by Pete Bodo
Davis Cup nut that I am, I must admit that this is the least inspiring Davis Cup week of them all. That's partly because the players—the ones still standing, anyway—have just completed the most crucial and demanding month-plus of their year, and diehard fans have lived and died a little with them every step of the way at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. After tracking those two events, does anyone really want to jump through the hoops just to be able to watch tennis, live?
This is the suck-it-up round, and for various reasons a number of pivotal players are Missing in Action, even though the only teams that are apt to strike fear in anyone's heart among the quarterfinalists are Russia and Spain. If the Spanish, besotted with athletic success in every direction they turn these days (futbol, tennis, motociclismo, basket—you name it), can survive this round, they may add to a record that has already secured the squad the honorific, "dynasty." The Spanish have won the Davis Cup four times since 2000, the first year they won.
What luster this quarterfinal might have had has also been diminished by the absentees, which includes Spain's Rafael Nadal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (out with injury) of France, Chilean stalwart Fernando Gonzalez, Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro (who hasn't played anything most of this year, due to a nagging wrist injury), and Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych (who's also cited injury, although fatigue might be his biggest ailment). All those men have been Grand Slam finalists or winners; Nadal has single-handedly (sic) won 8 majors, enough to cover for the whole crew. It's a significant loss of talent.
On the other hand, nations that have been able to rally all their troops are well-positioned to contend for the Cup. So let's look at the matchups:
Spain at France: Sure, Spain leads the head-to-head, 4-1. Tsonga is out, and David Ferrer has quietly won more matches on the tour this year than even his more highly ranked countryman and Davis Cup teammate, Fernando Verdasco (although both men trail their amigo, Nadal). But I wouldn't underestimate the potential of the French squad led by Gael Monfils on an indoor hard court.
Michael Llodra has been playing well (he won Eastbourne and lost to Andy Roddick in the quarters of Queens), and is just one spot short of his career-high ranking of 34. And he's an excellent doubles player. The French could get blown out, but this is a volatile team that can really do some damage on a fast surface. If Monfils can step up and take out Ferrer in the first match, it could get mighty interesting. Monfils has won the only match he's played against Ferrer, on the latter's preferred red clay. But that was in 2008.
But let's go with France just for the fun of it, 3-2.
The Battle of the Balkans:
Serbia at Croatia: Davis Cup means a lot to both these nations, so you can expect fireworks in the battle for the bragging rights of the Balkans. And the good news, for fans of Davis Cup, is that the nations will be at full strength. Even Novak Djokovic, who has to be tired as well as dispirited following his loss to Tomas Berdych in the Wimbledon semifinals just about a week ago, has to be thinking, I wouldn't miss this for the world!
The key to this tie will be Djokovic's singles stablemate, Viktor Troicki. The Croatians have a powerful team with two excellent hard-court singles players in Marin Cilic and Ivan Ljubicic, who won his very first Masters 1000 singles title back in March in this, the autumn of his career, at Indian Wells. Troicki probably will have to beat one of them for Serbia to win.
Over the past five months, Cilic has fallen to No.13 from his career-high ranking of No. 9. He has to be looking at the hard-court segment of the year, which begins for him with Davis Cup, as a chance to regain lost ground. Troicki will be in over his head against both Croatian singles players, and it's hard to see a depleted Djokovic working a miracle in Split. The Serbs may keep the tie alive in the doubles, but I don't see the Serbs pulling out a win.
The Empires Strike Back:
Argentina at Russia: Argentina's fall from Davis Cup has been swift and, in any ways, unfortunate. Wasn't it less than two years ago that they appeared a cinch to win it all, with a squad featuring now-injured del Potro and veteran David Nalbandian?
Well, Nalbandian, 28, has fallen to a ranking of No. 153, due to having missed so much tennis with injuries. He'll open the tie against Russian No. 1 Nikolay Davydenko (No. 6) in Moscow on a fast indoor hard court (do we detect a pattern in this quarterfinal round?).
Granted, Nalbandian can be extremely dangerous on hard courts, and Leonardo Mayer (No. 58) has occasionally dazzled. But the Russian No. 2 Mikhail Youzhny is No. 14, which makes Russia the equal of Spain, on paper. And Russia has lost some ground in recent years, after emerging as a Davis Cup powerhouse during the heyday of Marat Safin.
But unlike Spain, Russia is at home, and giving away nothing on the surface. I expect Russia to sweep.
Battle of the B Teams:
Czech Republic at Chile: Imagine, Chile vs. the Czech Republic, with Tomas Berdych and Radek "the Worm" Stepanek clashing with the familiar Chilean tandem of Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu. Unfortunately, it's not going to happen. Berdych, Stepanek and Gonzalez are all out of commission, which leaves the Czechs with the combination of No. 94 Jan Hajek and No. 247 Ivo Minar to play singles, while Chile will rely on No. 91 Massu and Paul Capdeville, who's in Minar territory at No. 186.
The stats suggest that this is a pick 'em, in which the home field advantage probably will prove decisive. But this one could evolve into one of those epics that give Davis Cup so much of its appeal, with Capedeville and Minar, two ATP have-nots, battling out in a fifth and decisive rubber to determine which squad advances to the semifinals.
That's the beauty of Davis Cup—even a battle of the B teams can fire the imagination.