16 November, 2012

Five or Six?

2012 has seen the top ATP pros taking things up a notch.  Novak Djokovic's 2011 was superb, but he may have peaked in Australia this year; outslugging and outlasting a rejuvenated Rafael Nadal in the longest major final in tennis history.  Nadal bounced back from that epic loss with another claycourt campaign for the ages, claiming his record-breaking 7th title at Roland Garros (backing up his 8th consecutive title at the Monte Carlo Masters).  In the process, Nadal effectively ended any contrarian conversations about his King of Clay moniker.  Not to be outdone, Roger Federer put perhaps his most impressive record even further from the reach of mere mortals, winning his 17th major at Wimbledon.  Andy Murray even got into the act.  After years playing the lovable loser of the ATP's dominant Big Four, the Scot finally earned his stripes with Olympic singles gold (denying Federer in the final) and a maiden major at the US Open.  Will the world number five, David Ferrer, end this ATP season with yet another crowning achievement, or will sixth-ranked Tomas Berdych, deny him and in the process, secure a shard of greatness all his own?

With all of the ink spilled over the Big Four, World No. 5 David Ferrer's sparkling 2012 was largely ignored.  Nadal may remain Spain's favorite son, but Ferrer was only a World Tour Final win from surpassing his decorated compatriot and ending 2012 as the top Spaniard.  Ferrer leads the tour with seven titles this year; his 74 match wins only put him one behind Djokovic, the tour leader, with presumably two to play.  In the process Ferrer gave Nadal perhaps the toughest match of his red clay campaign, losing a nailbiter in the Barcelona final 7-6 (1) 7-5.  He also claimed with the title at the Paris Masters, becoming the first player outside of the Big Four to claim a Masters 1000 since Robin Soderling back in 2010.

At 30, Ferrer is clearly having a career year. With Nadal resting his knees, it will be up to Ferrer, the hardest working man in tennis, to lead the Spanish Armada in Prague versus a more-than-worthy Czech side for the Davis Cup title.  Ferrer is no Davis Cup novice, he's played on three winning Spanish teams already (2008, 2009, 2011).  His singles record in the international team competition is an impressive, and surprising, 21-4.  He's won the title without Nadal's assistance before, in 2008, but that year, he put the only negative mark on the Spaniards' ledger in the final, a straight sets loss to David Nalbandian.  As each of the Big Four scaled career heights this year, can the World No. 5 consolidate his already fine season?

Much of the answer will depend on  the remarkably talented, if at times maddeningly erratic Tomas Berdych.  The offensive-minded 6'5" Czech is a study in contrasts next to the 5'9" Ferrer, and not just due to the height differential.  Where Ferru, as he is affectionately known, is often celebrated for maximizing his talent, Berdych, the World No.6, is best known for, to put it kindly, not necessarily doing the same.  In a year that's seen the stranglehold of the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic axis begin loosen to a mere iron grip, could the spoils of victory even extend to Berdych?

Berdych will open against Davis Cup versus Nicolas Almagro, whom he referred to in the press as the "weak link" of the Spanish squad.  As much as a player ranked 11th in the world can be thought of as a weak link, Berdych's bulletin-board material is accurate.  Berdych holds a dominant 8-3 head-to-head advantage over Almagro.  Worse for Almagro, he's only 18-11 (.621) this year on hardcourts against all comers, his career mark is worse (.480).  Almagro makes his money on the red clay, but he'll be facing the big-hitting Czech on a (presumably) fast, indoor hardcourt against a hostile crowd.  A win for Almagro under these conditions, against Berdych would be a tough ask.

Ferrer commences his final versus the wily Radek Stepanek.  This match will be a huge occasion for Stepanek.  At 33, Stepanek is not exactly a spring chicken anymore, he'll relish this opportunity. More, he'll also be eager to squash the memory of getting blanked in the 2009 final (losing singles and doubles in Barcelona).  2009 was also the last time Stepanek beat Ferrer, upsetting him in five sets and nearly four hours at Wimbledon.  Stepanek is still a top 40 singles player and Ferrer's best surface remains clay, but the Spaniard not only played in the ATP World Tour Finals in London a week ago, he beat Juan Martin del Potro and Janko Tipsarevic.  Prior to that, he won back-to-back titles on the indoor hardcourts of Paris and Valencia.  If there were ever a time you wouldn't want to play Ferrer on an indoor hardcourt it would be right about now.  Tough luck Radek.

Davis Cup captains often play fast and loose with the doubles lineup, but we have to assume that following their somewhat surprising title at the World Tour Finals last week, Marcel Granollers & Marc Lopez will carry the Spanish flag in the doubles rubber.  On the other hand, it's damn near impossible to imagine both Ivo Minar and Lukas Rosol playing doubles for the Czech Republic as the're currently listed on DavisCup.com.  Who,exactly, does Czech Captain Jaroslav Navratil think he's fooling?  Berdych is an unexpectedly sterling 15-1 in Davis Cup doubles, having partnered Stepanek in every prior tie this year; Stepanek, while ranked a respectable 37th in singles, is World no. 4 in doubles.  Assuming a split of the first two singles rubbers, the Czechs best bet to win the Cup is to take the lead on Saturday, winning the doubles.  The Lopez/Granollers team are riding a wave of momentum from London, the question is will it crest or crash on Saturday in Prague?  We can tell you one thing, the Czechs will not be sending Rosol and Minar to find out.

If the Czechs make it to Sunday with a 2-1 lead, it all comes down to Berdych.  Ferrer has a 5-3 head-to-head lead on the Czech, but Berdych did win the last time they played, on an indoor hardcourt a year ago at the World Tour Finals.  Ferrer is well-known to be a dogged competitor, but with Berdych bringing a doubles partner (AKA the crowd in Prague's O2 Arena), he stands more than a puncher's chance of upsetting Ferrer and becoming a Davis Cup hero for the Czech Republic.  The rub is that this will be, by a country mile, the most pressure Berdych has faced on court since the 2010 Wimbledon final where Nadal turned him back in straight sets.

The final match is a question mark, Stepanek hasn't played three matches in a Davis Cup tie since being ousted in straight sets by Janko Tipsarevic in the 2010 semifinal.  Assuming form holds, who takes on Almagro in the finale?  Lukas Rosol?  After famously stunning Nadal at Wimbledon with a fearless display of clutch shotmaking, Rosol spent much of the rest of the year toiling in challengers, barely winning matches in the minor leagues.  Ivo Minar is barely ranked inside the top 200 these days.  If Stepanek is the only answer, how much will playing three best-of-five matches in three days affect the 33 year old?  Against either of his three opponents: Rosol, Minar or a tiring Stepanek, we like Almagro's chances.

Men's tennis remains an orderly place.  The story of this Davis Cup final is all about the men who have toiled in relative obscurity behind the Big Four for much of the last decade.  Who will secure the crowning achievement of their career and a Davis Cup for their country this weekend?  Will it be the No. 5, Ferrer; or the No. 6 Berdych?  There's something to be said for having done it before.

Prediction: Spain d. Czech Republic, 3-2


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