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Steve Flink: Serbia topples U.S. deservedly

4/9/2013 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

What struck me more than anything else about Serbia’s quarterfinal Davis Cup triumph over the United States was the feeling that they wanted to succeed even more than a dedicated, earnest and unwavering American contingent.  Unmistakably inspired by the off court leadership and on court heroics of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, spurred on by their outnumbered yet passionate fans in the stands, ready to rise to a considerable challenge, the Serbians came to Boise, Idaho and toppled the U.S. 3-1 in the quarterfinals. Djokovic, of course, contributed mightily, eclipsing big John Isner on opening day, and closing out the proceedings with a gritty win over Sam Querrey. In between, the dynamic tandem of Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac prevailed in one of the most captivating Davis Cup doubles contests I have ever seen, holding back the most accomplished duo of the modern era: Bob and Mike Bryan.

Facing Isner indoors on hard courts in front of an effusive American audience was no simple assignment for Djokovic, who had lost to the big-serving American last spring at Indian Wells. But that was during a period when Isner’s confidence was soaring, when he was playing the best tennis of his life. These days, Isner’s self-belief has eroded decidedly. He has fallen outside the top 20 in the world and is not imposing himself the way he once did. And yet, Isner gave himself an early opportunity against Djokovic. The Serbian double faulted twice in the third game of the first set, and lost his serve to fall behind 2-1.  Isner moved ahead 3-1 but Djokovic took the next two games, breaking back for 3-3 after Isner double faulted at 30-15 in the sixth game, followed by a pair of unprovoked mistakes off the forehand.

That set went unsurprisingly to a tie-break, and Djokovic swiftly asserted himself. He achieved a mini-break for 2-0 in that sequence, and that was the only point that went against the server. On his third set point at 6-5, Djokovic confounded Isner with a cagey kick first serve that elicited an errant backhand return from the American. Djokovic took the tie-break 7-5, and then opened up sweepingly off both sides, and began returning serve as only he can. He broke with some searing returns for 2-1, and added an insurance break for 5-2. At 15-40 in the seventh game, Djokovic lunged to his left and made a stupendous backhand return down the middle off a huge first serve from Isner, who then pulled a forehand crosscourt wide. Djokovic held at love to close out the set 6-2. He conceded only three points in the last three games of the set.

Isner served superbly in the third set and moved in front 5-4, but Djokovic held at love for 5-5, then broke at love for 6-5 despite the fact that Isner made three out of four first serves. Djokovic’s backhand returns at full stretch in that game were stupendous. Buoyed by that break, Djokovic served out the match at love, closing the contest on a brilliant run of 12 consecutive points. Victory went to Djokovic 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-5. He could hardly have played the big points any better, and his game in the latter stages of each set was virtually letter perfect.

With Serbia in the lead 1-0, Querrey had to come through for the Americans as he took on the unpredictable Viktor Troicki. The No. 1 American commenced his battle with the Serbian with verve and conviction. Querrey served for the first set at 5-3 and had a set point, but Troicki erased it with a backhand winner up the line. Down break point for the third time in that game, Querrey double faulted. The set was settled in a tie-break, and Querrey was unstoppable, prevailing 7-1. Querrey was up a break in the second set at 1-0 but gradually Troicki found his range off the ground and he took that set 6-3. Troicki broke down Querrey’s backhand skillfully and took the third set 6-4. But Querrey made good on 21 of 22 first serves in securing the fourth set 6-1. That set the stage for a compelling fifth set.

Troicki had his chance when Querrey served at 1-2, 15-40. Losing his serve there could easily have cost Querrey the match, but he produced his finest clutch tennis of the encounter. With Querrey looking to take command at the net, Troicki lofted a lob down the line off the forehand with good depth. Querrey retreated with alacrity, and sent a gutsy smash down the line behind Troicki for a winner. Then Troicki missed a running down the line forehand long. A steely Querrey held on gamely for 2-2. At 4-4, with Troicki plainly apprehensive, Querrey seized the initiative off his explosive forehand side, got the crucial break, and served out the match commandingly to win 7-6 (1), 3-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. The Americans were back even at 1-1, and counting on the Bryan twins to put their nation out in front the following afternoon when they confronted Zimonjic and Bozoljac.

But no one—not the formidable Bryans, not the American team or fans, not even the most ardent Serbian boosters—was fully prepared for what was about to unfold. To be sure, Zimonjic is a terrific doubles player who has resided at No. 1 in the world in that forum. He has the complete package for doubles—a first rate volley, daunting first and second serves, consistently brilliant returns off both sides, sharp strategic instincts. American supporters knew full well what to expect from the always intimidating Zimonjic. His credentials are beyond repute. His partner, however, was another story altogether.  Bozoljac was the wild card on the court, a player with the burden of having to prove himself, a man who realized the fate of his country on this big occasion depended largely on his capacity to control his surroundings and perform accordingly.

The 27-year-old’s singles ranking is No. 335 in the world and he stands at No. 1,150 in doubles. But Bozoljac performed like a far more accomplished competitor. Bolstered by the encouragement of his 36-year-old partner, Bozoljac performed free of inhibition. Playing in the Ad Court, he sent out some blazing and dazzling backhand down the line returns. Clearly vulnerable up at the net and not very sound on the volley, he compensated for that deficiency by blasting away relentlessly from the baseline with extraordinary power and remarkable control. Most remarkable of all, he stayed back frequently on first and second serves and got away with it for two reasons: Zimonjic crossed adeptly at the net and Bozoljac served so powerfully on both first and second deliveries that the Bryans were hard pressed to regularly get returns back in play. In fact, both Serbians served prodigiously across the entire match, and the velocity of their first and second serves was unrelenting. They combined for 36 aces.

The Bryans were hard pressed from the outset. The left-handed Bob Bryan double faulted at break point down in the fifth game of the first set, but then the Americans retaliated to break Zimonjic and got back to 3-3. The Serbians trailed 1-4 in the first set tie-break but rallied gamely. At 5-5, Zimonjic released a courageous second serve ace down the T, and then Bozoljac clipped the baseline with a return to seal the set for Serbians, 7-5 in the tie-break.

The second set stayed on serve into another tie-break, but this one was never close. The Serbians collected six points in a row and won it 7-1. They were up two sets to love. The third set seemed certain to be settled in another tie-break, but Bozoljac was broken for the first time at 5-6, losing that game at love. The Bryans returned particularly well in that game. Buoyed by that breakthrough, the Bryans stepped up decidedly in the fourth set, breaking Zimonjic at 4-5 as Mike Bryan’s low return of serve was too much for Zimonjic to handle on the volley. It was two sets all. Momentum was thoroughly with the Americans. They seemed at last to be discovering their best form, and the Serbians had not broken either twin since the opening set. The Americans seemed poised to record a stirring comeback triumph.

But the fifth set was exceedingly well played on both sides of the net. Strikingly, Bozoljac—prone to uneven patches on the return over the first four sets—now unleashed tennis of a caliber he had seldom if ever displayed in his career. He started going for broke with the down the line backhand return, and his serve under pressure was astonishing, as was the case with the wily Zimonjic, who for the entire five sets was surely the best player on the court. The Serbians were at a distinct disadvantage playing indoors in the U.S., and serving from behind through an excruciatingly close and arduous final set. No fewer than nine times, they had to serve to stay in the match, but with that fact staring them in the face, the Serbians never blinked. Moreover, they were two points from losing the match seven times, but they refused to buckle at any juncture.

The first crisis for the Serbians came when Bozoljac served at 4-5 in the fifth. Mike Bryan made a good return and set himself up for a relatively easy shot off the forehand, only to send it into the net. Bozoljac calmly served his way back to 5-5. When Zimonjic served at 7-8, he was down 15-30 but he cracked a spectacular second serve down the T that Mike Bryan could not return. Zimonjic held on for 8-8. At 11-12, Zimonjic found himself at 30-30 again, but released an ace down the T. At deuce in that game, he went all out for a big second serve to Bob Bryan’s forehand. It was unreturnable. Zimonjic came through under duress again and held for 12-12.

Finally, Mike Bryan lost his serve for the first time in the match at 13-13 in this exhilarating, unbearably suspenseful and almost ineffably well played final set. At 30-40, Mike Bryan was rushed into a backhand first volley error by the speed of Bozoljac’s backhand crosscourt return. The threat of Zimonjic possibly crossing surely played on Bryan’s mind as well. Serbia had moved to 14-13, and Zimonjic served for the match. A double fault put him behind 15-40, but this towering doubles player served an ace down the T with Bob Bryan looking for the wide deuce court serve. Zimonjic then aced Mike Bryan out wide. The Americans saved one match point but then the redoubtable Zimonjic served another ace down the T on his second match point. The veteran and his startlingly poised partner were victorious 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 5-7, 4-6, 15-13 in a brilliant spectacle lasting four hours and 23 minutes, and Serbia had built a 2-1 lead over an American squad that was counting on the Bryan brothers to give the edge going into the final day.

There are authorities out there these days proclaiming that the Bryan brothers are the best doubles team of all time. They have, after all, captured a record 13 majors together, and they stand majestically above all other teams over the last decade. They may well be the outstanding team of the last 25 years. But I don’t go along with the notion that they should be graded the best ever. The top singles players in the game no longer play doubles more than sporadically. The Bryans have an excellent record in both Davis Cup and the majors. They own a career Grand Slam. They are a joy to watch, top of the line athletes, men who represent the game remarkably well, authentically great players who understand each and every nuance of the intricate doubles game.

But I firmly believe that great doubles teams of the past—including Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan, John Newcombe and Tony Roche, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming, Stan Smith and Bob Lutz, Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle, and a number of other partnerships—belong above the Bryans on the all-time ladder of the sport. These teams had to play against all of the great players in their time, while today most top singles players bypass doubles for the most part.  We should salute the Bryans for their achievements, their classical doubles skills, and their spirit, but in my view it is hyperbolic to call them the greatest of all time.

Be that as it may, with Serbia ahead of the Americans 2-1 heading into the final day, Djokovic opened the program against Querrey, and the best player in the world seemed certain to seal victory for his nation. He lives for these moments, thrives and even flourishes under the harsh light of pressure, and the prevailing view was that he would take apart Querrey with meticulous court craft and unswerving intensity. But he suffered a dangerous fall early in the match that could have forced him to retire, and might well have cost Serbia dearly. With Querrey serving at 1-1, 15-40 in the first set, Djokovic turned his ankle in the course of scrambling through the kind of baseline point we have seen him play thousands of times across the years.

After that exchange was over, he was sprawled out on the court, lying on his back, suffering immense pain. He was helped to his chair at courtside and given an injury timeout. When Djokovic returned, he could move reasonably well but was clearly playing through enormous pain in his right ankle. Whenever he landed on that right foot, he would wince. Djokovic managed to build a 3-1 lead but then had to fight ferociously to take the set. But when the chips were down, Djokovic met the moment boldly. At 4-5, he held at love. He broke Querrey in the eleventh game and then saved three break points at 6-5 before closing out the set with an ace and a guileful kick serve that Querrey could not answer. Set to Djokovic, 7-5.

As the second set progressed, Djokovic looked very uncomfortable at times but he was disciplined on serve and took the right risks at the appropriate times to shorten points and avoid too many changes of direction in the backcourt rallies. At 5-5, Djokovic had Querrey down 15-40 but he wasted the first break point with a routine backhand unforced error, and the American held on for 6-5. Djokovic saved two set points in the twelfth game, and then reached 4-4 in the tie-break, standing three points away from a two sets to love lead. But Querrey stymied Djokovic with a terrific body serve to the backhand. Djokovic then missed a standard inside-out forehand drive volley wide, and netted an aggressive inside-out forehand. Querrey had captured three points in a row to reach one set all.

Djokovic must have been deeply concerned. The match was nearly two hours old but conceivably he would be required to stay out on the court another couple of hours if he wanted to put this battle between countries into the Serbian victory column. He surely did not want to depend on Troicki beating Isner in the fifth match with everything riding on the outcome of that match. Despite his ankle ailment, Djokovic had to take matters into his own hands, leaving nothing to chance.

And so he buckled down diligently at the start of the third set. He held at 15 in the first game and then got a good break with Querrey serving at 15-30 in the second game. Querrey had a sitter off the forehand, and elected to drive it forcefully crosscourt. He appeared to have Djokovic beaten cold with that shot, but the American’s forehand clipped the net cord and gave Djokovic unexpected time to line up a forehand passing shot crosscourt for a winner. Exploiting his good fortune, Djokovic broke at 15 for 2-0 and then held at 30 for 3-0, closing out that game from 30-30 with an ace and a trademark backhand down the line winner. Djokovic had secured 12 of 16 points to establish a 3-0 lead in the third set, and that seemed to relax him. Querrey held in the fourth game, but Djokovic was now playing with surging authority.

The Serbian served three aces in a row—all down the T—and held at love for 4-1. On his fifth break point in the sixth game, Djokovic made another of his stupendous lunging returns, took control of the point, and sealed the insurance break for 5-1. He saved a break point in the next game but served it out to take a commanding two sets to one lead. By now, Querrey had his own injury problem with his right shoulder, robbing him of the serving power he desperately needed. The fact remained that Djokovic was now playing far too well. He broke Querrey at love to open the fourth set, then advanced quickly to 2-0. Querrey had a 40-0 lead in the third game but Djokovic made a couple of fine returns and then Querrey double faulted. The Serbian swept five points in a row to attain the break for 3-0.

There was no stopping him now, nothing at all. Djokovic was now challenging Querrey forehand to forehand with more authority, adding pace off that side to draw errors from his opponent. The Serbian took 12 of the last 15 points to win 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 6-0, sweeping the last nine games of the match. But the devotion he demonstrated to his team may come at great personal cost. Djokovic planned to get an M.R.I. on his ankle after travelling to Monte Carlo, where he hopes to play in the Masters 1000 event next week. But he could be forced to withdraw from that tournament to heal what could be a serious injury.

The guess here is that Novak Djokovic would have decided not to finish that match if he had been playing in just about any tournament, but this was Davis Cup and his loyalty to his nation is beyond question. Djokovic has been enhancing his reputation year by year with his growing maturity, sense of humor, and humility. The hope here is that his willingness to risk a serious injury while representing his country will perhaps make some of his detractors realize that Djokovic is worthy of the kind of admiration that many tennis fans reserve only for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.