Monday, September 24, 2007

Davis Cup - Russia vs Germany

by mmmm8

It did not start well.

First came the bad news for Germany. Michael Kohlman, half of Germany’s strong doubles duo (with Alexander Waske), was out of the tie with a knee injury for which he will need surgery. In a surprise decision, German Captain Patrik Kühnen nominated a newcomer,
Philipp Petzschner, as the fourth player, skipping numerous higher-ranked, more experienced Germans, most notably Florian Mayer (who came to the tie but did not play) and Nicolas Kiefer.

Then came a double whammy for Russia. In a prelude, we found out that Mikhail Youzhny, a key singles player, got a bad cold at the US Open and was still recovering. Then we learned, along with the rest of the world, that Marat Safin had an old, and serious wrist injury flare up in his US Open match against Stanislas Wawrinka and was out of commission. But wait! Marat was also taking his bad wrist to the Himalayas for a month to climb the sixth tallest mountain on the planet. Even though Marat ended up satisfied with just a 5000-meter climb and a week at high altitude, the Russian team was left without its leader and most experienced player for the tie.

Then there was the surface. The clay court was speedily laid right on the volleyball court used for the European Championship on the Sunday before the tie. Clips of practice showed
Dmitry Tursunov, a man who will never be called “King of Clay,” throwing racquets so hard out of frustration with the surface he actually broke a plastic bleacher chair.
Tommy Haas, the top German player, was vocal about his lack of fondness for the surface as well. No bleachers were harmed, but Haas looked like someone had just hit him with a frying pan in every photo from Moscow.
To add more intrigue, on Wednesday before the tie, Russia’s Number 1 Nikolay Davydenko also had an old wrist injury return during practice and became questionable for the tie.


Igor Andreev d. Tommy Haas
6-2 6-2 6-2

The match between Russia’s best clay courter and Germany’s best player sounded promising but Tommy forgot to show up. Andreev should be credited for playing a great match. After a nervous first 2 games, he never trembled again. Focused and calm, he played precise shots, missing nothing, running down impossible balls, and, of course, ripping his forehand. The only thing working well for Haas was the drop shot, but he only sent Andreev a few of those, and failed to draw Igor to the net otherwise.

Tommy may not have been ready for the surface, or for Andreev’s stellar forehand (they had never played before), but he showed a lack of desire and fight in this match, a surprising and disappointing performance for the team leader and a top player.

“We knew Tommy didn’t like clay, but we didn’t realize just how much,” joked Mikhail Youzhny’s coach Boris Sobkin.

So, after a surprisingly easy rubber, Russia led 1-0 and all signs pointed to an easy victory for the Russian team, with World No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko taking on 32nd-ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Philipp Kohlschreiber d. Nikolay Davydenko
6-7(5) 6-2 6-2 4-6 7-5

When Nikolay arrived on court, it was obvious that he was not in top shape. However, he had a solid start, and one would not have guessed just how unready he was. Unknown to fans in addition to having freeze therapy to alleviate his wrist pain prior to the match, Nikolay was also coming off food poisoning the previous evening, and had a fever from a cold. Later, we also learned that a tactical decision hurt his chances in the match. Although the doctors cleared him to play through the wrist pain (the injury could not be aggravated), it was decided to give him lighter tension on his strings in order to prevent pain. He did not have sufficient time to practice with the racquet, felt uncomfortable with it, and, after three sets, could not bear it anymore. He went back to his usual tension, despite incurring more pain in an already injured wrist.

In addition to own issues, Davydenko ran into an in-form and extremely determined Kohlschreiber. Philipp was everything Haas wasn’t in the first match. He fought through every point, he played attacking tennis, he did not give away free points. After the match, Philipp said it was one of the best matches he has ever played.

Davydenko was able to fight him off, however, and was leading 4-2 in the fifth set, two games away from giving Russia a 2-0 lead. And then he got broken. And, a little bit later, he was broken again, losing the deciding set 7-5. The cold and fever, the pain, the general nervousness of playing with an injury, Kohlschreiber’s fight and excellent play, it all counts in explaining why Davydenko failed to close out the match. But, in the end, what happened was that Nikolay lost yet another DC match, and a crucial point for Russia with it.

A somewhat expected result, 1-1 at the end of the first day, but a surprising way to get to that score.

DAY 2:

6-3 3-6 7-6(4) 7-6(5)

It wasn’t even as close as the score seems to indicate.

Dmitry Tursunov and Mikhail Youzhny came out on court absolutely flat. Youzhny stayed that way the whole match.

Part of the problem was the lack of experience from Tursunov and Youzhny as a doubles partnership. They lacked communication, they did not have a feel for each other’s tactics; they did not have a game plan.

Part of the problem was the formation. Perhaps having Youzhny take returns on the left side would have made the match more comfortable for his game style.

Another problem was that neither Youzhny nor Tursunov had played much recently. They were both rusty. Youzhny failed at structuring the points (among other things), and Tursunov attempted to make every service return a winner, but he had no feel for the doubles court.

Another thing the Russian pair did was underestimate Petzschner. The Russians admitted to not having expected the German’s booming serve, or his apparent lack of nerves in Davis Cup debut.
But whatever its parts were, the whole problem came down to the Russian’s unpreparedness and lack of fight in the match.

Consider the Germans’ situation. Without a doubles team, Patrik Kuhnen took a risk by putting in an inexperienced player, whose one experience playing with Waske came five years ago (although Petzchner was coming in off a challenger-level doubles win the prior week). The rookie justified the Captains choice, but his other, “sure bet” doubles player’s serve goes away in the second set, and the score is at one-set all.
Then, in the middle of the third set, Alexander Waske feels something pop in his arm. It has been bothering him since Roland Garros, but this time, the pain is almost unbearable. He walks to the bench and sits down (no one knows what is going on at this point). He contemplates quitting the match. Finally, the medics put something on his arm to alleviate the pain, and he plays through it. But he is serving “little girls’ serves” (his personal description), mostly under 100 miles an hour.

The Germans were lucky that Youzhny and Tursunov completely failed to attack Waske’s serves, but Philipp Petzschner was the best player on court that day. He consistently served over 130 miles per hour, he showed a great feel for the court, especially at net, and he was not at all intimidated by the occasion. It was apt that the last point of the match was a winner from him.

With a loss of a very winnable match, trailing 1-2, an injured and sick Number 1, and an out-of-form Number 2 player, things seemed very bleak for the defending champions going into Day 3.


6-4 6-4 3-6 6-3

Those of us who woke up at 5 am Eastern USA time to watch the third singles rubber must have thought the weekend’s sleep schedule has caught up with our sanity. It was not a big surprise to see Mikhail Youzhny playing for Russia, given Davydenko’s physical condition, but it was a shock not to see Tommy Haas. Later, the commentators revealed Tommy was suffering from food poisoning (WHAT do they put in that cafeteria food at Davis Cup ties?), and was unfit to play.

A break for Russia, although Youzhny would have had a great chance against Haas on Tommy’s least favorite surface. Luckily, Youzhny came ready to play unlike he had the day before. Mikhail did not play spectacular tennis. Compared to his best, he played rather poorly. But this time, Petzschner did show why he is ranked about 200 spots lower than Youzhny. He continued to serve big, stayed calm, and never gave up, fighting to win the third set. But, even then, the outcome was obvious. He was simply outclassed by Youzhny, who did what he had to – no more, no less.
Youzhny was not the only person to redeem himself after Saturday’s disastrous doubles. Dmitry Tursunov, once again, proved why his creativity is more famous than his tennis skills. He used metal cooking ware from the stadium’s kitchen as noisemakers, starting out with a ladle and mixing bowl, then sent a practice partner to the kitchen to equip the whole team with pots and ladles. It was loud, fun, and very festive. Dmitry gets the creativity award here (not that he needs another one).

6-3 3-6 6-0 6-3

Even if the same Philipp Kohlschreiber who had played a stellar match against Davydenko on Friday had shown up here (he did not), even if the German did not trail 0-4 in their head-to-head (he did), Igor Andreev would have won the tie for Russia. As soon as he stepped on court, it was obvious he was determined to not let the tie slip away.

Aside from the distraction – caused by the appearance in the stands of Marat Safin, who came to support the team, but left when people started watching him rather than the match – that caused him the second set, Igor played another concentrated, clean, aggressive match.

Kohlschreiber was less confident and seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the crowd as well as by Andreev’s power. He still tried everything in his arsenal, but things were just not going his way. He had a brief resurgence after getting bageled in the third set, but Igor shut the door once and for all in the fourth set.

As calmly as he played his matches, Andreev, who missed most of last year, including three of the Davis Cup ties due to an elbow injury, walked to hug Shamil Tarpishev and shake hands with the disappointed German team.

Russia had won its 7th straight Davis Cup tie and was in the final again.

A few conclusions from this DC Semifinal:

- An embarrassing and unlucky tie for Tommy Haas

- Lots of respect for Nikolay Davydenko, who played an extremely competitive match against a very in-form Philipp Kohlschreiber through pain, fever, stomach issues, and a foreign racquet tension. Now, if he could only learn to close out matches in Davis Cup.

- Even more respect to Alexander Waske. His pain was so bad he wanted to stop play. Now, his arm is swollen and he cannot even brush his teeth with it. He is expected to be off the tour for two months. But he played out his match, and with the help of his partner and the Russians, gave Germany a great chance.

- Philipp Petzschner rose to the occasion. The strongest player in the doubles tie, he was outclassed by Mikhail Youzhny in singles, but showed great fight. Kudos to Patrik Kühnen for the pick - he sure has some "wilanders".

- Whether the clay surface was chosen for Marat Safin (according to Davydenko and somewhat confirmed by Tarpishev), or against Haas, it was a great choice for Russia, because it most suited the best player of the tie, Igor Andreev.

- It is not wise to jack up prices for Davis Cup ties to unreal heights. Converting most of the 20,000-seat stadium into “luxury” seating, and then selling tickets at over $200 resulted in an embarrassingly empty stadium Friday and Saturday (3000-4000, but felt like 300-400). That said, there were tickets available for $10-30, and lots of those did not sell until Sunday’s matches either.

- Ironically, Andreev, Russia’s Davis Cup hero this year, is the player least likely to play in the final against the US since his game does not match up against USA’s singles players, and other team members perform better on fast surfaces.

- Someone needs to tell Dmitry Tursunov that throwing steel ladles into the stands is not safe.

- Two of my favorite umpires, Pascal Maria and Mohamed Lahyani, officiated the tie. Before Saturday’s doubles match started, music was playing in the stadium. Pascal Maria and an unidentified woman were dancing courtside. Can anyone imagine this from an official in another sport?
- Shamil Tarpishev is still my hero.

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