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Steve Flink: A Serbian Celebration

12/6/2010 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

For the leading tennis players in the world, there is no more gratifying way to end a long year than to win the Davis Cup. It is a reward for hard work and outstanding craftsmanship. It is a step up the historical ladder of the sport, a rare time to celebrate a prestigious victory with teammates, a moment to savor. It is a shining piece of history every competitor strives to attain, a gold nugget on the chain of success. Over this past weekend, Serbia became only the 13th nation to capture the esteemed Cup, and they did so admirably, recouping after the loss of the first match, then striking back again from two matches to one down to win resoundingly 3-2 over nine-time Davis Cup champions France. That was no mean feat, and two men deserve most of the credit for one nation’s glory.

First and foremost, this team victory was brought about largely by the No. 1 Serbian and the No. 3 player in the world, by a 23-year-old who has too frequently been found wanting on big occasions. That man, of course, is none other than Novak Djokovic, who came through for his country twice when Serbia  simply could not afford to lose. After the charismatic Frenchman Gael Monfils had cut down Janko Tipsarevic in straight sets to put Serbia in an immediate bind, Djokovic exhibited considerable poise as he cast aside Gilles Simon with consummate ease to level the score at 1-1. When the Serbians Nenad Zimonjic and Viktor Troicki took the first two sets from Michael Llodra and Arnaud Clement, the stage seemed almost set for Djokovic to clinch the 2010 Davis Cup for his nation on the final day.

But Llodra and Clement made a remarkable comeback to record a stirring five set victory, enabling France to enter the third and final day of competition with growing vigor and renewed optimism. Only five times in the storied history of tennis had any country rallied from 1-2 down in the best of five set series to win a Davis Cup Final. The United States had realized that significant feat once, back in 1902. France did it in 1927, and Australia got it done in 1953 and again in 1964. The last time it had happened, France had been the victim, falling to Russia in 2002. Davis Cup commenced back in 1900, so the evidence is striking about how difficult it is for any country to rebound from 1-2 on the final day.

Yet Serbia refused to worry about historical patterns, and simply got on with the task at hand. And it was Djokovic who spurred them on. Facing Monfils in a must win encounter, Djokovic was purposeful and methodical as he took apart his adversary in straight sets. It was just the boost Serbia needed, and suddenly they must have liked their chances playing at home in Belgrade. But a surprising matchup took place in the fifth and final contest. Rather than Simon meeting Tipsarevic, two substitutes walked on court as their respective captains played some off court chess. Troicki found himself confronting Llodra to decide which nation would prevail, and the Serbian, given effusive support from a buoyant crowd, was unstoppable. He gained a straight set win. Arguably, Troicki and Llodra should have been in the original lineup for their respective teams; I certainly felt that way.

In any case, Serbia established itself as only the sixth nation ever to win the Davis Cup when appearing in a final for the first time, joining the U.S. (1900), Australia (1907), South Africa ( who got a default from India in 1974), Sweden (1975), and Croatia (2005) in that illustrious category.

It all started, of course, with Monfils accounting for Tipsarevic. The Frenchman was calm and resolute from the outset, while Tipsarevic was hindered by extreme apprehension. The 26-year-old Serbian began the match with two double faults in a row, both into the net. Monfils seized the moment, broke serve, and took utter control of the set, outplaying Tipsarevic thoroughly from the back of the court, serving with substantially more conviction and potency. Tipsarevic held serve for 1-2, but Monfils swept four games in a row to garner the set easily. Tipsarevic settled down considerably in the second set, which stayed on serve all the way to a tie-break.

Tipsarevic led 4-3 on serve in that critical sequence, but lost four points in a row to fall behind two sets to love. Monfils weighed the percentages well in this stretch and picked Tipsarevic apart meticulously. At 4-6 and double set point down, Tipsarevic drove a forehand approach long. The rest was essentially a formality as Monfils closed out the match in style. The Frenchman connected with 71% of his first serves, 14% better than his opponent. He won 80% of his first serve points while Tipsarevic was 15% worse in that category. Those numbers explained the outcome in many ways. Moreover, Monfils won 94 points in the three sets, while Tipsarevic collected only 68 points. Monfils was decidedly the superior player.

So now it was up to Djokovic to stop an obstinate Simon. Simon peaked in 2008, finishing that season at No. 7 in the world. Twice he defeated Roger Federer that year and once he toppled Rafael Nadal. Simon has no major weapons in his shot making arsenal, yet he feeds exceedingly well off the pace provided by his opponents. Agile and energetic, resourceful and opportunistic, Simon is not an easy man to beat. But Djokovic had lost to the Frenchman only once in six previous meetings, and he was entirely self assured and sharp this time around. From 2-3 in the first set, Djokovic collected four games in a row to run out the first set commandingly. He was firing effectively on all fronts, and his fluidity on serve was an enormous asset. Moreover, Djokovic was dictating points with ceaseless precision.

The Serbian took his game to an even higher level in the second set. In four service games, he won 16 of 17 points, and he broke a befuddled Simon twice, changing pace adroitly, waiting for his openings patiently, hammering away unerringly off both sides. Djokovic took that set handily, and then moved swiftly to a 3-1, 15-40 lead in the third set. Had he broken Simon in that fifth game, he would have glided to victory. But the Frenchman took advantage of two unprovoked mistakes from a briefly and inexplicably disheveled Djokovic to keep himself in contention. Still, Djokovic advanced to 5-3. Simon held at love for 4-5. Djokovic served for the match in the tenth game but could not wrap matters up despite having two match points. Simon improbably broke for 5-5. Djokovic was faltering, but he gathered himself quickly to take two games in a row to complete a 6-3, 6-1, 7-5 win.

Djokovic had raised expectations among Serbian fans, and then Zimonjic—the world’s No. 1 ranked doubles player at the end of 2008 who currently resides at No. 3 —went to work with Troicki in an absorbing doubles contest. The Serbians broke Clement in the opening set to move ahead 3-1 and held their own serves throughout that first set. In the second set, Zimonjic saved a set point on his serve at 4-5, held on, and then the Serbians broke Clement at 5-5 as the soon to be 33-year-old double faulted into the net at 30-40. Troicki served at 6-5 to put his nation up two sets, but lost his way, and soon France had broken back to bring about a tie-break. The boisterous fans were having trouble controlling their emotions during points but order was restored. The Serbians—buoyed by the natural aggression and doubles instincts of Zimonjic and the adaptability of Troicki—took the tie-break 7-3, surging ahead two sets to love.

Yet the resilient French duo was unswerving.  They broke Troicki for a second time in a row to open the third set. They advanced to 4-2, but when Clement served at 4-3, he trailed 15-40. Clement was the most vulnerable man on the court in transitioning. He served with immense accuracy and good pace most of the time, but was uncertain in moving forward at other junctures. Now it seemed as if he was going to lose his serve at a crucial moment. But Clement played a respectable first volley at 15-40 and Zimonjic netted a forehand. Clement then released a daunting first serve wide to the left-handed Llodra’s forehand in the Ad court, and the 30-year-old could not make the return. Clement managed to hold on with a cluster of well placed first serves, and kept his team in front at 5-3. Serving for the set at 5-4, Llodra confidently held at love.

In the fourth set, Clement was in a similar predicament. This time, he was serving at 3-4, and was down 15-40 again. He released a brilliant service winner down the T to stifle Zimonjic. At 30-40, Clement closed in tight on the net for the first volley and drilled it at the net man Zimonjic. Zimonjic had no play at all. It was deuce. Clement served down the T to the Zimonjic backhand, and got close to the net again, this time thumping the volley past Troicki for a winner. Now at game point, Clement served accurately down the T to get a high return from Troicki, and Llodra easily poached, putting away the volley emphatically. France was back to 4-4. At 5-5, 15-40, Troicki served-and-volleyed, and Clement then caught him cold with a topspin lob winner. Clement served out the set at 15. It was two sets all.

The momentum was clearly with France. They had a steadily improving Llodra playing beautifully from the Ad court, and an inspired Clement making amends for his early match woes. That combination was irresistible. The Frenchman broke Zimonjic in the opening game of the fifth set. On they went to 4-2 before Troicki held to close the gap to 4-3. And then, for the third set in a row, lo and behold, Clement found himself down 15-40 in the eighth game at a pivotal juncture. But in a long, tense, demanding game, he fought his way out of danger once more and held for 5-3 as Llodra made a magnificent reflex volley that caught an astonished Troicki off guard. France was leading 5-3. Two games later, Llodra held at 15, and the Frenchmen had triumphed 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-5, 6-4. Clement’s clutch play was the determining factor in the end.

And so it was up to Djokovic to keep his nation alive as play commenced on the final day. Serbia had been dealt a devastating blow when they lost the doubles contest, but Djokovic seemed oblivious to the events of the day before. He had never been beaten by Monfils in five previous meetings, and had no intention of losing his authority now. Djokovic picked up beautifully from where he left off against Simon two days earlier. His ground strokes were rock solid, he was mixing up his serve skillfully while finding the corners and his rhythm was unmistakable. Djokovic cruised to a 4-1 first set lead without losing a point in three service games. At 4-2, however, after leading 40-15, he drifted behind break point. Djokovic paused, collected himself, sent a deep first serve to the backhand of Monfils, and then drove a forehand deep to the opposite side of the court. Monfils missed a running forehand, and Djokovic held on for 5-2. The Serbian got an insurance break in the eighth game, and the set belonged to him, 6-2.

Monfils was getting soundly beaten in every facet of the game. Djokovic pinned him behind the baseline with his extraordinary depth to control nearly every rally, and his serving was outstanding. In the first set, Djokovic connected with 82% of his first serves, and won 89% of those points. Contrastingly, Monfils made good on 73% of his first deliveries, and won only 56% of those points. Not only was Djokovic serving smoothly and accurately, but his returns were first rate and uncanny. Even when Monfils got the first serve in, Djokovic kept his returns unfailingly deep. In the second set, Djokovic broke for 4-2, driving a two-hander down the line to provoke an error on the run from the harried Frenchman. Djokovic held at 15 for 5-2 and then played a terrific game to break again for the set. Monfils was not playing reckless tennis, nor was he the impetuous player and excessive showman he has often been in the past. Djokovic was just too good.

But early in the third set, Monfils made a spirited stand. At 0-1, 30-30, he double faulted to put himself break point down. Then he went for a big second serve down the T, and the ball was called out. That would have made it 2-0 for Djokovic, but Monfils challenged the call and his serve had indeed clipped both lines. Instead of serving a second straight double fault to lose his serve, Monfils had served an ace and he went on to hold for 1-1. He then found his range off the forehand in the following game and broke Djokovic for the first time in the match to go ahead 2-1. Djokovic answered with four winners in the next game, breaking back for 2-2. But Monfils was emotionally on the upswing. He broke again for 4-3, ending an excellent 18 stroke exchange with an explosive forehand down the line winner. An infuriated Djokovic smashed his racket on the court no fewer than three times.

Was he unraveling? Not on this occasion. With Monfils serving at 4-3, 15-40, Djokovic made a deep approach shot and then angled a backhand volley deftly crosscourt. Monfils ran it down, but Djokovic read the passing shot perfectly, directing a forehand volley crosscourt into a wide open court. It was 4-4. Djokovic promptly held at 15 for 5-4. With Monfils serving at 4-5, 15-30, the Frenchman double faulted. Two points later, Djokovic sealed the verdict as Monfils missed a two-hander crosscourt. Match to Djokovic 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. It was 2-2 in the series. Serbia was clearly ascendant.

Troicki had cost his nation the doubles match the previous afternoon. Zimonjic had lost his serve only once but Troicki had been broken three times in that battle. It had not been entirely his fault that Serbia had gone down to defeat, but he had surely not held up his end of the bargain. Now he was playing the single most important match of his career, knowing full well that a loss in this situation could wound him almost permanently. But Troicki was breathtaking. After struggling in his opening service game before holding for 1-1 in the first set, he burst into his own. Llodra is a confirmed serve-and-volleyer who is streaky off the ground. But he keeps barreling forward and can be awfully imposing up at the net. He won’t shy away from going forward, so Troicki had to counter-attack successfully over and over again, and he did just that. The vast majority of his 58 winners in the match were a splendid barrage of passing shots, most notably off his two-handed backhand.

Troicki broke Llodra for 2-1 in that first set with an inside-out forehand passing shot winner. He broke again for 4-1, keeping his returns remarkably low. Troicki was soaring, sending returns time and again at Llodra’s feet, calmly driving passing shots with only the smallest margins for error out of the Frenchman’s reach, keeping his adversary completely at bay with his counter-attacking. On his own serve, Troicki was disciplined, controlling the tempo consistently. Llodra looked for any conceivable opening to alter the complexion of the match. He chipped-and-charged off second serve returns, attempted to mix things up periodically on his own serve by staying back and working his way in, searched for any avenue he could find to disrupt Troicki’s rhythm.  Nothing really worked.

Troicki closed out the first set 6-2, fell behind 0-2 in the second set, but managed to sweep the next eight games from there. The key game of the contest was the seventh of the second set. Serving at 2-4, Llodra fought through seven deuces, but could not hold in the end. Troicki served out the set, and Llodra was perplexed. He double faulted into the net at 15-40 in the opening game of the third set. He double faulted again at break point down in the fifth game, allowing Troicki the luxury of a two break lead. The Serbian had a game point for 5-1 but Llodra came in on a wing and a prayer off the forehand and got away with it. He broke for 2-4, then held at love with an ace in the seventh game. Troicki’s lead had been diminished to 4-3, but he remained composed, holding at 15 for 5-3. Llodra served to save the match in the ninth game, but was broken for the eighth and final time as Troicki finished off an impeccable performance with a winning backhand crosscourt return off the backhand off a brilliantly produced wide serve. That shot was symbolic of the entire contest. Troicki had won 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

Serbia—down 2-1 and with their backs very much to the wall—bounced back with pride, urgency and passion to take it all without the loss of another set. For Djokovic, the role he played as a leader was irrefutable. Had he lost to Simon opening day, Serbia would almost surely have gone down to defeat. Had he been beaten by Monfils on the last day, Serbia’s dream would definitely have been washed away. Djokovic was the transforming figure, and his feat of winning both matches without losing a set was extraordinary. Being a member of a victorious Davis Cup team just might allow Djokovic to start delivering again on the promise he made back in 2008 when he won his lone Grand Slam singles championship at the Australian Open. His heroics in Belgrade could auger well for his future. As for Troicki, he recovered his conviction swiftly a day after a bruising loss in the doubles, and the feeling grows that he could be a solid top 15 player next year who could get in the way of the best players at the biggest tournaments if they are not in peak form.

For now, Djokovic, Troicki and Zimonjic can spend the holiday season celebrating a job well done and a Cup triumph no one can say they do not deserve.

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