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Steve Flink: Serbia over Canada features Davis Cup at its best

9/17/2013 4:00:00 PM

I have made my case in previous columns that the scheduling of Davis Cup is ludicrous, terribly unfair to many of the leading players, and timed abysmally for the sporting public. I wish the powers that be could find a solution to a problem that simply won’t evaporate, and create a Davis Cup season that is easy to follow and impossible not to appreciate. But I may be dreaming because there is no sign that anything meaningful is going to change on the Davis Cup calendar anytime soon. This unique international team competition will be held at odd junctures, and, unfairly, it is up to the top players to deal with that inconvenient truth.

Look what happened this past weekend. The semifinal clashes between the Czech Republic and Argentina and Canada against Serbia commenced less than four full days after the conclusion of the U.S. Open. Meanwhile, many other Cup ties took place as well in different divisions. Three of the top four players in the world—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray—all reported for duty. The presence of Djokovic and Nadal was particularly commendable because they had just contested the last major final of the season. The last thing they needed was to compete so soon after a major, but these laudable fellows felt obligated to show up and represent their nations. So, too, did U.S. Open semifinalist Stan Wawrinka, who led Switzerland past Ecuador soon after his run to the penultimate round at Flushing Meadows. Roger Federer declined to play for Switzerland, but he should not be criticized for the decision; he had every right not to show up, and it was understandable why he elected to stay away.

In any case, the Czech Republic predictably routed Argentina, taking the first three matches at Prague indoors over a squad led by Juan Monaco and Leonardo Mayer. Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek-who captured the 2012 Davis Cup for their country—were not going to lose to such a contingent. They were bound to win their singles matches over Monaco and Mayer, and the Berdych-Stepanek tandem is virtually unstoppable when representing their country. The Czech Republic reached the Davis Cup Final with a 3-2 triumph, but it was never really as close as that. The two matches they dropped were meaningless; these were, as they say, “dead rubbers” on the last day. The only way they could have lost was if Juan Martin Del Potro had been available for Argentina, but he was not. And that was that.

But Canada put up a tremendous fight in their meeting with Serbia on indoor clay at Belgrade. With Djokovic front and center, Serbia was a big favorite to account for Canada with sure-footedness. But the determination and spirit of both Milos Raonic and his fast rising compatriot Vasek Pospisil was fully on display, and the admirable 41-year-old left-hander Daniel Nestor joined forces with Pospisil in doubles for a big five set win. This semifinal duel between nations came down to the fifth and final match. High drama surrounded the occasion. It was a weekend to remember for all who witnessed it, showcasing Davis Cup at its best, keeping tennis fans absorbed from beginning to end.

It all started innocently enough. Djokovic opened the proceedings with a highly professional performance, crushing Pospisil 6-2, 6-0, 6-4 with a polished backcourt performance, gliding to victory by controlling the tempo of the contest from beginning to end. Serbia was off and running, ahead 1-0, buoyed by the way Djokovic had played, encouraged about where it all might lead. But then Raonic took the court to face Tipsarevic. They had met three times in tournaments since early in 2012, and little had separated them on those occasions, although Raonic had won all three duels. It was apparent from early on this time that another hard fought and very close contest was in store, and plainly Canada needed this victory more than Serbia. Raonic understood that central point, and competed unswervingly in a match of fluctuating fortunes. For his part, Tipsarevic was every bit as resolute in his pursuit of victory.

It was an enjoyable battle to watch in every way. Raonic took a commanding early lead, racing to 4-1 in the opening set, reaching 30-30 in the sixth game on Tipsarevic’s serve. But the Serbian battled back with some superb passing shots, fine returns off first serves, and remarkable discipline and purposefulness on his own serve. He came from behind ferociously to win that opening set 7-5 before Raonic forthrightly fought back to take the second set 6-3. And yet, in the middle of the third set, Raonic seemed to lose his bearings. He dropped that set by the same score as he had captured the second, and found himself down precariously, two sets to one.

But the burly Canadian made a spectacular play with Tipsarevic behind break point at 1-2 in the fourth set. Tipsarevic hit an overhead a bit too tamely, and Raonic from responded from well behind the baseline with an overhead of his own, taken on the bounce. He timed his smash impeccably, sending it down the line convincingly for a winner. The momentum was back on his side of the net. He was ahead 3-1, and soon Raonic had sealed the set 6-3. On they went to a fifth set, and Raonic was the player with no margin for error. He was serving from behind, facing increasing pressure as the set unfolded, realizing one false move would cost him the match and probably put Canada in an impossible bind.

At 3-4, Raonic trailed 0-30, but his renowned serve—one of the three or four best in tennis—came through for him handsomely. He held on for 4-4, but the reprieve he got from that stand did not last long. At 4-5, Raonic was down match point on his serve, but he came forward unhesitatingly after a kick serve, approached the net confidently, and put Tipsarevic on the defensive. Tipsarevic missed narrowly with a lob that landed over the baseline. Raonic came through with a clutch hold. At 8-8, he made his move to break Tipsarevic, and then served for the match in the 18th game of that fifth set. His self-assurance in that situation was extraordinary. Raonic released three consecutive aces for 40-0, double faulted, but then immediately produced another ace (his fourth of the game) to close out a critical victory for his nation, prevailing 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 10-8.

That match had it all because Tipsarevic is such a fine counter-attacker and such a cagey and capable player from the baseline. Moreover, his first serve is highly under-rated, and his backhand down the line is a beauty. He had the fans whole-heartedly on his side, a court better suited to his game than that of Raonic, and for him it was not a must win situation; for Raonic, it unmistakably was.

The win for Raonic gave a big boost to the Canadian contingent. But the team of Nestor and Pospisil knew they had their work cut out for them as they faced Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac, a tried and tested pair. Pospisil and Nestor had nearly upended the Bryan brothers at the U.S. Open, but they were on their own then; this time, they were playing for Canada in front of an impassioned Serbian crowd. The Canadians were dangerously close to a four set defeat, but they pulled out a tough tie-break in that set and somehow survived in the end, recording a 6-7 (6), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 10-8 victory that gave Canada a surprising 2-1 lead going into the final day.

It was up to Djokovic to set the right tone on the opening match of the final day, and he did just that. Djokovic came to terms with the overpowering Raonic first serve in the early stages. He broke for a 4-2 first set lead as Raonic double faulted to fall behind 15-40. But Raonic responded boldly. He cracked a pair of dazzling backhand down the line winners as he broke back for 3-4. Both players held all the way into a tie-break, which Djokovic commenced with a daring second serve ace out wide. Raonic missed two first serves in a row, and Djokovic pounced, charging to 3-0. Djokovic won that tie-break 7-1, with Raonic taking his only point with an ace.

Now Djokovic relaxed. He broke Raonic in the third and seventh games of the second set with some magnificent returning, and was dominant on serve. Set to Djokovic, 6-2. In the opening game of the third set, serving at 30-40, Raonic could not cope with a short, low return from the Serbian. The Canadian netted a backhand approach. Djokovic broke Raonic again to reach 3-0, and soon travelled to 4-0. Raonic took the next two games, but he had no answer for the stinging returns of the Serbian. Djokovic looked terrific in a 7-6 (1), 6-2, 6-2 victory.

The fifth and final match pitted Tipsarevic against Pospisil. Tipsarevic had the clear edge in experience, the home crowd fervently on his side, and the knowledge that he had lost only by the narrowest of margins against Raonic. All signs pointed to a Tipsarevic win, perhaps a decisive one. But Pospisil is a player of striking versatility. He employs the drop shot to great effect. He can control rallies off the forehand. His serve is a good weapon. He charges the net fearlessly and often intelligently. He threw his entire strategic arsenal at Tipsarevic in this match.

Early in the first set, Pospisil was bothered by a problem with his elbow. But he put that issue aside in a hurry. Both men held to set up a tie-break. Pospisil served wide in the deuce court on the first point, opening up the court for a forehand approach. But he netted that shot to give Tipsarevic an immediate mini-break. Tipsarevic surged to 4-0 when Pospisil released another drop shot, a tactic that had worked well until then. Tipsarevic angled an acute backhand crosscourt for a winner. After Pospisil closed the gap to 4-2, Tipsarevic served an ace for 5-2. Pospisil hit an ace on the following point but Tipsarevic collected the next two points to seal the set in 78 gripping minutes.

Tipsarevic seized control of the second set with ease, breaking in the second and eighth games, holding his own delivery with no problems at all. Set to Tipsarevic, 6-2. The Serbian then broke serve in the fourth game of the third set, subsequently moved out in front 4-1, and then advanced to 5-2. But Pospisil’s competitive mettle was remarkable. He held at 15 for 3-5. Now Tipsarevic was serving for the match. He had not even faced a break point all day long. But after cracking a service winner for 15-0 to move within three points of the win, he seemed far too aware of how close he was to lifting Serbia into another Davis Cup Final. Pospisil made some telling returns, but Tipsarevic fell apart off the forehand. Pospisil broke back at 15 for 4-5, then held at love for 5-5.

After both men held to set up another tie-break, Tipsarevic rolled to a 5-1 lead in that sequence. He should have made it to 6-1, but inexplicably leaped while attempting a forehand winner down the line off an inviting short ball, sending that off balance shot into the net. Nevertheless, he went to 6-2, quadruple match point. Pospisil, however, was not ready to surrender. The Canadian sliced a backhand  deliberately short down the line to draw a forehand error from Tipsarevic. Serving at 3-6, he induced a backhand return long from the Serbian, and then good fortune came entirely in the direction of Pospisil. He hit a winner that trickled over the net off the net cord.

And yet, despite three match points eluding his grasp, Tipsarevic served at 6-5 with another in hand. He was too cautious. Pospisil seized control of the rally after one of his shots clipped the net cord again, and the Canadian put away a gutsy overhead crosscourt, not far inside the sideline. It was 6-6. On the critical thirteenth point, the two players had a 24 stroke backcourt exchange, with Pospisil finally missing a two-hander crosscourt. Now Pospisil was serving at match point down for the fifth time. He served-and-volleyed, and dove as he stretched low for a forehand first volley. Tipsarevic could have been distracted by his opponent falling down, but he was not. The Serbian scampered forward and steered a forehand down the line passing shot into an open court.

Tipsarevic had come through under unexpected duress, prevailing 7-6 (3), 6-2, 7-6 (6) in a gut-wrenching encounter. Djokovic was the kingpin of that Serbian team, contributing two singles victories. But Tipsarevic had come through with the clinching victory and that was no small thing.

Nor was it insignificant that Nadal routed Sergiy Stakhovsky (Federer’s Wimbledon conqueror) 6-0, 6-0, 6-4 on clay in Madrid before joining forces with Marc Lopez for a doubles win as Spain defeated Ukraine 5-0 in the World Group Play-Offs. Murray, meanwhile, was even more productive, winning two singles matches and a doubles as Great Britain stopped Croatia 4-1 in their World Group Play-Off contest. And Wawrinka took one singles win and another in doubles as Switzerland won their World Group Play-Off 4-1 over Ecuador.

It was a sparkling weekend for Davis Cup only days after the end of the U.S. Open. A cluster of players performed spectacularly when they could have been excused for being devoid of spirit. In the final analysis, the weekend belonged most of all to Djokovic, Tipsarevic and Serbia, the Davis Cup champions of 2010. Now they are in a position to win it all again. That would be no mean feat

Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.