Belgrade Breakdown

Thursday, November 14, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The tennis season takes 11 months, but the end goes by in a blur. The women wrapped everything up in October, and this year the men finished with a whirlwind three-week trip through Paris, London, and now Belgrade for the Davis Cup final. Novak Djokovic, who won in Bercy and played the final at the O2 Arena on Monday evening, will open the Davis Cup proceedings for Serbia on Friday morning. He must feel like he’s on the tennis version of autopilot at the moment.

The draw has already been done in Belgrade, and the match-ups between the Serbs and Czechs are set. Before play gets underway, here are five questions about what we might see this weekend.

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1. Who is Dusan Lajovic?

Why am I asking? Serbia’s second- and third-ranked players, Viktor Troicki and Janko Tipsarevic, are unavailable for the tie; Troicki is serving a suspension for a doping violation, and Tipsarevic is suffering from a chronic heel problem. That means Lajovic, nicknamed Dutzi, ranked No. 117, will be making his live-rubber debut as the No. 2 singles player this weekend. 

The 23-year-old Lajovic probably doesn’t inspire much hope among Serb fans. His ATP record in 2013 is 0-4, and the first sentence of his tour bio informs us that he “started playing tennis at age 7, by accident.” On the bright side, Lajovic has been better of late. He improved his ranking 48 spots during 2013.

But it’s unlikely to matter. While Lajovic has never faced either of the Czech singles players, Tomas Berdych or Radek Stepanek, his chances are slim against either of them. Depending on the form he shows on Friday, when he plays Berdych, it’s possible that Lajovic could be pulled for a substitute on Sunday. As of now, Dutzi is scheduled to play the deciding rubber against Stepanek, and there’s a pretty good chance this tie will get to that stage. Another member of the Serb team, Ilija Bozoljac, is ranked No. 234, but he teamed with Nenad Zimonjic to beat Bob and Mike Bryan earlier this year, and he once took a set from Roger Federer.

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2. Is there any chance Djokovic will lose a singles match?

My short answer and gut reaction is: No. 

Djokovic is 24-7 in Davis Cup singles play for his career, and he hasn’t lost a match that he finished in the competition since 2009. He has obviously played a lot of tennis lately, and it’s possible that an epic match with Stepanek on Friday could leave him winded on Sunday. But if his body is tired, his mind should be strong. Novak has played a lot, but he’s also won a lot—22 straight times, to be exact. That’s a confidence-builder.

Djokovic is 8-1 against his first opponent, Stepanek, and hasn't lost to him in seven years. Their best match was a five-hour special at the U.S. Open in ’07, but the Czech has won just two sets in their six meetings since. Against Berdych, Djokovic is 14-2, though one of those losses came on clay earlier this year in Rome. (The Serbs have laid down a hard court, indoors, in Belgrade.)

I doubt there will be a repeat. It’s always a pleasure to watch Djokovic in Davis Cup, because you get to see a great player get more focused, more efficient, more driven, more clear-minded. You get to see a great player get better.

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3. Does the Worm deserve two bites at the national hero apple?

One of the beauties of Davis Cup is that it gives the guys on the second tier, the guys who will never win a Grand Slam, a chance to know what ultimate victory in tennis feels like. Fernando Verdasco, Mikhail Youzhny, Mario Ancic, Mark Philipoussis, Nicolas Escude: Those are just a few who have had a chance to play the hero’s role in a DC final over the years. It was Troicki himself who did the honors for Serbia in 2010, by winning the fifth and deciding rubber over France.

Last year, Stepanek took his place in this roll of temporary honor. At age 33, he capped a solid career by beating Nicolas Almagro in front of his home fans to give the Czech Republic its first Davis Cup title in 30 years. Those are usually once-in-a-life time opportunities, but the Worm may get to make it two on Sunday. He’s currently scheduled to face Lajovic in the fifth rubber.

Stepanek will almost surely lose his first match, to Djokovic. And on paper, he'll be a heavy favorite over Lajovic or anyone else the Serbs throw at him. But there are two questions to be answered. First, the doubles: Right now Lukas Rosol and Jan Hajek are scheduled to play for the Czechs, but they'll almost surely be scratched for Berdych and Stepanek, the team’s Saturday mainstays for the past decade. In last year’s final, against Spain, the Bird and the Worm were substituted in for doubles, and they provided the team with a crucial second point. Stepanek, defying his age, then went out on Sunday and beat Almagro. A year later, will he have enough for another three-day run? Djokovic may want to think about tiring Stepanek out as he plays him tomorrow.

If he needs inspiration, Stepanek should remember Philipoussis. Scud, despite his slacker’s reputation, clinched two Davis Cup finals for Australia.

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4. Who has the best quote so far?

Tipsarevic isn’t going to be able to participate, but he should be given credit for honesty. This is what Tipsy told Chris Clarey of the New York Times about his reasons for playing Davis Cup:

“I love playing for my country and all that crap," a sentimental Tipsarevic said, "but mainly because of these guys and that we have this great chemistry and atmosphere together. I would never have played as many matches if the guys from my team were not as cool as they are.”

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5. Who will win?

The Czechs are defending champs, and Berdych and Stepanek have made a formidable duo for years. The Serbs are at home, where they won in 2010, and they have the No. 2-ranked player in the world, who hasn’t lost since early September. The Serbs will be even more motivated to win for their missing teammate, Troicki, who isn’t allowed into the Belgrade Arena to watch.

As of now, though, it looks like it’s going to come down to the doubles. Berdych and Stepanek will likely play for the Czechs; Zimonjic and Bozoljac are scheduled to play for the Serbs. As I said above, they beat the Bryan brothers this year, but there’s a chance that, depending on how his singles goes on Friday, Djokovic could replace Bozoljac.

Either way, it’s a tough match to call. Berdych is 18-1 in Davis Cup doubles, Stepanek is 15-3, Zimonjic is 27-12. On a neutral court, I’d favor the Czechs. Even in Belgrade, I’m favoring the Czechs. By a nose. Or a Bird’s beak.

Czech Republic, 3-2.

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