Recouping the Cup: Early 2014 Davis Cup Preview

Monday, November 25, 2013 /by
After this year's Davis Cup final, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal took their rivalry to Argentina in an exhibition tour. (AP Photo)
After this year's Davis Cup final, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal took their rivalry to Argentina in an exhibition tour. (AP Photo)

Raising the Davis Cup demands a collective commitment to the cause—and some very heavy lifting.

With three layers of wooden rings bearing silver panels engraved with the names of past champions—topped off by a sterling silver punch bowl—the Davis Cup trophy is a monumental scroll of tennis history, gleaming with names of former champions ranging from Budge to Borg to Laver to Agassi to Nadal.

The Cup weighs about 232 pounds and travels with its own chaperone. A man wearing white gloves to maintain the pristine silver shine was the Cup’s constant companion when the Czech Republic beat host Serbia, 3-2, earlier this month to become the fifth nation to successfully defend the Davis Cup since the inception of the World Group in 1981.

Holding the iconic trophy requires handling with care; winning it means embracing both its quirky schedule challenge and severe pressure it imposes. Though the international team competition can inspire passion from both competitors and crowd, it can sabotage its cause by stubbornly sticking to a format that drains drama and diminishes interest by scattering the first round, quarterfinals, and semifinals over nine months.

If you can manage the waiting game, withstanding the ear-piercing pressure of Davis Cup matches can leave even the most experienced players feeling as if they’re operating with the weight of the Cup strapped to their backs.

“Tournaments are no sweat; you lose sleep [playing] Davis Cup,” Arthur Ashe said in John McPhee’s classic Levels of the Game.

Before putting the 2013 season to bed, here’s an early preview of the 2014 Davis Cup competition. Since team captains have until 10 days before the January 31st, 2014 World Group First Round to select their players, and since some players don’t make a final decision on Davis Cup commitment until a few weeks before a tie begins, we’ll speculate on some of the opening-round rosters.

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A former French Open champion could be the impact player in the top half of the draw. New Spanish captain Carlos Moya could be a key to Spain capturing its sixth Davis Cup in the last 15 years. Moya was a mentor to the teenage Rafael Nadal and remains respected by the nation’s top players. If he can recruit some of Top 30-ranked talent—including Nadal, David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, Tommy Robredo, Feliciano Lopez, and Fernando Verdasco—Spain should be favored over first-round opponent Germany in its opening tie on a hard court in Frankfurt.

But Moya, who played with Nadal and Robredo on the Spanish squad that beat the United States, 3-2, in the 2004 final in Seville, is taking nothing for granted.

"Without a doubt [Rafa is] one of my great friends, but we'll have to talk and see what he's thinking," Moya told the AP last month. "It's a bit of an unknown because there's no point in talking Davis Cup with him if he's injured."

Spain’s superior depth and the fact it matches up with either potential quarterfinal foe, France or Australia, (assuming its top players compete) gives it a strong shot to return to the semifinals.

Two-time defending champion Czech Republic will ride a nine-tie winning streak into its opening-rounder against the Netherlands with a possible April 4-6th quarterfinal looming against Canada—if the Canadians, fresh off their first Davis Cup semifinal, dispatch Japan as expected in round one.

Watching the fervor the Czech players poured into this Davis Cup season—Tomas Berdych and Lukas Rosol outdueled Switzerland’s Marco Chiudinelli and Stanislas Wawrinka in an epic, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 24-22 triumph in the opening round, setting the World Group record for most games played in a doubles rubber—you know they will cling to the Cup with the grip Atlas maintains on the world. Still, I believe Canada, which boasts two solid singles players in Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil and an experienced doubles specialist in 41-year-old Daniel Nestor, could knock off the defending champions if that tie is staged on home soil. If that scenario plays out, Spain could host Canada on red clay and would be favored to return to the final from the top half.

The first Davis Cup tie took place in 1900 between the host United States and Great Britain at the Longwood Cricket Club. Times have changed and when the two nations renew their rivalry, they’ll take tennis to the warning track. The USA will host the tie on a portable court in the outfield of San Diego’s Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres baseball team.

Wimbledon winner Andy Murray ended a two-year Davis Cup sabbatical and scored three victories in Britain’s 4-1 win over Croatia in the World Group playoffs in Umag. Currently training in Miami, Murray plans to play the first round if healthy. If Murray, a fine doubles player, competes, you can make a case for the Brits, who will be eager playing their first World Group tie in five years.

However, there could be complications: Murray underwent back surgery on September 23rd and has reached the Australian Open final in three of the last four years. If he makes another extended run in Melbourne, where matches can be physical, it could impact his availability for San Diego. U.S. captain Jim Courier is expected to retain the same squad—John Isner, Sam Querrey, and the Bryan brothers—that has started the last three ties. Even if Murray plays, the play of the twins from Camarillo, California, who were three-fourths of the way to the single-season Grand Slam this year, should help propel American home-run hitters into the quarterfinals.

Argentina, widely regarded as the best tennis nation yet to capture the Cup, opens against Italy and is a threat in the bottom half of the draw—if former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro plays for the Gauchos. That’s hardly likely given the fact del Potro has already ruled himself out of Argentina’s first-round tie against visiting Italy and lashed out at the Argentine Tennis Federation’s treatment in the process.

The prospect of a del Potro Davis Cup return in the near future may seem as likely as David Nalbandian and nemesis Guillermo Coria coming out of retirement to play doubles together. Yet even without the world No. 5, Argentina, which can draw on a corps of clay-courters in Juan Monaco, Carlos Berlocq, Federerico Delbonis, and Horacio Zeballos, should advance to the last eight, though Italy’s Fabio Fognini can be a dangerous Davis Cup player. The theatrical Italian owns a 10-3 Davis Cup singles record, including an 8-1 mark on clay, the likely surface.

I see Argentina advancing to the quarterfinals for the 13th straight year, but the nation will probably need del Potro to beat the Americans—even if hosting that potential quarterfinal on clay. American No. 1 Isner’s most notable Davis Cup victories—over Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2012—have come on red clay, though given Isner's own knee issues his presence is not guaranteed.

When the draw was released, some saw the Serbia-Switzerland tie as the marquee match-up of the opening round. Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka pushed Novak Djokovic in five-set thrillers at the Australian Open and U.S. Open, but Djokovic has won 15 of their 17 meetings, with his last loss to Wawrinka in 2006.

Federer’s last first-round appearance came in the 2012 first round. Could Roger return? Anything is possible, but given the fact Federer has played just two first-round ties in recent years—leading a 3-2 Swiss victory over host Romania in 2004 and suffering the 0-5 shutout to the USA in Fribourg in 2012—the chances of the 17-time Grand Slam champion adopting a two-handed backhand return may be higher than the odds of him showing up in Serbia for the opener.

Djokovic posted a 7-0 Davis Cup record in 2013, winning 21 of 22 sets he played. The world No. 2 has won 14 of his last 15 Davis Cup singles matches, with his lone loss in that span coming when he retired against del Potro in the 2011 semifinals. While Djokovic came under some criticism for not playing doubles in this year's final, he has played some of his most passionate tennis in Davis Cup. If he has wingman Janko Tipsarevic at his side for a full Davis Cup season, Serbia very well could return to the final for the third time in the last five years.

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