Safina Ousted Early In China

Dinara Safina’s struggles continued. A week following an early exit at The Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo, the No.1 ranked Russian fell this time in the second round at The China Open to hometown wildcard Zhang Shuai 7-5, 7-6.

Last week, she fell in the second round after a bye in three tight sets to 132 ranked Kai-Chen Chang. At least the enigmatic younger sister of Marat Safin could take solace knowing Pan Pacific was marred by many upsets including Venus Williams, Elena Dementieva and Caroline Wozniacki, who got sick.

This time, Safina lost to No.226 in the world by committing 20 unforced errors and a dozen double faults which were her undoing. It probably spells the end of her reign as No.1 with second ranked American Serena Williams needing only a Round Two win over Ekaterina Makarova to take over the top spot. Perhaps the recent disappointments that also included a third round Open exit to Czech Petra Kvitova have finally taken their toll on the emotional Russian who was reduced to tears and cancelled her post match press conference.

“I’m just having some bad losses right now,” she said in a statement.

“So many matches that are very close, ones that I should win, having set points or match points every time. It’s very disappointing. I would like to take a break now, and I’m very upset with myself.”

Who could blame her? It’s been an emotional roller coaster that included her rise to No.1 getting to two grand slam finals before wilting, plus a Wimbledon semifinal appearance. Perhaps that’s what she needs.

“I wasn’t thinking about the result, I was just thinking about learning as much as I could from her,” a more pleased 20 year-old Zhang said. “She was not on her best form, she was impatient and made lots of mistakes.”

Staying with the upset theme, Venus was eliminated by Russian teen Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. Ironically, it was the second consecutive week Pavlyuchenkova sent the seven-time slam winner out of a tournament.

The prior week, the No.3 ranked player fell in two tightly played straights. However, this time she came out firing capturing the opening set.

“She started way aggressive today. She wanted to kill me, I guess,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “I had nothing to lose. I just tried to move her around as much as I could, just hit as hard as I could in the court and just enjoy the match.”

It was the younger Russian who controlled the final two sets by playing cleaner tennis while Venus went off. In particular, her serve unraveled with the 29 year-old American finishing with an uncharacteristic 14 doubles.

“She played really well, unfortunately sometimes I made errors too soon in the play,” Williams lamented.

For Pavlyuchenkova who’s highly thought of, it was another step in the right direction as she prepares for a big 2010.

“I want to win a Grand Slam really so much,” she expressed after advancing to a third round encounter against Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak, who bested Frenchwoman Alize Cornet 7-5, 6-4. “[Maria] Sharapova won it when she was 17, really quite young also. And others before. So, why not? I can do this.”

Another first round upset victim was Wozniacki, who fell in three sets to Spaniard Maria Jose Sanchez Martinez, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (2), 6-0. Perhaps the U.S. Open runner-up wasn’t fully recovered from her sickness that forced her to retire last week in a loss to Wozniak. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer fared no better dropping a three set decision to Russian Alisa Kleybanova 5-7, 6-3, 6-3.

Daniela Hantuchova advanced to a second round meeting against Nadia Petrova by posting a straight sets win over Carla Suarez Navarro. Meanwhile, advancing to the third round were two-time slam champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and China’s Li Na as did Alona Bondarenko.

One player not participating is Ana Ivanovic, who’s had a forgetful season. She pulled out with an upper respiratory problem. It’s just as well.

Dinara Just Like Marat

There’s no denying Dinara Safina’s talent. At 23, the younger sister of former Grand Slam champion Marat Safin has accomplished plenty, joining older brother as the only siblings to ever reach No.1 in the world.

Despite holding the top spot after finishing runner-up at the first two grand slams (Australian, French), the enigmatic Safina has fizzled lately with a poor second half this season that’s included a blowout Wimbledon semifinal defeat in which she got only a game off Venus Williams and a third round U.S. Open exit at the hands of unheralded Czech Petra Kvitova to conclude a disappointing stay in New York.

Though it’s been a breakthrough year in terms of rankings and reaching her first ever major finals, something seems to be missing. After another disappointment at the upset marred Pan Pacific Open, falling to unknown qualifier Chang Kai-Chen in three sets, Safina continues to receive heavy criticism for something she can’t control. When she became the 19th women’s top ranked player on April 20, it was due to hard work.

Not long ago, the second ever female Russian to hit No.1 (joined Maria Sharapova) was ranked just outside the Top 15 when she upset seven-time slam winner Justine Henin in a French tuneup, sending the Belgian to retirement. Two and a half years later, the 27 year-old saw that it was possible to return thanks to countrywoman Kim Clijsters’ impressive run claiming her second Open earlier this month with triumphs over both Williams sisters, completing it with a straight set victory over current No.5 riser Caroline Wozniacki.

So, Safina’s path to winning that elusive major just got tougher. She certainly hits one of the biggest balls on the WTA Tour. But thus far, her struggle to gain worldwide respect reminds us too much of Marat, who’s hanging it up later this year. Sadly, one of the game’s most gifted players on the ATP is burnt out at 29. While that’s an age when many in tennis call it quits, one ponders how many more majors he could’ve won if he’d put his mind to it.

Back in 2000, anything seemed possible with the then 20 year-old destroying Pete Sampras in straights at the Open. Something unheard of. With a great serve and blistering ground strokes that included a deadly backhand, the big man’s future looked very promising. Instead of continuing to win majors, he enjoyed his success a little too much. Perhaps the new lifestyle contributed to him not fulfilling potential.

Though the root of the problem couldn’t really be blamed on partying but rather Safin losing concentration during matches. He was always a tough out making three Australian Open finals. After dropping the first two due to an admitted bout with confidence, he won his second slam in grand fashion by upsetting Roger Federer in a memorable five set semifinal that saw him fight off match point. Fresh off ending the Swiss Maestro’s 26-match win streak over Top 10 foes, he completed it by besting Aussie hometown favorite Lleyton Hewitt in four sets.

Following the impressive run, many including us expected him to get back in contention. However, that never came to fruition with Safin teasing many with his immense skills. Amazingly, he had his best run at Wimbledon in 2008 going all the way to the semis before Federer drove him nuts in three tight sets. That it came with him ranked No.75 was no shock. You never could tell what you were getting from the only Russian man who ever made the Final Four at the All England Club.

Maybe that helps better explain Safina who’s still young enough to have a great career. She can take solace knowing that Marat has a Hall of Fame resume featuring the two slams, two Aussie runner-ups, No.1 ranking and helping their home country Russia win its first ever Davis Cup in 2002 on a stacked team that included former No.1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Mikhail Youzhny and Andrei Stoliarov. They also won in 2006 with Safin an integral part winning doubles with Dmitry Tursunov and a singles win over Argentina’s Jose Acasuso.

For the younger Safina, she’s already won 12 titles, reached two slam finals, hit No.1 and won Olympic silver in singles when she fell to countrywoman Elena Dementieva in three tight sets at Beijing. So, her career has hardly been disappointing. If only she could get over the hump and win a slam, it would silence many critics. But hey. We could easily say the same thing for the talented Dementieva and former outspoken No.1 Jelena Jankovic, who’s dipped to No.8.

For the ladies, it’s not easy to win majors when you’re competing with Venus and Serena Williams. If Sharapova returns to form next year, watch out. With Clijsters and Henin back along with Wozniacki looking to take the next step, the women’s game has become much better. Another proven Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova also won her second slam routing Safina at Roland Garros earlier this year. American Melanie Oudin made a name for herself at Flushing Meadows as did German Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon.

There’s plenty of talent which also includes Russian enigmas Vera Zvonareva and Nadia Petrova, who have big enough games to compete but lack the mental capacity. This is a similar issue Safina’s dealing with as is former 2008 French Open winner Ana Ivanovic, who continued to struggle in a first round loss to Czech Lucie Safarova in which she had 11 double faults. Italian Flavia Pennetta, who reached the Open quarters before falling to Serena also is a good player. So too is 20 year-old Serbian Victoria Azarenka who after a strong start has experienced growing pains which have included temper tantrums.

So much of the battle is the head. Something Safina’s older brother referred to when he conquered Federer down under, terming the big upset a “head battle.” Very little separates the top players on each side. However, sometimes it’s what’s going on upstairs which can determine the outcome. This is also true of sports in general where even the biggest stars such as Alex Rodriguez can struggle under the spotlight. Whether that continues for the Yankee star third baseman on a superb team this October, we’ll know soon enough.

Aside from dealing with confidence issues, there’s also strategy which comes into play in an ultra competitive sport like tennis. Players who can adjust during matches usually have success. That can sometimes require alternating game plans. Something we haven’t seen a whole lot of on the women’s side where a plethora of top ranked players go bigger and bigger 24/7. Even with her injuries, Sharapova’s been a disappointment who should have more than two slams (2004 Wimbledon, 2007 U.S. Open). Power can only take you so far.

Tennis can use players who think outside the box like former No.1 Martina Hingis. Precisely what they’re getting with Clijsters and Henin who can hit with the best of them but also possess great speed and balance which helps create angles. They also aren’t afraid to come to the net to finish points. Something we saw the 19 year-old Dane Wozniacki do in her loss to Clijsters. Another player who closes well is Venus by using her size and athleticism effectively. Younger sis Serena is capable but usually prefers outslugging opponents while playing great D.

To truly be great, a player must always be willing to adjust on the fly. If something’s not working, change it up. How many times do you hear the frustration in Brad Gilbert or Martina Navratilova’s voice? They beat it over and over again and probably shake their heads in disgust at such gifted players not getting the most out of their God given ability.

For Safina, who can implode on the court similarly to emotional brother Marat, she must address this. It will be crucial to her future. She’s plenty good enough to win majors. But it’s taking that next step which will help determine how successful she is.

She seems like a wonderful person with her entertaining brother’s winning personality. So, she knows what’s wrong. It’s how she goes about fixing it that could wind up in even better results.

The Pizazz Is Back With Henin Returning

The worst kept secret is finally official. Justine Henin is returning to tennis. The seven-time grand slam champion announced her intentions earlier today.

“Justine Henin is one of the great champions in the history of women’s tennis, and we, along with millions of her fans around the glob, are thrilled with her announcement today,” said Tour CEO Stacey Allaster. “Justine was that rare athlete who decided to step away from the game at the height of her powers, and no doubt she will be a force to be reckoned with from the get go. Her career was marked by so many amazing moments, and a new chapter begins today.”

One of the biggest reasons for her return to a sport she once was on top of ranked first over a year ago when the gritty Belgian called it quits is because she’s never won Wimbledon. The only major that’s eluded her from achieving a career grand slam.

“It is a dream of mine,” the 27 year-old Henin said who lost twice in finals (2001, 2006) while also coming close in a 2007 semifinal loss to runner-up Marion Bartoli. “I want to work to get it. I make it a priority.”

“I can see her winning it,” long-time coach Carlos Rodriguez told RTL-TVI network. “This fourth title, it is one of the reasons for coming back.”

During her impressive WTA career, Henin’s captured one Australian Open (2004), four French (2003, 2005-07) amd two U.S. Opens (2003, 2007) while totaling 41 singles titles, taking her place among the best. Pretty amazing stuff considering her small frame that lists her under 5-6 at 126 pounds.

On a tour dominated by heavy hitters Serena and Venus Williams along with Maria Sharapova, the feisty Henin proved her mettle by being able to go toe to toe with her bigger competition. Thanks to a solid forehand along with her signature one-handed backhand which is easily one of the best in the game, Henin has proven size doesn’t matter as much as heart to win. Along with her speed, she’s been able to come up with great angles keeping points alive while also faring well during exchanges, making for fun tennis.

Indeed, there’s plenty to admire about one of a handful of players who defeated both Williams sisters en route to winning a slam. Something her one year younger countrywoman Kim Clijsters accomplished in a successful comeback following a two and a half year break, finishing it off by besting Caroline Wozniacki for her second U.S. Open.

“Subconsciously, it might have had an impact,” Henin admitted of seeing what Clijsters accomplished in just her third event. “But it certainly was not the most important reason.”

“The last 15 months, I’ve been able to recharge the batteries, emotionally as well.”

During her time away, she became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador focusing her attention on finding cures for struggling children in Congo, Cambodia and Denmark. Certainly admirable work from a player who made history by becoming the first ever No.1 to retire, stunning the tennis world following some early exits prior to defense of Roland Garros.

That included a three set defeat to current No.1 Russian Dinara Safina in Berlin. At the time, Safina was ranked outside the top 10. It turned out to be Henin’s final match. She seemed fairly certain a return wouldn’t happen. But as so often happens in sports, the burning desire to compete never goes away.

“A flame I thought was extinguished forever suddenly lit up again,” she pointed out on a TV appearance while also noting a desire to play at the 2012 London Summer Games. Henin won gold in singles in 2004 at Athens.

“Adrenaline is part of my life, my existence. It is in my character.”

That character is ready to be tested with her scheduling exhibitions in Charleroi, Belgium and Dubai as preparation before returning to compete down under in next year’s first slam, the Australian Open.

“The fire within burns again. I want to come back in January.”

If she still has it and there’s no reason to believe she won’t, the WTA just got a lot better. With both Clijsters and Henin back along with emerging 19 year-old Dane Wozniacki and soon to be 18 year-old American phenom Melanie Oudin plus Svetlana Kuznetsova, it looks like Serena and Venus will have plenty of competition in the future.

So, while Safina, Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva continue to struggle for that elusive slam, it promises to be much more challenging. Especially if Sharapova returns to form. Keep a close eye on talented Bulgarian Victoria Azarenka who has a big enough game to make a dent. Ditto for 20 year-old German sensation Sabine Lisicki who made a surprise quarter run at Wimbledon that included wins over Kuznetsova and Wozniacki.

Can Yanina Wickmayer carry forward her surprise semifinal Open appearance? Will the Ana Ivanovic that won a French and made it to No.1 ever return? What about talented Russians like Nadia Petrova or Vera Zvonareva? Can they ever get over the hump?

The women’s game just improved leaps and bounds. The pizazz is back.

Federer wraps up World Group berth for Swiss

Roger Federer helped his country wrap up a 20th consecutive World Group berth in Davis Cup, ensuring it with a straight set 6-3, 6-0, 6-4 over Italian replacement Potito Storace in reverse men’s singles Sunday in Genoa, Italy.

The 28 year-old grand slam record holder cameback after a day off to put away the Italians, who fell to 3-2 all-time in the head-to-head series.

“It was a tough weekend for us and I’m happy I could help Switzerland win,” a pleased Federer said after being responsible for two of the three victories with the other coming from 2008 Olympic gold medal doubles partner Stanislas Wawrinka. “I was able to play very well.”

The significance of the match became necessary due to Federer’s Swiss teammates Wawrinka and late sub Marco Chiudinelli falling short in four sets to Starace and Simone Bolelli, who the 15-time slam winner beat in singles on Day One.

Even though he prevailed in straights, it was far from normal due to falling rain which delayed the middle of the second set for two hours before Federer returned to complete a bagel to take a two set lead.

“I tried everything, but he was particularly good today,” a disappointed Starace expressed while dropping his first Davis Cup singles match in 11 tries. He fell to 0-5 career versus the Swiss Maestro.

“Today, Roger was particularly inspired. I still managed to put him into difficulties but when he got the break to lead 5-3, he raised his game in an unbelievable manner. I definitely played my best match against him, but there was not much I could do.”

Despite a hectic schedule that saw him fall earlier in the week to Juan Martin Del Potro in his bid to match Bill Tilden’s U.S. Open record six consecutive singles titles, Federer still had enough in the tank to lead his country in Davis Cup, increasing his winning streak to 12 in singles play.

“I’m very happy to have won the point for Switzerland so that we can play in the World Group again. I’ m very happy with the quality of my game today, as I definitely didn’t feel the best and had a problem on my leg, which has troubled me a bit since the final of the US Open.”

Now, he’ll finally get some much needed time off to spend with wife Mirka and their twin girls.

“I have to go on holiday badly. I have a problem with my leg, I have a problem with my arm- everything is hurting,” he noted. “And I’ve got to do some baby-sitting. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the tennis court the last few weeks.”

Federer Rests and Italy Stays Alive

It didn’t matter to host Italy that Roger Federer was out for doubles. With Switzerland opting to rest the men’s grand slam record holder, the Italian team of Simone Bolelli and Potito Storace took advantage posting a straight sets 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (3) win over sub Marco Chiudinelli and Stanislas Wawrinka Saturday.

“We all know he’s had a very heavy schedule over the last days and weeks, so we preferred that he rest today and be ready for tomorrow,” explained Swiss captain Severin Luthi of keeping Federer out so he wouldn’t be forced to play three consecutive days following a busy Open that saw him fall just short of matching Bill Tilden.

Instead, the Federer Express will look to clinch his country’s 20th straight place in the World Group when he takes on Andreas Seppi in reverse singles later today. Wawrinka, who beat Seppi in straights will face Bolelli in the other match concluding the best-of-five series in Genoa, Italy.

“The Italians just played better today,” Luthi added. “[Federer] has no problem. You can expect him to play for sure tomorrow.”

For Italy who’s trying to make it 4-1 in five head-to-head Davis Cup ties versus their gifted opponents, they are aware that it will take an awful lot to pull off the upset.

“It will definitely not be easy to beat Federer, he is the best player of all time and these are not words but fact. But we are still alive and will try our best, also with the support of our homecrowd,” Starace quickly noted. “We will try to give him as much trouble as possible,” added Bolelli.

They can take solace knowing the crowd will be with them giving overwhelming support.

“Yesterday, the fans were here but sort of weren’t,” pointed out Starace. “Today, they really were a factor for us and we saw that they can make a difference.”

They’ll need all the help they can get along with inspired tennis to give the fans what they want to see.

Czechs To Take on Spain in Davis Cup Finals

It will be a Czech-Spanish extravaganza for all the marbles in Davis Cup. Both European countries came through posting doubles wins for insurmountable 3-0 leads in their respective best-of-five semifinals Saturday.

For the Czech Republic who used tandem Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek’s straight sets 6-1, 6-3, 6-4 win over Croatia’s Marin Cilic and Lovro Zovko yesterday, it’s their first final appearance in 29 years.

“It’s unbelievable,” a thrilled Stepanek said after getting it started with his amazing five hour, 59-minute marathon five set singles win over Ivo Karlovic, offsetting a record 78 aces.. “We didn’t think we would cruise to a 3-0 lead against the powerful Croats.”

Stepanek teamed with Berdych who also got the better of emerging 20 year-old Croat Cilic to pull off the huge win. As for Cilic who made a nice run at the U.S. Open all the way to the quarters before falling to eventual champ Juan Martin Del Potro, he later admitted that there probably wasn’t enough recovery time.

“I had problems recuperating after Friday’s singles, but there is no excuse, the Czechs were better,” Cilic expressed of trying to help the host country stay alive.

Even an oddity when the lights went off before the third set creating a 15-minute delay couldn’t turn the tide for Croatia as a focused Berdych and Stepanek finished off their opponents.

For the Czechs, it’s the first time they’ve made the Davis Cup final since winning it all for the only time in their history back in 1980 led by former world No.1 Ivan Lendl.

They’ll take on Davis Cup power Spain, who is aiming to defend their title after sweeping past Israel thanks to a Feliciano Lopez/Tommy Robredo four set doubles triumph over Israeli duo Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, 7-6 (6), 6-7 (7), 6-4, 6-2.

“I am thrilled to bits that they played so well,” a pleased Spain captain Carlos Costa said with his country getting the chance to repeat when they host Czech Republic in December. They defeated Argentina last year and will be looking for a fourth Davis Cup in the decade with wins also in 2000 and 2004.

“More and more in Spain, we have players who can play both singles and doubles and win on any surface.”

For Israel who was a surprise semifinalist for the first time following an upset of 2006 champ Russia back in March, they took something positive away from it.

“There’s no doubt that when they play at home nobody can beat them,” said Ram who teamed up with Erlich to win the 2008 Australian Open. “This was maybe a once in a lifetime experience for us but hopefully next time we can play them in Israel with our fans behind us and have another go.”

The match was momentarily stopped due to a ball girl fainting during the second set tiebreak. She was given on-court assistance and carried off with a concerned Rafael Nadal looking on from the team box. The six-time grand slam winner was there to lend moral support as was Fernando Verdasco speaking to how deep the Spanish are.

Though they will host in defense of their crown, the Spanish know it won’t be easy against the Czechs.

“The Czechs are very dangerous and have beaten some very good teams already this year,” explained Costa who dedicated the victory to a young woman who perished due to floods from a torrential storm in Murcia Wednesday.

“Stepanek and Berdych have both been in the top ten and can adapt easily to any surface.”

Federer Sharp As Swiss Go Up 2-0

The Swiss Maestro was sharp. In his first Davis Cup singles match against Italy Friday, Roger Federer made quick work of Simone Bolelli, taking it in straight sets 6-3, 6-4, 6-1.

“We knew these were key matches, and that we were able to get both gives us a great opportunity on the weekend,” a pleased Federer said after improving to 36-11 career in Davis Cup.

Along with Swiss teammate Stanislas Wawrinka- who prevailed in straights over a stomach-ridden Andreas Seppi 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 in the first match on the red clay at the Valletta Cambiaso club in Italy- Federer helped give Switzerland a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five competition with the winner remaining in the World Group for next year. If they can finish off their Italian hosts this weekend, it will be the 20th straight appearance.

Following No.22 Wawrinka’s early win, the grand slam record holder fought off a pair of break points before getting it going against Bolelli. He broke him six different times during the hour and 40-minute match.

“With the jet lag and surfaces change and playing here in Italy away, I knew it was always going to be a tough match,” the 28 year-old world No.1 pointed out after serving 10 aces and finishing with 35 winners.

Italy is hoping to improve on a strong 3-1 head-to-head record. But if they’re going to now pull the upset, they’ll have to be perfect this weekend starting with doubles against the 2008 Olympic gold duo of Federer and Wawrinka, who’ll attempt to close it out tomorrow versus Fabio Fognini and Potito Starace.

If the Italian tandem can string the upset, the reverse singles on Sunday would have extra meaning. It should be quite a challenge tomorrow for the hosts who are wearing black armbands in dedication to the loss of six Italian soldiers killed when a bomb exploded in Afghanistan.

Both Seppi and Bolelli paid tribute during their matches to true heroes no longer with us.

Stepanek Wins Despite 78 Aces Against Him

Somehow, Radek Stepanek won. Despite a record 78 aces coming off the big racket of Ivo Karlovic, the 30 year-old Stepanek prevailed in five extraordinary sets 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-7 (2), 16-14, giving the Czech Republic a 1-0 series lead over Croatia in the Davis Cup semifinal in Porec earlier today.

The match took five hours and 59 minutes to complete. Just a minute shy of reaching the six hour mark. Only three Davis Cup matches have ever gone that far. While Stepanek and Karlovic didn’t quite get there, they did match a record for most total games (82) since the tiebreak was introduced in 1989 to Davis Cup.

Ironically, it was earlier this year in a first round defeat to Lleyton Hewitt at Roland Garros that Karlovic shattered his own record with 55 aces. Apparently, the big Croat would be better off with less considering the heartbreaking end results which again held true with Stepanek saving five match points with three coming in the 10th game and another in the 24th game of the climatic final set.

“I am very happy that I was able to pull it through,” an ecstatic Stepanek expressed afterwards. “The match was going crazy; we were not able to break each other. I was the one who was using more fitness. He had four match points in the fifth set but I stayed mentally strong and it paid off at the end. You can’t live through bigger emotions than Davis Cup and this match just proved it.”

Amazingly, there were no breaks of serve until the 81st game (29th of 5th set) following a brief exhange in the first set which Stepanek dropped in one of four breakers.

“I have no words right now, it was like a lottery and I managed to seize my chances,” the winner added.

“It was a long and exhausting match but when you play for your country it’s worth it. It wouldn’t matter if it lasted for another few hours.”

“It was really close match, it was long and I had match points,” said a drained Karlovic who blew leads of 3-0 and 4-1 in the fourth set tiebreak before Stepanek stormed back to take it 8-6, forcing a deciding set. “I could also have won … I don’t know, that’s it.”

In the second match, Tomas Berdych held off U.S. Open quarterfinalist Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3 to put the Czech Republic a win away from the Davis Cup final. Spain leads the other semifinal 2-0 over Israel thanks to straight set wins from Juan Carlos Ferrero and David Ferrer.

“It was like was going to put you in front of a wall and shoot at you, it was feeling like that,” summed up Stepanek. “I knew he was going to serve incredibly well and I was expecting it but I said to be patient and wait for my chances.”

Federer Returns to Davis Cup Action

All is not lost for Roger Federer. Sure. The grand slam record holder probably would like a do over of the epic five-set U.S. Open he lost to Juan Martin Del Potro that ended his five-year reign in New York.

However, the 28 year-old world No.1 has moved on preparing to help his country Switzerland when they battle host Italy in Davis Cup later today.

“I never had any doubt about coming,” Federer said while wearing the red team jacket with a chance to lead his country to a big win that would keep them in the World Group a 20th consecutive year. “The doubts were created by others. It certainly wasn’t me.”

Perhaps the reason for those doubts had to do with Federer missing a first round loss to the United States back in March when he was suffering from a back injury.

The Swiss Maestro has plenty on his impressive resume but has never won Davis Cup or Olympic gold in singles. Though teaming with current No.22 Stanislas Wawrinka to take gold in doubles last summer in Beijing was something he’ll never forget. It probably helped him get over the gut wrenching five-set Wimbledon loss to Rafael Nadal, spring boarding forward to five-peat at the Open in straight sets over Andy Murray.

“Obviously Switzerland is the favorite, but Italy is a good team and you never know,” pointed out Federer who carefully chose his words against the underdog led by Andreas Seppi, who is a solid enough player that upset American James Blake in the first round of Wimbledon, advancing to the third round this past summer.

Seppi will try to lead a group consisting of Simone Boldelli, Fabio Fognini and Potito Storace whose idols include Andre Agassi and former World Cup great Roberto Baggio- past a strong Swiss team featuring Federer, Wawrinka along with Stephane Bohli and Marco Chiudinelli.

“It’s a tough tie,” Italy captain Corrado Barazzutti noted as his team prepared for their fifth ever meeting against the Swiss looking to improve on a 3-1 record in the head-to-head series.

“But this is a unique competition compared to a regular tournament, and you can really get motivated for it. That’s why you often see strange results in Davis Cup. … We’re not going to go out on the court already beaten. We’re going to play and give our best.”

So, will the Federer Express be ready?

“I obviously have to get over my jet lag, considering the fact that I’m coming from New York, but everything else is fine,” he added.

While Del Potro celebrates his big win, it’s back to work for Federer.

A Five-Set Classic Goes To Del Potro

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – There’s a new U.S. Open men’s champion. His name is Juan Martin Del Potro, who overcame a one set deficit against the game’s best, coming back to dethrone five-time winner Roger Federer 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2 before an electrified Ashe Stadium in Flushing.

The first Argentine to win the Open since Guillermo Vilas (1977), who was in attendance for an epic four-plus hour match was at a loss for words after winning his first ever grand slam title.

“When I would have a dream, it was to win the U.S. Open, and the other one is to be like Roger. One is done,” an emotional del Potro told a cheering crowd during a nice on-court ceremony in which he also asked CBS’ Dick Enberg if he could speak in Spanish for all his special fans back home.

“Well, because my parents want to come watch the final and say, no, be there. Of course they are part of this moment. They believe in me a lot like my coaches. It’s a special moment for me, for my parents and my friends. This trophy is for these, too.”

The victory was extra special for the lanky 6-6 man who became the tallest player ever to win a major. Thanks to a huge game featuring a lethal forehand that did plenty of damage producing nearly 40 of his match best 57 winners, he finally got the better of his well accomplished opponent who was aiming for more history- trying to become the first player to win six consecutive Opens since Bill Tilden and also win three slams in a row in the same season since Rod Laver (1969).

All that stood in the way was Del Potro of the all-time slam champion adding more impressive accomplishments to his Hall of Fame career. From the outset, it looked like the world’s best was intent on making quick work of an opponent who nearly got him in a French Open semifinal before running out of gas in five sets.

“I got off to a pretty good start, and had things under control as well in the second set. I think that one cost me the match eventually. But I had many chances before that to make the difference,” Federer assessed.

“So it was tough luck today, but I you thought Juan Martin played great. I thought he hung in there and gave himself chances, and in the end was the better man.”

Indeed, a sharp Federer came out smoking converting on his fifth break opportunity for an early 2-0 lead when he ran down a backhand from one side, steering Del Potro wide for a half volley before going full steam for an amazing running forehand cross which left the Argentine in disbelief.

A timid Del Potro struggled to get first serves in but finally got on the board for 1-3. Still, it was Federer who was more aggressive pinning the soon to be 21 year-old behind the baseline with precision hitting that also allowed him to finish points off at net where he had large success going 10 for 11 in the opening set.

“Yes, the beginning of the match I was so nervous, I can’t sleep last night. I don’t take a breakfast today. That’s part of the final, you know,” del Potro said.

“But Roger start very good. I start little down. I miss    I was bad with my serve, and that’s important weapon of my game. When I broke his serve for first time, I start to believe in my game. To change.”

Despite the slow start, Del Potro did exactly what he promised a day before after defeating Rafael Nadal by giving maximum effort every point. That kind of desire would be necessary if he was going to have a shot. In the sixth game, he fought off a break point then delivering a pair of aces to hold for 2-4. In the next game, he finally put pressure on Federer taking the first two points but the more experienced 28 year-0ld Swiss Maestro used a couple of big forehands to get out of the jam for 5-2.

It looked like Federer would finish off the set with a double break but again the feisty Del Potro saved three set points capturing the final five, holding with an ace to stay alive.

However, that didn’t deter Federer who still served it out with an ace out wide to take the set. History was on his side with the last 16 champions winning the first.

Things continued to look good for the reigning five-time champ who was handed the opening game of the second set due to four Del Potro miscues including two double faults.

Following a hold, Del Potro finally had his first looks at breaking Federer but the 15-time slam winner didn’t oblige dodging all three for 3-1. Somehow, he was still in comfortable position despite struggling on his serve like never before. For some reason, Federer missed a lot of first serves and was in the low 40’s yet hadn’t been broken, even throwing in double faults serving an uncharacteristic 11 to his younger foe’s six. Del Potro couldn’t make him pay but that eventually changed.

Del Potro nearly went down double break but held to hang around for 2-3. With his serve finally in gear, he began steadying from the baseline with his monster forehand and underrated backhand starting to turn the tide. Suddenly, he was getting looks at Roger’s serve but couldn’t cash in falling behind 3-5.

Following a love hold, things looked pretty dicey when Federer easily took the first two points serving for the second set. That’s when a desperate Del Potro stepped it up winning the next four points with some great hustle and unbelievable shots to get back even five all.

It began with an innocent backhand lob which a running Federer couldn’t save this time looking like he might try another tweener like the one versus Novak Djokovic that setup match point yesterday. Instead, his desperating lob floated long helped by Del Potro.

After he took the next point, the turning point came when a gliding Del Potro ripped a forehand down the line which initially was ruled out. He challenged and replays showed that it just caught the edge upsetting a stunned Federer who pointed to the mark thinking, ‘No way.’

Suddenly with break point and the crowd on his side, Del Potro rode the momentum with another great forehand pass pumping his fist to capitalize.

The set would need a tiebreaker. Never before had Federer dropped one in four previous tries in the final. But this time, Del Potro was a little better using a Federer forehand mishit for the only mini-break he’d need to go up 4-3. He then backed it up with forehand and backhand winners giving him three set points.

After Federer saved the first two on his serve, an inside out forehand gave a pumped up Del Potro the set.

“I thought I had him under control for the first two sets. I should never have lost so many chances. It was just a pity. I think if I win the second set, I’m in a great position to come through. Unfortunately, I didn’t win that and that was it,” Federer accurately pointed out.

With it all even, Del Potro continued to grow in confidence going for his shots willing to trade from the baseline. His forehand continued to get to Federer who was still having serving issues. Finally, the Argentine moved ahead 4-3 in the third set thanks to a huge forehand drawing a Federer miss which was followed by an emphatic yell from the underdog.

But as usually is the case, Federer broke right back flustering Del Potro who looked pretty mad at himself. Yet he stayed strong producing a ridiculous 110 mph forehand winner for another break chance but Federer dug out for 5-4.

The unpredictable set concluded with Del Potro having a rough 10th game with an unlucky net cord giving Federer Love-30. Following taking the next point, he fell apart with back-to-back doubles donating the set to Federer who by that point was antsy due to the chair umpire allowing a late challenge by Del Potro the previous game.

In the set, Federer held a 13-4 edge in winners while converting two of four break points to Del Potro’s one for three. He also finished off five of seven at the net where he went 66 percent (31 of 47) overall.

“Well, when I won the second set, I think if I continuing playing same way, maybe I have chance to win. But after, when I lost the third set, going to break up, I start to think bad things, you know,” del Potro analyzed while admitting to being very nervous when he threw in the doubles to fall behind adding:

“Yeah, but that moment I start to think the final, playing with Roger, the best player of the history, nothing to lose. And be two sets to one down, but I think, okay, you never lose until the last point, so keep fighting. The crowd help me, and they saw my fight in every point.

So I think that’s help me.”

Federer was just a set from more history but could Del Potro rebound? He proved to have plenty of ammunition left cracking another forehand winner to squeeze out of trouble for two all. The forehand barrage continued breaking Federer at love for 3-2.

“Big focus every time and good feeling with my forehand I think was the key of the match,” explained del Potro who continued using his biggest weapon to rain on the Federer Express.

One of the match’s highlights included a 21-stroke rally that a hustling Del Potro ended with a running forehand even high-fiving fans. But just when things seemed alright, Federer cameback with a service hold and then broke back for four all. He then held for his third straight game getting within a game of the trophy.

By this point, one thing was noticeable. Del Potro alternated his strategy opting not to go big on the serve instead spinning it in for a higher percentage which Federer surprisingly didn’t adjust on.

It had worked all set but a tight Del Potro ran into deep trouble losing two of the first three points in the critical 10th game to stay in the match. Only a couple of points from losing, he stepped it up big time taking the final three including a 131 mph ace along with a lethal winner for five all. That kind of guts allowed him to believe he could beat a player for the first time in seven tries.

“It was so difficult to keep trying to keep fighting. But one more time the crowd and the fans helped me a lot to fight until last point. I think I have to say thank you to everyone for that,” an appreciative del Potro said after winning his favorite slam he dreamed of winning as a kid.

The set would go to a breaker where once again, the younger player was a little better. Using a Federer double, he carried through forcing two errors to take it 7-4, forcing a deciding set for all the marbles. The first time that had occurred since 1999 when Andre Agassi defeated Todd Martin.

“Well, if I lose the fourth set tiebreak I lose the match. I did unbelievable points. I was focused every time trying to think on the point, and that’s it,” noted del Potro after finishing with one more winner (57-56) and two fewer errors (60-62) in a closely fought final that saw him hold an eight point edge in total points (180-172).

Who had more left? Surprisingly, it was the youngster who played a superior set breaking Federer in the second game with another forehand pass pumping his fists.

Federer tried to comeback but a determined Del Potro fought off break chances to jump out to a 3-0 lead. One of the reasons he prevailed was how tough he was at crucial moments saving 17 of 22 break points while converting five of 15.

Not a whole a lot. I just thought he was more consistent throughout. You know, I mean, he played pretty much the same,” said Federer on the difference.

A weary Federer misfired from the baseline committing 15 of 62 unforced errors in a set similar to the one he played against Nadal at the beginning of the year in Australia. Meanwhile, a confident Del Potro continued to apply pressure dictating points with his huge groundstrokes. Somehow, he was deadly accurate only giving away four points by comparison.

When he easily held for 5-2, the crowd sensed what was about to happen. A changing of the guard was taking place. For five years, Federer had owned the place never even needing a final set to defeat five different players off an impressive list that included Lleyton Hewitt (2004-straights, 2 bagels), Andre Agassi (2005-4 sets), Andy Roddick (2006-4 sets), Djokovic (2007-straights) and Andy Murray (2008-straights). Before tonight, he’d dropped just two sets during that incredible run.

“Maybe I look back and have some regrets about it,” said Federer who kept it in proper perspective realizing how special it’s been. “But, you know, you can’t have them all and can’t always play your best.”

Of course, the great champ didn’t go down without a fight saving two championship points in the eighth game. But his 11th double prevented him from holding to at least force Del Potro to serve for it. Following an errant Federer forehand, Del Potro went for the kill ripping a deep forehand which even one of the greatest defenders couldn’t keep in sending a backhand prayer long to finally hand the championship over.

A stunned Del Potro dropped to the ground on his back in disbelief. He’d just done something no one else had beating both Nadal and Federer to win his first ever career slam.

“Well, when I lay down to the floor, many things come to my mind. First my family and my friends and everything. I don’t know how I can explain, because it’s my dream. My dream done. It’s over. I will go home with a trophy, and it’s my best sensation ever in my life,” a thrilled Del Potro stated.

“Yeah, I mean, this one I think is easy to get over just because I’ve had the most amazing summer,” Federer added after seeing his 40-match Open win streak halted.

“I tried everything, you know. Didn’t work. I missed chances. He played well and in the end it was a tough fifth set. It’s acceptable. But life goes on. No problem.”

For Del Potro who turns 21 September 23, this was the icing on the cake. Well, cheesecake since that’s what he hinted he’d have later in eight days.

“Yeah, of course. Beat Roger for first time here in my favorite Grand Slam, and two sets to one down, everything, I think it’s the best final ever in my life, of course.”

What could be better than to rule New York? He’s on top of the world.