bit scared not to play good and not to be ready for the (Indian Wells) tournament," Wawrinka admitted after the Anderson loss for USA Today.

    The key to Wawrinka's rise was his fearlessness and bold strokes. He attacked with frozen-rope one-handers and a bullish Ironman Stan attitude. He had to defeat favorites in Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. If he lost, well, it was to be expected anyway.

    Wawrinka may need to rediscover that blue-collar edge and go to work on the details. Not that he isn't trying hard. The 70 unforced errors could be that he is trying too hard, pressing, perhaps not balancing patience with aggressiveness. And now he is a marked man.

    Did Wawrinka just catch lightning in a bottle, or will he rediscover his best tennis after this recent lull? The clay-court season will provide fresh opportunities and answers.

     

Winner: Team Novak Djokovic and Marian Vajda

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    Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

    Novak Djokovic is the hot man of tennis after winning Masters 1000 tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami. But it was only a few weeks ago, that the World No. 2 was struggling with his game plan. He had seemed indecisive at times, as if balancing the way he used to play versus a new way he was supposed to play.

    Were too many voices and ideas whispering thoughts into his ears?

    Then newly appointed (and powerful star personality) co-coach Boris Becker temporarily stepped aside for his hips surgery and Djokovic rediscovered his dominant form. Suddenly he was hugging Vajda after the Indian Wells final. After Miami, he praised Vajda, with comments via Tennis.com:

    I'm really glad. I'm very grateful that Marian (Vajda) accepted to stay and he was here with me and we won the title again. I mean, many times before I said that he's not just a coach to me. He's truly a friend, somebody I can rely on in the tough moments, shared good and bad situations and things in life that I experience.

    How much Vajda contributed from a technical standpoint can at least be appreciated with his influence for restoring the dominant play of Djokovic. There was the Serbian, owning the baseline, taking the ball early, ripping the sidelines and wielding his blistering backhand.

    So where does that leave co-coach Becker? Will he retain more of an advisory role while Team Djokovic tries to figure out a way to reduce the volume on the former star's advice or tactics?

    Tennis writer Peter Bodo (a noted Becker supporter) was more direct in his article in Tennis.com, all but calling the Becker experiment a failure: "Wise heads wonder what he (Becker) really brings to the table—other than a massive jolt of publicity, not all of it good, that the Serb probably doesn’t need."

    The Becker impact could turn out to be successful or destructive, but the results with Djokovic and Vajda are a proven winner.

Loser: Great Britain Unable to Top Italy

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    Salvatore Laporta

    There's no reason to sound the alarm here. The only "loser" part to this slide is for any media that would grumble that Great Britain should have defeated Italy. This was no upset.

    Maybe this should be less about Great Britian's failure to advance to the Davis Cup semifinals and more about Italy's triumph, but the British media will probably make Andy Murray the fall guy. Murray lost his reverse singles match to Fabio Fognini 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. Great Britain will not be going to the semifinals for the first time since 1981.

    Hopefully, the British media can give Murray at least 77 months from his 2013 Wimbledon victory before they put the gloves back on, as some sort of respectful gesture.

    But it's hard to blame Murray. He won his first match versus Andreas Seppi and was half of the doubles victory. His loss to Fognini, while one-sided, could hardly be an upset. Murray cannot carry the whole team, even though he had produced an awesome Davis Cup record with 19 straight singles wins dating back to 2005.

    Fognini was actually the favorite. He is one of the world's best clay-court players and was at home. He is ranked No. 13 and growing as a player, despite occasional volatile moments.

    Murray's footwork and comfort on clay is shaky at best.

    So Italy moves on to play Switzerland. No surprise at all.

Winner: Federer Saves Team Switzerland

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    Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

    The difference between Stanislas Wawrinka and Andy Murray was that Wawrinka had a lot more help from his Davis Cup teammates. As we noted three slides back, Wawrinka dropped the opening singles match and was half of the doubles loss. He won his reverse singles match, but had a slightly better teammate to play the fifth and deciding match.

    Yes, Roger Federer has been known to win a big match every so often. And really, who else would be better suited to deal with the pressure of the match, something that had obviously jarred Wawrinka in the opener on Friday.

    Federer's 7-6, 6-2, 6-3 semifinal clinching win sends Switzerland to the Davis Cup semifinals for the first time since 2003. It is seeking its first Davis Cup title.

    Superman is back in the building, but he downplayed the entire performance in his news conference, as noted in SI.com:

    "The last thing I want is to talk about it, to think about it, to discuss about it. There's a certain time and place to do that. 'The only hope I always have is that we will be healthy."

    Federer is all too aware that nothing has really been won yet, and that the semifinals are five months away. For now, the five-match escape is enough to move on, and Federer certainly did the heavy lifting with his two match singles victories.

    It must be remembered that Federer needed Wawrinka's win in the penultimate match, but there's no doubt that Federer is indeed Swiss's No. 1 option, even if that was in question a couple of months ago.

Loser: Those That Underrate the Czech Team

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    Koji Sasahara

    There are few headlines that prop up the Czech Davis Cup team. They might not have the star power of Spain, the super duo of Switzerland or Novak Djokovic, but they do have a deep team with a blend of experience and youth. They are the team looking for a third straight Davis Cup title.

    This past weekend saw the Czech team blast Japan in all five matches, even without their best player, Tomas Berdych.

    They have the veteran Radek Stepanek, a versatile player who can play on all surfaces and is adept with both singles and doubles. He has been a clutch performer in Davis Cup, clinching their championships in fifth and deciding sets two years in a row.

    Lukas Rosol is solid with enough big serves and forehands. He is committed and can contribute in a championship setting, something he typically does not experience on the tour. He can go after more touted players without worrying about his own commitments.

    Jiri Vesely (age 20) is getting his feet wet with meaningful (if you find Davis Cup meaningful) matches and is being nurtured into their great national history.

    So with all the talk of Switzerland, or with France's comeback against Germany, the Czech Republic just quietly moves on. The sum is greater than the parts, perhaps, or is this really a budding dynasty?

    Then again, mainstream tennis is about superstars, not teams. And that's why Davis Cup often does not matter to many tennis fans.

Winner: Andrea Petkovic

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    MIC SMITH

    It's really a stunning title. One week ago, who would have picked Andrea Petkovic to win the Family Circle Cup? Sure the top seeds were winded and bowed out quickly, but Petkovic is an amazing surprise. She defeated young Jana Cepelova 7-5, 6-2 for the green clay title at Charleston, South Carolina.

    Petkovic was a Top 10 player a few years ago, but injuries derailed her career. She had all but disappeared from the tour. Even in the last couple of weeks she was ousted easily at Indian Wells and Miami.

    But in Charleston, she kept up her early momentum. Then she scored a big semifinal victory over Eugenie Bouchard.

    Can she keep winning and one day return to the Top 10?

    "I still have a long way to go for me and I have a lot of potential,” Petkovic said in the Los Angeles Times. “But I feel I'm on the right track."

    This is a story of resilience. She could have given up tennis or accepted her struggles negatively. But she now has her third title and this week's Golden Breadstick award.