France and Serbia have endured very different routes to reach this year’s Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final, taking place in Belgrade on 3-5 December.
France eased past Germany, Spain and Argentina without the loss of a live rubber, while Serbia produced battling performances to defeat USA, Croatia and Czech Republic.
France overpowers tough opposition
France’s 4-1 first round victory over Germany in Toulon was the only dropped rubber for Guy Forget’s men in a campaign that could end with them lifting the trophy for the first time in nearly a decade.
The writing was on the wall early for the visitors after Gael Monfils got the home team off to the perfect start, defeating German No. 1 Philipp Kohlschreiber in straight sets.
It was a first Davis Cup win for Monfils in just his second rubber, having made a losing debut in last year’s World Group play-offs against Netherlands.
This was quickly followed by victory for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga over Benjamin Becker, and then Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau completed the job in the doubles rubber.
With the tie all over, Tsonga took to the court against Simon Gruel in the first of Sunday’s reverse singles, but was forced to retire early in the third set with a foot injury.
The match was unspectacular in itself, although it turned out to be significant for a couple of reasons… it was France’s only dropped rubber en route to the Final, and it was also Tsonga’s last Davis Cup appearance of the current campaign.
Tsonga was plagued with knee problems for the second half of the year that caused him to miss the US Open along with the Davis Cup quarters, semis and Final.
France’s quarterfinal clash with Spain in Clermont-Ferrand looked finely balanced on paper with both teams boasting considerable strength in depth despite being without their respective top players due to injury, Tsonga and Rafael Nadal.
Monfils outlasted David Ferrer in five sets in the opening rubber to give France the upper hand, and then Llodra put the home team firmly in the driving seat with victory over Fernando Verdasco.
Llodra shocked the higher ranked Spaniard by coming from behind to win in four sets. The quick indoor court suited the left-hander’s style of play and he produced an accomplished performance to all but end Spain’s hopes of winning a third straight title.
For the second successive tie, Llodra teamed up with Benneteau to clinch the crucial third point, this time overcoming Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez. The dead rubbers were also wrapped up to seal a comprehensive 5-0 whitewash.
France always looked favourites in the semifinals against Argentina, and again Forget’s side had the benefit of playing at home with Lyon chosen as the host city.
Llodra defeated Juan Monaco in the first rubber, leaving hopes of another Argentinean victory on the road resting squarely on the shoulders of David Nalbandian.
Unfortunately for the visitors, Nalbandian couldn’t produce the goods against Monfils and went down in four sets. The result ended the tie as a contest.
Llodra partnered Arnaud Clement to win the doubles and both dead singles rubbers were captured to give France another 5-0 triumph and a place in the Final for the first time since finishing runner-up to Russia in 2002.
Serbia embarks on historic run
Serbia began its campaign with a mouth watering home clash against USA at the Belgrade Arena, choosing a clay court for the visit of the 32-time champions.
Without the services of Andy Roddick and James Blake, the American team had a new look, as doubles specialists Bob and Mike Bryan lined up alongside the inexperienced John Isner and Sam Querrey.
For Serbia, it was business as usual with Novak Djokovic, Viktor Troicki, Janko Tipsarevic and Nenad Zimonjic all making themselves available. As it turned out, captain Bogdan Obradovic would have the luxury of naming the same four players throughout the year.
USA needed to end the opening day’s play with at least one rubber on the scoreboard to have a realistic chance of progressing, but it wasn’t to be. Brave efforts from Isner and Querrey both ended in four-set defeats against Troicki and Djokovic respectively.
The Americans enjoyed a temporary reprieve on Saturday, as Bob Bryan and Isner – standing in for twin brother Mike who was suffering from food poisoning – defeated Tipsarevic and Zimonjic to keep the tie alive.
Djokovic provided the decisive win in the fourth rubber, but it was only after a titanic effort from Isner almost sent the tie into a decider. The American twice came from a set down before eventually falling 57 63 36 76(6) 46.
Querrey showed considerable character to step up and defeat Troicki in the dead singles rubber, leaving the final score at 3-2, but it didn’t dampen Serbian celebrations as the nation marched on to the quarterfinals for the first time.
Awaiting Serbia was a trip to Split to face Balkan neighbours Croatia. The two nations had never previously met in Davis Cup, although their history goes back a long way after they both played under the flag of the former Yugoslavia.
With Ivo Karlovic absent through injury, Ivan Ljubicic brought himself out of Davis Cup retirement to boost Croatia’s chances. However, the 31 year-old was no match for Djokovic in the opening rubber, losing in straight sets.
Croatian No. 1 Marin Cilic cruised past Troicki in the second rubber to leave Saturday’s doubles as the pivotal rubber of the tie. Tipsarevic and Zimonjic teamed up again, but this time they were successful against Cilic and Dodig.
Djokovic wrapped up proceedings with a routine victory over Cilic, before Tipsarevic won the dead rubber to hand the visitors a 4-1 result.
It was back to the Belgrade Arena for the semifinals against Czech Republic, last year’s runners-up, and the away team had the regular duo of Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych leading the challenge.
Stepanek got the Czechs off to a winning start against Troicki and with Wimbledon finalist Berdych facing Tipsarevic in the second rubber it looked like the visitors would take a commanding lead.
Tipsarevic had other ideas, though, winning in four sets against his higher ranked opponent to level the tie at the end of the first day. It was the Serb’s first live singles rubber of the year.
Saturday’s doubles saw Stepanek and Berdych regain the advantage for Czech Republic with a victory over Zimonjic and Djokovic, who had been left out on the opening day after his exhaustive run to the US Open final earlier in the week.
With the pressure on, Djokovic came from a set down against Berdych to take the tie into a deciding fifth rubber. Step up Tipsarevic once again, reaching hero status by defeating Stepanek 60 76(6) 64.
The 3-2 result confirmed Serbia’s first ever place in the Final and the team is now bidding to become the 13th nation to be crowned Davis Cup champion.