BELGRADE, Serbia—Novak Djokovic won’t be doing doubles duty today.
Serbia will start Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjic in today’s crucial doubles match of the Davis Cup final against the Czech duo of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek. Czech captain Vladimir Safarik substituted his top team, Berdych and Stepanek, in place of Jan Hajek and Lukas Rosol, who were announced as starters for the defending Davis Cup champions during Thursday’s draw.
Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjic have played some epics this Davis Cup season. The pair beat the Bryan brothers, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 5-7, 4-6, 15-13 in the quarterfinals on a hard court in Boise before falling to the Canadian team of Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5) 8-10, in the September semifinals on clay in the Belgrade Arena.
Berdych and Stepanek have had success against both Serbian doubles combinations. The Czech pair own a 13-1 Davis Cup doubles record together, including a 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (4) win over Bozoljac and Zimonjic in the 2012 quarterfinals on red clay in Prague, and a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-1 win over Djokovic and Zimonjic in the 2010 semifinals on a hard court in Belgrade.
Given Bozoljac and Zimonjic’s experience playing together this season—and Djokovic’s recent workload that he concedes has left him feeling “exhausted”—the Serbian side has opted to start the doubles specialists rather than insert the world No. 2, who is scheduled to play Berdych in the first reverse singles match on Sunday.
When I asked Berdych last night the challenges Djokovic would face if he did play doubles, the world No. 7 said court positioning and chemistry were two primary adjustments for singles players making the quick transition to doubles.
“You’re facing a lot of challenges because I think to play good doubles you really need to have some experience,” Berdych said. “It's not really easy just to step on court and just really play your best. Even that Novak is one of the best players on the world, he's not going to tell you it's a piece of cake [to play doubles]. You need to adjust your game.
"Even if he's returning great, in doubles it's different because there's another guy on the net so you really need to deal with different space, which don't have in singles. So really there is a lot of different things. I'm not saying that you have to practice doubles but I think you have to play at least a couple of them during the season or before that so that you will find the rhythm that you will feel really comfortable [with your partner]. So it's really not the same as singles.”
An hour and 45 minutes before the doubles match was scheduled to start, Djokovic was out on court repeatedly drilling serves and returns with teammate Dusan Lajovic while some of the fans, security, and arena workers watching stood with cell phones raised shooting the action. When practice ended, Djokovic stepped behind the Serbian bench to take photos with some fans. When you’re a national hero, every day is a photo-op.
Asked last night what Serbian combination gave the host the best shot at victory, Berdych played his return down the middle.
"I really don't know. I can see both options very possible that Novak will play or that they will keep the team that beat the Bryans in the States so really that would just be pure guess," Berdych said. "I can see both options very possible and we need to be ready for both of them and that's what we're gonna do."
Pascal Maria will be chair umpire for the doubles match.
Richard Pagliaro is covering the 2013 Davis Cup final for TENNIS.com. Read his piece about Novak Djokovic's contention with the World Anti-Doping Association, and its decision about countryman Viktor Troicki, here, and his report about Friday's singles action here.