Eight first-round Davis Cup ties unfold around the world this weekend. We discuss the key players and themes that might emerge from each of them.
Canada vs. Spain: Without any of their top three men, Davis Cup Goliath Spain finds itself at a surprising disadvantage when it travels to the western coast of North America. Had either Nadal or Ferrer participated in this tie against Canada, the visitors would remain heavy favorites even against a squad spearheaded by Milos Raonic and aging doubles star Daniel Nestor. Instead, Canada now can rely on two victories from their singles #1 against the overmatched pair of Marcel Granollers and Albert Ramos, forcing Spain to sweep the remaining three matches. Among those is a doubles rubber that pits Nestor against World Tour Finals champions Granollers and Marc Lopez, who lost three of their four Davis Cup doubles rubbers last year. If the tie reaches a live fifth rubber, as seems plausible, Spanish champion Alex Corretja might consider substituting Guillermo Garcia-Lopez for Ramos against the net-rushing Frank Dancevic. Buoyed by their home crowd, though, Canada should find a way to snatch one of the three non-Raonic rubbers and send Spain to the playoff round for the first time in recent memory.
Italy vs. Croatia: This tie should hinge on home-court advantage and the choice of ground that it entails. On a fast hard court, the formidable serves of Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig would stifle the less imposing firepower of the Italians. But Croatia faces Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini on the red clay of Turin, a slow surface where the superior consistency of the hosts should lead them to victory. The visitors will face the intriguing choice of whether to substitute their singles stars on Saturday for a doubles pairing almost certainly doomed to defeat. Three straight days of best-of-five matches for Cilic, Dodig, or both would leave them even more vulnerable to the Italian war of attrition, though. At any rate, the contrast of styles between the fearless first strikes of the Croats and the patient baseline rallying of the Italians should provide entertaining viewing.
Belgium vs. Serbia: One might see Djokovic’s name on the schedule and automatically checking off the “Serbia” box, but a few flickers of doubt persist. First, the Australian Open champion may have arrived physically and mentally drained from his recent exploits, and he has struggled against Friday opponent Olivier Rochus throughout his career. Breaking from a long history of Davis Cup participation, Serbian #2 Janko Tipsarevic cannot step into the breach if Djokovic falters. That duty lies in the suspect hands of Viktor Troicki, who endured a miserable 2012, and in the aging hands of Nenad Zimonjic, well past his prime despite his many accomplishments. Serbia thus might find itself in real trouble if they played a team with a notable talent, like Canada. With just the 32-year-old Rochus and the volatile but unreliable David Goffin barring their path, however, they should advance even if their stars underperform.
USA vs. Brazil: Tennis Grandstand will feature more detailed coverage of this tie over the weekend. For the moment, we will note that Team USA stands in promising position with two serving leviathans on an indoor hard court, complemented by the reigning Australian Open doubles champions. While Isner did not win a match in January as he struggled with a knee injury, and Querrey did not impress in Melbourne, both should steamroll the harmless Brazilian #2 Thiago Alves. In the best-case scenario for Brazil, which would feature two victories for their #1 Bellucci, their doubles duo of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares still should fall short against the Bryans. All of these Americans have played some of their best tennis on home soil and in Davis Cup, including on less friendly surfaces, whereas Brazil has accomplished little of note in this competition recently.
France vs. Israel: Across from one team that often proves less than the sum of its talents in Davis Cup stands a team that typically overperforms expectations at the national level. Whereas France will bring two members of the top 10 to this tie, Israel can claim no top-100 threat in singles. The fast indoor hard court should allow the offensive might of Tsonga to overwhelm Dudi Sela and Amir Weintraub, although the latter has developed into a more credible threat over the last several months. In a tantalizing doubles rubber, a battle of all-stars pits Jonathan Ehrlich and Andy Ram against Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra. Underdogs in every singles rubber and arguably the doubles too, Israel can hope for an upset only if Gasquet crumbles under the pressure of playing for national pride on home soil as he has so infamously before. Otherwise, the talent gap simply looms too large.
Argentina vs. Germany: Perhaps the most tightly contested tie, this battle on outdoor red clay will unfold in the absence of Del Potro, who would have given the home squad a clear edge. While Argentina will field a squad of clay specialists, leading Germans Philipp Kohlschreiber and Florian Mayer have acquitted themselves well on the surafce and should not find themselves at a disadvantage parallel to Croatia in Italy. Much rests on the shoulders of Juan Monaco, tasked with avoiding the daunting 0-2 deficit after Kohlschreiber likely opens the tie by dismissing Carlos Berlocq. The top Argentine here enjoyed his best season to date last year but did not start 2013 especially well. Lurking in the shadows, as he so often does, is long-time Argentine Davis Cup hero David Nalbandian. Argentina will hope that Nalbandian’s contribution in doubles on Saturday will combine with two Monaco victories to give them the points that they need without reaching a live fifth rubber. There, one would favor Mayer to overcome both Berlocq and the Argentine crowd.
Pick: Er, Argentina?
Kazakhstan vs. Austria: In a tie without a singles star of note, the opportunity beckons for someone to seize the spotlight in a way that he could not at a major. The most likely candidate to do so would seem Austrian #1 Jurgen Melzer, the only top-100 singles player on either side. His opponents can produce better tennis than their current rankings suggest, though, and Andrey Golubev already has started the tie in promising fashion with a straight-sets victory over Andreas Haider-Maurer. The doubles edge probably belongs to Austria with the greater expertise of Alexander Peya and Julian Knowle, specialists who will allow the 31-year-old Melzer to rest for Sunday. Excluded from the initial lineup is top-ranked Kazakh Mikhail Kukushkin, whose absence will force #211 Evgeny Korolev to win a best-of-five match for the hosts to survive.
Switzerland vs. Czech Republic: While Tomas Berdych is the highest-ranked man in this clash between nearby nations, the most intriguing role goes to opposing #1 Stanislas Wawrinka. After he came far closer than anyone to toppling Djokovic at the Australian Open, the latter may suffer a hangover in a competition where he has struggled lately. Moreover, Switzerland leans on Wawrinka to win both of his singles matches and contribute to a doubles victory on the intervening day, an enormous challenge for the sternest of competitors when the last of those matches involves Berdych. The Czech Republic will not enlist the services of Radek Stepanek, a rare absentee this weekend like Tipsarevic, but singles #2 Lukas Rosol intimidates much more than anyone that Switzerland can throw at him. In the Federer/Wawrinka era, no Swiss team ever has presented the united front that the defending champions have behind Berdych. The medium-slow hard court should not trouble the broad-shouldered world #6 unduly.
Pick: Czech Republic
By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
None of the top players were troubled at all in the first round, with each of the top 8 seeds winning in straight sets. Some of the top favorites, like Murray and Federer, looked a bit more dominant than the rest; but all in all these were strong performances from the top players. None of them showed any major weaknesses and each of them, for the moment at least, look like they are primed to play their best to win this tournament.
Who Looked Good
Juan Martin Del Potro – Where has this Delpo been since 2009? His forehand was harder and more consistent while his footwork was better than it has been since he won the US Open 3 long years ago. I am not saying that he is in the form to win a Slam at the moment, nor am I saying that tougher opponents in later rounds won’t challenge him more, but he did bring out the level that we all have been waiting to see for a long time. Now the only question is if he can keep it up.
Stanislas Wawrinka – There were very few superlative performances in the first round by men this year, but I was impressed with Stan. He had a tricky opponent who has a lot of talent and played well. Wawrinka stuck with his game, played very well, and never let the pressure get to him. He really played a solid match, which he doesn’t always do in these situations. The consistency he showed is really a good sign for him moving forward.
Honorable Mention: Not that it was a great performance, but I have to give an honorable mention to Amir Weintraub. After 7 years as a professional, Weintraub just competed in and won his first-ever tour-level match (though he has played Davis Cup). Not that it’s a statistic that means anything, but very few players win their first-ever matches—and in a Slam to boot. I’m sure this will give him a great feeling before he gets destroyed by Kohlschreiber in the next round.
Who Looked Bad
Nicolas Almagro – I’m sorry, but top 10 seeds should not be taken to five sets by qualifiers, and certainly not by lower-tier qualifiers like Steve Johnson. Yes, Johnson is a former NCAA champion. But he has not played well on the main tour since then and really didn’t play great in this match. He fought his way to win two tiebreaks, but this was a match dominated by poor play by each player. This was close to being the biggest win, by far, of Johnson’s career, yet it was a far cry from the best match he’s ever played. Almagro should have been better, period, and should not have thrown away those two tiebreaks.
Florian Mayer – Not that we were able to watch the match, because it was on untelevised Court 20, but Rhyne Williams is not a player that anyone in the top 30 should lose two sets to, and certainly not with multiple breaks of serve. Williams barely competes at a top 200 level and held two match points against Mayer in the fourth-set tiebreak. If Mayer plays so poorly in the next round, he will not last very long against his opponent Ricardas Berankis.
Thomaz Bellucci – Once again, I’m commenting on a match that wasn’t televised. And I know that Bellucci is probably the biggest clay court specialist on tour right now. I don’t even care how well Blaz Kavcic played. Winning just 7 games against Kavcic in 3 sets is just inexcusable. It’s not what a top-level tennis player does. It just isn’t.
Match of the Round
The most entertaining match of this round (as least, of those that were televised) was pretty clearly Tatsuma Ito against John Millman. The match was not the highest level of tennis, but it was two evenly matched players gutting it out and fighting from the first ball. Ito took the first two sets by a single break but could not convert a single break point in the third or fourth sets. As this match went on and Millman looked to be moving forward with his comeback, the crowd got more and more into the match. And while the Aussie was a decisive crowd favorite, Ito had some very strong support as well. The crowd erupted after every strong and important point late in the match. They had just as much a part of this being the best match this round as the players did. Millman had a real chance to go up a break to serve for the match at 5-5 in the fifth, but he could not convert and was immediately broken to fall 7-5 in the fifth. It was a good match by both players and one of the most enjoyable to watch this entire round.