by Pete Bodo
Novak Djokovic put it best in London, while trying not to think too much about this week's Davis Cup final as he played out his regular-season string at the World Tour Finals. He said that the Davis Cup finals were a preoccupation because he didn't honestly know when he, or Serbia, might get to that stage of the competition again.
I suppose most players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal excepted, can say the same thing when they compete in a run-of-the-mill major at any of the four corners of the tennis universe. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych might back Djokovic up, each of them having reached one major final. But even more than at a Grand Slam, reaching the final round in Davis Cup involves a certain amount of serendipity. The alternating choice-of-ground rule, along with the fact that nobody can win a Davis Cup single-handedly (although some have come pretty danged close) ensure that your Davis Cup fate is never entirely in your own hands.
In any given year, a team may be able to play all of it ties at home; this year, Djokovic's Serbian squad played two of its three ties in the cozy confines of the Belgrade Arena, before a crowd already famous for its wildly patriotic, partisan tendencies. The one tie to which the Serbs had to travel was contested in Croatia—and let's remember that, all politics aside, it wasn't so long ago that the two nations were joined as one, at least in theory and on the world map, as the nation formerly known as Yugoslavia. It's unlikely that the Serbs felt like innocents abroad when they moseyed down the trail to Split in the quarterfinals and laid a beating on Ivan Ljubicic, Marin Cilic and company. Basically, the Serbs reached the final without having to leave home, and that helped their effort immensely.
The other issue—the fact that it takes at least two to secure a Davis Cup title—is a little trickier, and it may be the key to the upcoming final. When you have a towering star—a Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic—somebody else, preferably a singles player, has to find a way to add a win. It isn't as big an assignment as it may appear, because very few nations, at very few times in history, have two world-beater singles players. So even guys like Stan Wawrinka, Fernando Verdasco, Ljubicic, James Blake or Michael Llodra don't have to beat the other team's top player. But it helps the cause tremendously if they can beat the other team's No. 2.
Serbia's No. 2 in singles is going to be either Viktor Troicki or Janko Tipsarevic. On paper, you'd have to go with Troicki, because at No. 30 he's ranked 19 places higher than Tipsarevic. But Tipsarevic is an impressive 32-12 in Davis Cup play (25-10 in singles), and he's won the last four Davis Cup rubbers in which he played (including back-to-back semifinal singles wins over Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych). The last three guys to beat Tipsy in Davis Cup singles were Nadal, Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer, which takes us all the way back to 2006. Tipsarevic seems to be one of those players who steps up instead of freezes up in Davis Cup, and with the home crowd as a propellant and most eyes and hopes firmly tacked on Djokovic, he's even more likely to craft a hero moment.
Troicki, by contrast, is a tepid 7-6 in Davis Cup, and just 5-5 in singles. He lost the last two singles matches he played, against Cilic and Stepanek. So forget what the rankings suggest, Tipsarevic has built up an impressive head of Davis Cup steam, while Troicki has been pulling slowly on an uphill grade. But Troicki skipped the recent Paris Masters in order to prepare for Davis Cup, and the newlywed Tipsarevic cut short his honeymoon in order to focus on the upcoming tie. You can bet that both of them are staring at Bogdan Obradovic with hungry Labrador retriver puppy eyes as the practice sessions wind down.
Beyond that, Tipsarevic is 2-2 against French No. 1 Gael Monfils, and 1-0 against Michael Llodra, the possible No. 2. Troicki has no H2H stats with either man. Granted, Troicki was the surprise winner at the Kremlin Cup event in late October, on a surface very similar to the one chosen for the final by the Serbs. But it would seem foolhardy to me to put Troicki out there against a pair of players like Monfils and Llodra. And not least because each of them is a stylist, a little different from the typical baseline bangers who prowl the tour these days. Llodra is an aggressive, old school, frequent flyer to the net. Monfils thrives on playing defense and counter-punching with a degree of athleticism rare even on the ATP tour.
You don't really want to have a lot of on-the-job training in a Davis Cup final; by the time you get a feel for how the other guy hits the ball, and what he does or doesn't like, it could be over.
Pete Sampras once told me that one reason he never came back to take a wild card at Wimbledon after he retired was because he knew he'd have to play a number of pros against with whom he had no previous history. He hated that, and I imagine most other players do as well. Besides, who needs that kind of pressure when playing in your first Davis Cup final? While the Serbs insist they haven't made a final decision, I think Obradovic is just trying to keep the French guessing. The only way I can see Obradovic selecting Troicki is if he's really beating up on Tipsarevic in the practice sessions. Those episodes, which have been going on all week, often have a much greater impact on final nominations that all the collected data.
In any event, Obradovic also needs a good doubles partner for Nenad Zimonjic, who got a little tight in his last Davis Cup appearance. He was partnered with Djokovic in the doubles against the Czech Republic, facing Berdych and Stepanek, and seemed overwhelmed by the occasion. He may be better off playing with a Troicki or Tipsarevic (with whom he beat the team of Cilic and Ivan Dodig in the quarterfinal round, his penultimate appearance). Zimonjic is a doubles specialist, and he's likely to be most comfortable and confident playing in yoke with either one of his own breed, or a singles player of no great reputation. So I expect to see Djokovic and Tiparevic playing singles, and Zimonjic and Troicki playing doubles.
But beyond the nuances of nomination—and one of the beauties of Davis Cup is that despite the small squads and streamlined order of play, the selection process is pretty complex—the overall theme of this Davis Cup is that it's all about Djokovic.
Federer and Nadal have turned Grand Slam events into a table for two, but the Davis Cup invites players to become national heroes—a call to which Djokovic is very receptive. The big question regarding Djokovic, the most accomplished player in the tie, is how he'll react to the intense amount of pressure he'll be under. For everyone not French is operating on the assumption that Djokovic is good for two Ws.
You know what they say: From him to whom much is given, much is expected. Djokovic is a whopping 5-0 against Monfils, but just 1-1 against Llodra, who beat Djokovic in Paris just a few weeks ago. The other day, Djokovic said, "This is the biggest occasion of our lives."
He's likely to find out just how big the moment is when he steps out onto the floor of the Belgrade Arena to hit those first balls.