A Sweet Sixteen

by: Peter Bodo | January 31, 2013

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You have to tip your hat to Novak Djokovic. Just a week after securing his third straight Australian Open title, Djokovic has stepped up to help the Serbian Davis Cup effort. The Serbs are visiting Belgium, where they’ll be favored, but perhaps not by the margin you might expect—at least not in my view.

Djokovic will have to pull out of celebration/relaxation mode quicker than he ordinarily would, as the tie will be played on indoor red clay in Charleroi. Will Nole have the requisite patience?

The slow court will certainly boost the chances of the hosts, whose singles competitors—Olivier Rochus and David Goffin—are not just well-rested but better than competent. And Serbia will be without its strong No. 2, Janko Tipsarevic, who’s injured.

Goffin is a talented 22-year-old who rocketed into the direct-entry ranks last year at Roland Garros. A lucky loser, he made the fourth round before he lost in four sets to Roger Federer. He’s established himself firmly since then, and is presently ranked No. 50—just 11 ticks below Serbia’s No. 2, Viktor Troicki.

Rochus, Belgium’s No. 2, is a mere 5’6”, 32 years old, and ranked No. 127. But he’s made a living as a feisty underdog who often plays way above his head on big occasions—so, who knows? I wouldn’t count on a Belgian upset, but it wouldn’t be the greatest surprise in Davis Cup history, either.

That’s the beauty of Davis Cup. It’s unpredictable and streamlined enough that one unexpected upset can determine the outcome.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the other notable ties in this first round of World Group play, which commences on Friday:

Most Likely Upset: Czech Republic at Switzerland

I’ve felt for a long time that the defending Davis Cup champions (this year, the Czech Republic) and losing finalists ought to have a first-round bye the following year. It would allow the winners to savor their triumph for more than a scant two months, while also rewarding the players who dedicated an entire month of the previous year to the competition.

But don’t lay all the blame on any real or imagined resistance to change on the ITF. Some federations that are cash-poor but have elite, loyal, marketable players (think the Czech Republic, or Serbia) don’t like the idea of losing one of the four revenue-generating ties.

In any event, Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka, who came within a hair’s breadth of eliminating Djokovic in Australia, is playing well, and he’s beaten Czech No. 1 and ATP No. 6 Tomas Berdych the last three times they’ve met (Wawrinka leads overall, 5-4).

The Czechs will be without injured Radek Stepanek, their hero in the final last year. That puts a huge burden on world No. 73 Lukas Rosol, who hasn’t done very much damage on the tour since his monumental upset of Rafael Nadal last year at Wimbledon.

Most Intriguing Tie: Brazil at United States

I’m an American journalist, therefore I can’t overlook some of the context of this match—even though on paper Brazil is overmatched. For one thing, this represents only the second time that John Isner and Sam Querrey are yoked together since their debut as the “new look” team USA way back in 2010, when the Twin Towers produced a competitive first-round tie against Djokovic and company, on clay in Serbia. The chemistry then was promising, and it remains so despite last year’s semifinal loss at Spain. This time, Isner and Querrey will be at home on an indoor hard court.

Oft-injured Querrey has climbed back to No. 20, and Isner has developed into a true Davis Cup warrior who plays well above his No. 16 ranking, even on clay. Isner is apt to be rusty after he was forced to miss the first Grand Slam event of the year with a knee injury, but you couldn’t ask for a more favorable venue and time for his return.

Once again, the U.S. will be anchored by the all-time Grand Slam doubles champs, Bob and Mike Bryan. Jim Courier’s captaincy has been impressive so far (this is his sixth tie at the helm), so the team looms as a strong contender to win the tournament.

Greatest Mismatch: Israel at France

This is Davis Cup, so you know that even under the World Group regimen, the first round will include some teams that make you scratch your head and wonder, “How did they get in?” The answer is simple: They all played their way in; give credit where credit is due.

Still…Grand Slam finalist and world No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will open this tie on a medium-fast indoor hard court in Rouen against Amir Weintraub, a 26-year-old journeyman from Rehovot who’s currently ranked No. 173.

Then there’s Israel’s top singles player, 5’9” Dudi Sela, who’s an enthusiastic scrapper, but it’s hard to see the world No. 106 having much of a chance against Tsonga—or France’s No. 2, the spectacular shotmaker Richard Gasquet.

We won’t even talk about the doubles. Like the U.S., France looks like a strong contender for the trophy.

Most Likely to End in Tears: Spain at Canada

The top three Spanish players have opted to skip this tie—Rafael Nadal is still on hiatus, tending to his sore knees, while David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro apparently are just not that into it. I assume that traveling from the sunny climes of Melbourne (where Ferrer was a semifinalist) to frosty Vancouver to face Milos Raonic’s serve on a medium-fast indoor hard court had something to do with their lack of enthusiasm. So much the better for the home team.

Spain is led by No. 35 Marcel Granollers, and the next highest-ranked singles player on the squad is No. 51 Albert Ramos. Neither man, nor No. 82 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, ought to trouble Raonic. But in order to win, Canada will still have to get a singles point out of world No. 131 Vasek Pospisil, or win the doubles.

That’s were things get interesting, because Canada has one of the all-time great doubles players in Daniel Nestor, but Spain also has a blue-ribbon doubles man in Marc Lopez. In fact, at No. 3 in the doubles rankings, Lopez is one notch higher than Nestor.

But Spain without Nadal, Ferrer, or Almagro? I’m thinking ship without a rudder. Or sails. Or oars. I like Canada.

Most Likely to End with a Decisive, Fifth-Rubber Barnburner: Germany at Argentina

David Nalbandian is on the baby-blue squad again, but he just turned 31, is ranked No. 88, and hasn’t played a match this year. Juan Martin del Potro, Nalbandian’s chief domestic rival (in a nation where domestic rivalries are a sacred tradition) allegedly ignored the call and never even bothered to tell captain Martin Jaite that he’s not interested in playing this tie.

That would ordinarily spell disaster for Argentina, but this is a tennis-rich nation. The heavy lifting in singles will be handled by No. 12 Juan Monaco and No. 70 Carlos Berlocq. The Germans have penciled in versatile No. 19 Philipp Kohlschreiber and No. 28 Florian Mayer.

Let’s cut to the chase: All of these guys like the red clay on which Argentina will host, and neither has an exceptional doubles team. That means it could all come down to a fifth rubber between, potentially, Berlocq and Mayer. I’m not sure who’s going to win, but I’ll call it a 18-16 in-the-fifth type conclusion.

So as they say down at the Cineplex, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!

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