Davis Cup First Round Preview

This weekend, the 2008 Davis Cup competition will get underway with the first round for both the World Group and Zonal Ties. We’ll look in-depth at the World Group matches in the order of the draw from top to bottom and summarize the Zonal play. All of the pictures are from today’s team press conferences.

Russia Davis Cup Team 2008 2

Russia vs. Serbia (at Russia) (2-1 Russia)

At the top of the draw lies the most interesting tie of the first round. What may look on paper to be “Djokovic vs. the Russians” might actually be a little more complicated. Serbia’s second singles player, Janko Tipsarevic, just got himself a lot of attention for almost beating Roger Federer at the Australian Open, and Nenad Zimonjic is a top doubles player who will be coming off a Mixed Doubles win Down Under. The biggest question of this tie is, of course, how Russia’s crafty captain Shamil Tarpischev will make the decision between his deep and talented group of players. While the most likely Day 1 matches are Davydenko against Tipsarevic and Youzhny against Djokovic, with Tarpischev no one really knows until the players show up on court. After missing the 2007 Final against the USA, always unpredictable Marat Safin is back on the team. Selfishly, we’d love to see a Safin/Djokovic match for the sheer entertainment value.

The doubles match could be pivotal to this tie. It’s likely Djokovic will suit up with Zimonjic for Serbia, which would make for a formidable Serbian team. Russia’s best pairing is probably Safin and Tursunov, who won a title together at the end of last season. Youzhny is also a decent doubles player, but we think putting Safin and Tursunov out there would be a better strategy. At this point, we think this tie is too close to call.

Czech Republic vs. Belgium (at Czech Republic)
(6-3 Czech Republic)

With Berdych and Stepanek at home on their preferred indoor carpet surface, combined with two top 15 doubles players in Vizner and Dlouhy, it’s hard to see anything but a pretty comfortable victory for the Czech Republic. Of course, it’s Davis Cup and anything is possible. Vliegen, who made it to a Challenger final in Poland this week, is capable of big wins and Stepanek can be inconsistent, so if Vliegen can have a good day on Friday and keep the tie close, anything is possible. But it’s still hard to see Belgium doing too well in this tie.

Argentina vs. Great Britain (at Argentina) (2-1 Argentina)

Poor Great Britain. They have to go to Buenos Aires on the red clay and they have to try to do it without their top player, Andy Murray, who’s out due to injury. What can we really say about this tie, except that it’s hard to see the Brits even win sets, let alone matches, even though Argentina has lost Juan Monaco due to a severe ankle injury; he will be replaced by Sebastien Prieto and will probably play doubles.

Israel vs. Sweden (at Israel) (teams have never played)

This tie has a nice storyline just for the sheer fact that Israel is even in the World Group at all after their titanic win in last September’s World Group Playoffs. Fresh off their first Grand Slam title together, Erlich and Ram should take the doubles, but face formidable competition in Bjorkman and Aspelin, both top 20 doubles players. The singles matches are a little more difficult to predict. While small in size but big in heart, Dudi Sela was the hero of that World Group Playoff, beating both Nicolas Massu and Fernando Gonzalez in marathon 5-set matches.

Of course, one can never discount the Swedish players, who have a wonderful team camaraderie and often play their best tennis when playing Davis Cup for their country. Thomas Johansson played some of his best tennis of 2007 in Davis Cup matches, and a wild card in the tie could be the form of veteran Jonas Bjorkman, who will play his first matches of the year in this Davis Cup tie. This one will be one of the more interesting ties to watch.

Germany vs. Korea (at Germany) (teams have never played)

The fact that this tie is being played on indoor clay makes this one pretty easy to predict. While a Kohlschreiber/Lee match on Sunday would be interesting, it’s very likely to be inconsequential as it’s hard to see Korea gaining a point in any of the first three matches.

Peru vs. Spain (at Peru) (teams have never played)

This tie just got a whole lot more interesting with the news that Spain’s #1 player David Ferrer has withdrawn from the tie due to a leg injury. Spain still boasts a team of solid players, however none of the Spanish players have been in very good form lately and Ferrer’s replacement Lopez is not particularly good on clay. Peru has a very tough player in Luis Horna, so Spain will look to Robredo and Almagro, two good clay-courters, to save the tie for Spain.

Of course, we can’t forget the fact that this tie is important for the sole fact that it is Peru’s first time in the World Group – an important and noteworthy feat in and of itself!

Romania vs. France (at Romania) (7-1 France)

With the rise of Tsonga and Gasquet and the solid doubles pairing (and both competent singles players) of Clement and Llodra, this one seems pretty cut and dried, even though it is in Romania. Add that to the fact that it is being played on indoor hard, and this seems like it should be a pretty easy French victory. However, the Romanian team of Tecau and Mergea did defeat Llodra and Clement last year in the first round, and while Pavel’s getting up there in age at 34 years old, he is still capable of playing solid tennis. Additionally, this is the first tie where Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will take part. It remains to be seen how he will handle the different pressure that exists in Davis Cup play.

Austria vs. USA (at Austria) (2-0 USA)

For the ninth time in a row – a USA Davis Cup record – the defending champions will boast the same team, with two top 10 singles players and the #1 doubles team, the US team remains a veritable “dream team.” Of course, the US team always struggles on away ties on clay, and this tie should be no different. Add this to the fact that Roddick is coming off a disappointing and poorly-played Australian Open and that even the Bryan twins have had a disappointing start to the year having lost some close matches, and this tie is much more complicated than it might look on paper. Koubek had an excellent Australian Open and Knowle and Melzer are a solid doubles team with Knowle ranked in the top 10; he was part of the team that beat the Bryans in last year’s US Open before Knowle and his partner Aspelin went on to win that titlemelzer.

Though Blake has had some big mental breakthrough matches in the last few months, his mentality is still questionable on clay, and if Roddick continues his behind-the-baseline movement-dependent play on clay, an aggressive player like Melzer might be able to take advantage of that. In the end, we think the Bryans will rise to the occasion as they so often do in Davis Cup play and Blake and Roddick should both be able to eke out a win each and send the defending champs to the quarterfinals.

Zonal Ties

We can’t ignore the Zonal ties, where there are a few important stories. Namely, in Group I ties, Switzerland, playing without #1 Roger Federer, has been relegated to Zonal play. Perhaps even more surprisingly, so is Australia, who will travel to Taiwan with its #1 and Davis Cup stalwart Lleyton Hewitt to try to get back into the World Group.

Stay tuned for coverage from Thursday’s draw ceremonies around the globe and the matches when they begin!