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Of Wolves and Lambs 12/02/2010 - 2:08 PM


by Pete Bodo

I must admit, I'm still perplexed by France's decision to play Gilles Simon in the second singles slot in tomorrow's Davis Cup opener against Serbia's Novak Djokovic. In my eyes, this has given the Serbs an enormous advantage, but who knows—it may turn out to be one of the more cagey tactical decisions we've seen in the Davis Cup. But I have my reservations, for a couple of reasons.

Since winning the first match he ever played against Djokovic (Marseille, 2008), Simon lost their next four meetings. In two of those, including their most recent clash in Beijing a few weeks ago, Djokovic laid down the hammer, winning in straights. The Beijing score, 6-3, 6-2, was the most lopsided in their head-to-head career. I dunno, maybe Simon has scorched the lines and destroyed his teammates in the practice sessions arlier this week?

I've also always felt that is Simon is—how do you say this diplomatically?—a little soft (there is no way, I guess). He's a nice guy, a happy-go-lucky, lovin' life kind of guy, which is just the kind of guy who is likely to find himself in way, way over his head when the the playground turns into a battlefield. The Serbian attitude, that this Davis Cup final is a critical, life and history shaping moment, may be a bit excessive, but it signaled Serbia's deadly serious intent. Of course, that could work against them—there's no pressure worse than the demands you place on yourself—but it can also be intimidating.

Of course, not too many men have a positive head-to-head record against Djokovic. But Llodra is 1-1, and he won their last meeting. To me, that's serious psychological ammo, even though Llodra is a mere 3-3 in Davis Cup singles. But guess what? Simon has won only two Davis Cup matches, both of them dead rubbers.

Llodra, by contrast, beat Juan Monaco of Argentina and Fernando Verdasco of Spain in live rubbers in 2010, although both matches were on French soil—and indoor hard courts. Llodra also played winning doubles in those ties, and he's 6-1 overall in his last seven matches.

Also, unless that indoor surface is extremely slow, Llodra can seriously hurt you with his attacking game, and have you wondering just what degree of aggression he's going to bring to the match. Djokovic would still be a big favorite against Llodra, but the match-up would give him much more to think about and fret over.

And let's remember, Llodra is just outside the Top 20 in singles, and coming off a great week at the Masters 1000 in Paris, while Simon languishes at almost double that ranking number (42). Simon lost the last set he played in a singles tournament this  year, 6-0, and won just one match in Paris. Here's how French captain Guy Forget explained his choice: "I expect Gilles to play a great match against Novak. I expect Michael to play great doubles with Arnaud [Clement]. They’ve done so many times in the past. In my opinion, that was the best choice for the French team. The Sunday matches probably will count. That leaves me probably some more options doing it this way.”

I guess the reasoning is that if Llodra had played singles, he'd be less fresh for the crucial "swing" match, the doubles in which he'll team with Arnaud Clement to battle Nenad Zimonjic and Viktor Troicki. But while doubles certainly is more important in Davis Cup than tournament tennis, and Davis Cup singles matches are best-of-five, I would think that a guy could bounce back after a tough singles to play pretty good doubles the following day. I just don't know if the "freshness" factor warrants keeping your doubles star out of the singles.

Of course, if you're a fan of "secret weapon" strategies, Forget could always insert Llodra to play a potentially decisive fifth rubber. But then Llodra will have the opposite problem—he may have to face Tipsarevic in singles 24 hours after a potentially tough doubles match. Given that a Llodra-Tipsarevic match is a toss-up (Tipsarevic is 1-0 against Llodra, but 0-1 against Simon, which qualifies as "insufficient data"), would you want to concede the fitness/fatigue issue to your opponent?

Well, if Forget pulls this off, he'll be called a genius. And I have to confess, I asked former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe about this and he thinks Forget made the right call—keep Llodra fresh for the doubles. I still think it's unnecessarily risky, and most of all it suggests that the French may be less confident—or is it more cavalier?—than they hope or have a right to be. On paper, the tie ought to be 1-1 after the first day of play, so why view the doubles as a must-win?

So much for that. Much of the commentary leading up to the tie has focused on Serbia's opportunity to  join the elite teams that have won the Davis Cup, and on how important the tie is to Djokovic. He's certainly done nothing to downplay the stakes or the potential significance (personal, national and even international) of the tie. But the guy who's been forgotten in this Cinderella story is Gael Monfils, whom you ignore at your peril.

Opening the tie with Monfils vs. Tipsarevic gives both teams hope. The French must be pleased because on paper, Monfils ought to win that match. If he does, it might to some degree take the crowd out of play, and it certainly would put Djokovic under a fair amount of pressure when he meets Simon in the second rubber. But if you're a Serb partisan, you have to like that Tipsarevic can go out there and swing from the heels. He's the underdog, and he's got Djokovic to back him up should things turn out badly. Tipsarevic is lucky he doesn't have to hang around, watching the first match, feeling the pressure build. . . and build. Monfils is less lucky, because the crowd will be all over him, and if he doesn't get off to a good start he'll make his own life very difficult.

Monfils has only played four Davis Cup singles matches, but he's won the last three. He sometimes seeems to thrive on emotional energy, and not always the best kind—during his win over the unexpectedly tough Robert Kendrick at the U.S. Open, he busted out a sneer as he mocked the fans chanting Kendrick's name. This penchant for getting sucked into the gestalt could get him in big, big trouble in Serbia, where they probably will play a little rougher than the spectators at Flushing Meadows. Almost any acccomplished Davis Cup player will tell you that Rule No. 1 is to avoid getting into it with the crowd; stay focused, ignore the noise and hubbub. That might be hard to do in the Belgrade Arena.

Take a look at the photo of Monfils and Tipsarevic atop the news stories at the Davis Cup website (it's presently in their rotating carousel), and tell me: Does Tipsarevic, who will meet Monfils in the first match of the tie, look like he's nervous, or like he's the big, bad wolf licking his chops as he eyes the baby lamb?

For more on this tie, tune in to our latest podcast (it ought to be up not long after this post). Easy Ed McGrogan asked for our predictions. Steve Tignor and Ed called it 3-1 for Serbia. Off-line, Pat McEnroe called the same score, 3-1 and whatever happens in the meaningless match.

I'm going whole hog for Djokovic and company and calling it a sweep, 3-0. I can think of many positive ways to describe the players on the French team, and the squad in general, but "tough" isn't high on the list, and on this occasion toughness will count more than talent, strategy, or technique. And I think the decision to play Simon will hurt the French.

I see wolves and lambs in this one.

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Posted by D Blaze 12/03/2010 at 01:26 PM

Calling Simon soft is ridiculous!!! This is a guy who beat Federer twice and Nadal when Nadal was playing his best in the same year basically with his mental toughness. He fights for every ball and you can say what you want about his passive baseline style (at times I feel like he is playing tee ball with his opponents, setting them up with great shots just to prove he can run them down) but calling Simon soft is just plain wrong. He's the toughest mental competitor on either team, in my book.

Posted by yello fuzzy 12/03/2010 at 01:33 PM

aaaahhhh I remember
"Those schoolgirl days, of telling tales and biting nails are gone,
But in my mind,
I know they will still live on and on,
But how do you thank someone, who has taken you from crayons to perfume?
It isn't easy, but I'll try..."
makes you wanna put on white go go boots and some frosted pink well maybe not

Posted by Ruth 12/03/2010 at 01:45 PM

"...since Nole looked a bit tired at the end of the match."

Tired? Tired? Bite your tongue, yellow fuzzy! LOL

("Oh, Ruth, stop," the TWibe said wearily.:))

Congrats to Novak! Those who were watching on TC may have heard one of the announcers say that the second set was the best played set of DC tennis that he'd seen in 4 or 5 years. He was, of course, referring to Nole's mastery of Simon play as opposed to a set with excellent play by both contestants. As such, I'd have to agree with him.

Posted by Grant 12/03/2010 at 01:55 PM

"And Windy has stormy eyes...."

Breaking Bad did a pretty great episode opening set to that song

Posted by Sherlock 12/03/2010 at 02:02 PM

Fuzzy, lol. You're killing me. As for lipstick and go go boots, what a man does in his own home, well,...

Grant, cool. I didn't see that one, but I'll have to find it somewhere.

Posted by Colette 12/03/2010 at 02:12 PM

Ruth, for you! Check out who the woman is.

Posted by Master Ace 12/03/2010 at 02:23 PM

Davis Cup Final - LIVE on Tennis Channel

Serbia tied 1-all with France (9 AM Sat - 7 AM Sun)
Gael Monfils defeated Janko Tipsarevic 6-1,7-6(4),6-0
Novak Djokovic defeated Gilles Simon 6-3,6-1,7-5
Viktor Troicki and Nenad Zimonjic vs Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra
Novak Djokovic vs Gael Monfils
Janko Tipsarevic vs Gilles Simon

Posted by Ruth 12/03/2010 at 02:33 PM

Oh, Colette, that is hilarious! I just hope that that I can stop having that song keep running through my head tonight when I'm at the grand Christmas concert featuring the combined/select orchestras and choirs of the Cobb County la de da da etc etc. Anyway, my teenaged niece is playing the viola in the concert, and I promised to be there.

So, I'm heading out to the outer, outer suburbs, also known as "the country" by my Atlanta/city son. See y'all tomorrow for the doubles!

Posted by Holds2Love 12/03/2010 at 02:38 PM

Thomas Enqvist taking the court in the London AEGON Masters to Dancing Queen. :) Tim Henman gets Eye of the Tiger.

Posted by Holds2Love 12/03/2010 at 02:44 PM

yello fuzzy, LOL. To Sir(bia) With Love ;-)

Posted by Sherlock 12/03/2010 at 02:45 PM

Holds2Love, lol. Well done. :)

Ah, Thomas Enqvist. Whew. Serious man crush back in the day. :)

Posted by Holds2Love 12/03/2010 at 02:54 PM

well your man handled the whole potentially awkward "Dancing Queen" thing well, Sherlock.

Shame about the Cavs... they played well... for a quarter. ;-) still, it was a chance for the fans to vent their spleen, so hopefully all will move on now. LeBron certainly seems to have done.

Posted by yello fuzzy 12/03/2010 at 03:51 PM

To Serbia with Love....I am inspired!

Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 12/03/2010 at 03:53 PM

yf, To Ser..with Love - wonderful!

Posted by tina (ajde, Novak: handsome and talented Balkans #1, world #3, Davis Cup hero, AO 2008 titleist, reigning USO finalist, cutest butt in tennis, rapper, the face of Belgrade t-shirts, Novak water and Restaurant - don't u wish your polyglot was hott like me) 12/03/2010 at 03:57 PM

I've been thinking how glad I am, really, that this tie will go to Sunday. A nice 3-0 win might be easier on my nerves, but would make for a far less satisfying final.

I'm almost hoping it goes down to the wire, so Janko can be the hero, as he was in the semifinal. I would gladly suffer the most glorious ulcer. :)

Posted by crazyone 12/03/2010 at 04:15 PM

hey Annie, just saw your message to me earlier. Yeah, I came back around during the WTF...been really busy with life in the last few months. I saw you were in London for it, I hope you had a blast, even though Rafa didn't win it all!

Posted by CL 12/03/2010 at 04:57 PM

Nice article about Guy Forget and DC -

Posted by Sherlock 12/03/2010 at 05:02 PM

Thomas-"Dancing Queen" and Henman-"Eye of the Tiger"? Hmmm. Nice casting job there. :)

"Shame about the Cavs... they played well... for a quarter"

He he. Indeed. :) Yes, I hope too that everyone got it out of their system. "The Decision" was incredibly stupid, but let's move on. He's not the first athlete with a hyper-inflated ego.

Posted by tina (ajde, Novak: handsome and talented Balkans #1, world #3, Davis Cup hero, AO 2008 titleist, reigning USO finalist, cutest butt in tennis, rapper, the face of Belgrade t-shirts, Novak water and Restaurant - don't u wish your polyglot was hott like me) 12/03/2010 at 05:31 PM

I missed a brief discussion of Lulu? She was a favorite Halloween costume in high school. Teased hair, frosted lipstick, and all. (It worked in the late-70s Mod revival)

Posted by Diane 12/03/2010 at 06:38 PM

Hi all,

Had the Dell teck guy here as my laptop screen went out, hate when I have no computer access on my latop!

Anyway, it's now fixed and I have no real comments on todays DC.
I hope Serbia wins as after Roger, Nole is my fav but I am so busy now that I have not been able to watch any matches

Getting ready to leave for a Christmas corporate dinner so if Jackie posts a Duece Club, I will be gone.

Posted by Jackie 12/03/2010 at 06:46 PM

Oof, DC is going up in just a bit. Late again. :( Sorry I'll miss you, Diane!!

Posted by Abraxas 12/03/2010 at 07:03 PM

(I posted this on Steve's thread, but it also belongs here)

Unlike what Bodo thinks, I believe Guy Forget is doing the right thing playing Simon against Djokovic, allowing Llodra to play doubles rested and, perhaps, play the fifth game if necessary. It doesn't matter who plays Djokovic the first day because Djokovic will win. Why burn Llodra then? Although it may sound harsh, it is better to burn Simon. He may not confess this publicly, but that is exactly what Forget is doing here: burn Simon for the benefit of the team.

What Forget clearly understands is that Serbia is the stronger team today and that France has little hope of beating Djokovic, so the only way they can hope to win the tie is by beating everyone else, including winning the doubles match, and finishing up 3-2. Without a fresh Llodra, beating Zimonjic and Troicki in doubles wont happen. Llodra and Clement, though, are a world class doubles team capable of beating them.

If France wins the doubles match, they put huge pressure on Djokovic to beat Monfils to stay alive. He should be able to do so, but the favorable score will greatly benefit Monfils who can play more relaxed and more aggressively. Even if Monfils losses, they go tied 2-2 to the last match and Forget can choose to play Llodra again if he wishes.

This is what Forget hopes happens:

Gael Monfils beats Tipsarevic - F1, S0
Djokovic beats Simon - F1, S1
Clement and Llodra beat Troicki and Zimonjic - F2, S1
Djokovic beats Monfils - F2, S2
Llodra beats Tipsarevic - F3, S2

France pulls the upset this way. Baring and even bigger upset of Monfils beating Djokovic, the only way France wins the tie is by winning the doubles with Llodra. Thus, Forget is doing the right thing.

Posted by Tigress 12/03/2010 at 08:42 PM

Caught the end of the 2nd rubber today and was happy to see Djoker come through on an occasion that is so clearly of great importance to him and to Serbia.

But what in the world is going on with this ridiculous proliferation of slow slooowwwww hardcourts? I assume I'm not alone in getting terminally bored with all these endless interminable boring baseline rallies. It rewards mediocrity and limits creativity and genius. This curse of slowness helps plodders like Simon, but destroys all-court play and creative versatility..

I.W., Miami, Toronto, Montreal, Shanghai, Belgrad et al. make for soporific baseline boredom. Australia and London are at least reasonable and interesting surfaces. And as one commentator noted, O2 is Faster and lower bouncing than the sadly slowed-down Wimbledon!

Slow courts are the great leveller in tennis. I know it's an unpopular position nowadays, but I prefer genius and tennis creativity to endless desultory rallies from the baseline or well behind it.

Something needs to be done to fix this problem. After all, we already have a slow clay season. And clay is much more conducive to brilliant entertaining tennis than slow slow hardcourts are.

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