BELGRADE, Serbia—Riding a 22-match win streak, Novak Djokovic has been in full flight of late. But the world No. 2 will have to sustain his lofty level of play without his wingman for Serbia to dethrone defending Davis Cup champion Czech Republic this weekend.
The draw for the final was conducted today at the Belgrade Arena, and Djokovic will open the tie tomorrow against veteran Radek Stepanek. As expected, Serbian No. 2 Janko Tipsarevic is out with a right heel injury he sustained in Valencia last month. With Tipsarevic out, Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic has turned to world No. 117 Dusan Lajovic, winless in four ATP main-draw matches this year, as the second singles starter.
Talk about a demanding indoctrination. The 23-year-old will play his first live Davis Cup match—he won his lone prior appearance in a dead rubber against Sweden last year—against Czech No. 1 Tomas Berdych. Berdych has won 11 of his last 12 Davis Cup singles matches as the Czech Republic won eight straight ties, dating back to September 2011.
It would be an oversimplification to characterize the final as a two-man team versus the world No. 2, but Djokovic knows his responsibility and is hoping that the Serbian fans filling the 15,500-seat venue can contribute to the cause. Serbia has lost just once playing in the Belgrade Arena.
“The crowd support is very important, maybe crucial,” said Djokovic. “Not just in my match but in the match of Dusan Lajovic. The crowd is actually a key player in those matches. With their support, if’s the same as what we have had in previous years, then everything is possible.”
The six-time Grand Slam champion’s stature here is so high, Air Serbia named its first plane in honor of the 26-year-old from Belgrade. The words “Novak Djokovic” and the Serbian flag adorned the side of the plane I flew from Amsterdam to Belgrade today—along with an article in the airline's in-flight magazine detailing why Djokovic is so important to the nation.
Serbia will likely need him to carry a heavy load—sweep both his singles matches and earn his first Davis Cup doubles win since 2008—if it is to capture its second title in four years. If the nations split the opening day's singles matches as expected, Djokovic may double up with his good friend and the nation’s all-time leading Davis Cup doubles player, Nenad Zimonjic, to face Berdych and Stepanek for the second time.
“We know that Novak is playing the best tennis in the world so he is the one that is capable of winning three matches in this tie,” said Obradovic. “We have discussed playing him in the doubles if he is mentally and physically ready to play that. When you have him on the court, the Czech team will have huge pressure.”
Ilija Bozoljac and Zimonjic are scheduled to face the Czech Republic’s Jan Hajek and Lukas Rosol in Saturday’s doubles match. However, most in attendance for the post-draw press conference—including Rosol—expect starters will be shuffled for what could be the critical doubles rubber.
“I think I’m not here for the doubles,” Rosol said. “I need to cover for the guys and provide support.”
Berdych and Stepanek own a 13-1 Davis Cup doubles record together, including a straight-sets win over Bozoljac and Zimonjic in the 2012 quarterfinals, and a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-1 over Djokovic and Zimonjic in the 2010 semifinals. Both men see the doubles as the swing point for this final.
“That’s definitely the most important point,” Berdych said of the doubles. “It’s been one of the most important points that we’ve earned in many ties in the past and there will be no exception this time.”
Reigning U.S. Open doubles champion Stepanek aims to play pressure-free tennis against Djokovic, who has won eight of their prior nine meetings, including their last seven. The crafty Stepanek sees signs of hope in what has been a bleak match-up—though he did push Djokovic to a fifth-set tiebreaker at the 2007 U.S. Open.
“My advantage is no one expects me to win,” said Stepanek, who has not beaten Djokovic since 2006, when the future No. 1 was still a teenager. “It can help me to open my wings and play freely and try to look for small gaps.”
A major chasm has separated Djokovic and Berdych, who will face off in Sunday’s opening reverse singles. Djokovic has won 14 of their 16 meetings, though Berdych snapped an 11-match skid by upsetting Djokovic in the Rome quarterfinals last May. This is a comfortable match-up for Djokovic because he's the more agile athlete, he's quicker around the court, a better ball-striker on the run, and shrewder at changing up the spins on his shots, which gives him access to angles the flatter-hitting Berdych can't consistently produce.
Stepanek is scheduled to play Lajovic in the final match on Sunday, should it be necessary. As for today, Stepanek and Berdych hit the court a half-hour after meeting the press. Under the watchful eye of acting captain Vladimir Safarik, who has stepped in for seven-year captain Jaroslav Navratil, who was forced out of the final after being hospitalized for a blood clot, Berdych repeatedly drilled flat shots at Stepanek’s old-school style forehand; a stroke Djokovic will undoubtedly test tomorrow upon take-off.