Czech Republic d. Netherlands, 3-2
(3-1 live rubbers; Ostrava, Czech Republic; indoor hard)
The Czechs got off on the wrong foot in their drive to become the first nation to three-peat since the USA in 1970 (en route to a five-peat), as Robin Haase hammered Radek Stepanek into submission in five tough sets in the opening rubber. But Czech stalwart Tomas Berdych then gave up just six games to Dutch No. 2 Igor Sijsling, and teamed with Stepanek on Saturday to win the doubles. In the fourth-rubber clash, Berdych handed surprise substitute Thiemo de Bakker in three relatively easy sets to clinch the tie.
The tie suggests that the Czechs’ hopes of defending the title for a second time are tenuous. Stepanek, who’s often come up big in Davis Cup, is an injury-plagued 35-year-old and will have to play over his head. Unless Lukas Rosol steps in and fill Stepanek’s shoes, Berdych is going to have to carry this team to the title on his broad shoulders.
Next up for the Czech Republic: Japan, away
Japan d. Canada, 4-1
(3-1 live rubbers; Tokyo, Japan; indoor hard)
The snake-bitten Canadians had to go without the services of injured stars Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil. Japanese No. 1 Kei Nishikori opened the tie with a no-nonsense, straight-sets win over No. 135 Peter Polansky (substituting for Pospisil), and it looked as if Japan would roll.
Not so fast, said Canada’s Frank Dancevic, a 30-year-old veteran ranked outside the Top 100. He took care of Go Soeda with surprising ease to ensure that the tie would be live on Sunday.
Still, the Japanese won the critical swing doubles match, and clinched the win in the fourth rubber as Dancevic retired with a pulled stomach muscle shortly after losing the first set to Nishikori.
Although it was a bummer for Canada, which had legitimate reason to feel it could go deep in this year’s competition, it was nice to see Japan make history by reaching the Davis Cup quarterfinals for the first time. In order for Japan to go farther, they will have to field a solid doubles team, particularly in their next tie against the Czechs. Nishikori and Yuichi Sugita showed promise in their four-set win over the Canadians, represented by Dancevic and doubles genius Daniel Nestor.
Next up for Japan: Czech Republic, home
Germany d. Spain, 4-1
(3-0 live rubbers; Frankfurt, Germany; indoor hard)
Both sides were missing their top singles players—Tommy Haas and Rafael Nadal—but Spain was also missing its No. 2, David Ferrer, and No. 3, Nicolas Almagro. It proved too much of a disadvantage, but that’s no reason to diminish the quality of the Germany’s effort.
Roberto Bautista Agut was one of the previously undiscovered jewels who came to light at the Australian Open, yet German No. 1 Philipp Kohlschreiber dispatched him, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2, to open the tie. Florian Mayer came up big for the home squad in the second rubber, winning 6-3 in the fifth over 32-year-old veteran Feliciano Lopez. And while he was still not ready to play singles, Haas surprised everyone when he stepped in as a doubles player, pairing with Kohlschreiber to finish the 3-0 sweep.
Spanish captain Carlos Moya’s decision to go with Davis Marrero in the doubles was interesting. Although he’s ranked No. 8 by the ATP, this was Marrero's first Davis Cup appearance. Let’s just say he was thrown into the deep end. Spain has now lost in the first round of World Group play for the second year in a row.
Next up for Germany: France, away
France d. Australia, 5-0
(3-0 live rubbers; La Roche sur Yon, France; indoor red clay)
The Aussies were overmatched from the start. French No. 1 Richard Gasquet opened the tie with a win over talented but still raw 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios, after which Jo-Wilfried Tsonga logged a straight-sets win over battle-scarred Lleyton Hewitt. The French wrapped up an easy weekend’s work with a doubles win.
There’s no shame in losing to France, which is fielding as good a team as it has ever brought to bear. Gasquet and Tsonga are ATP Nos. 9 and 10 respectively, and Monfils is back up to No. 30 after an injury-related slump. The French lost only one set in this entire tie, and that was in the doubles.
This was a painful blow for the proud Aussies; France swept the two dead rubbers with relish. Julien Benneteau and Monfils, two experienced pros, mercilessly pounded emerging Aussie youngsters Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, each in straight sets. Mark my words: The Aussies will remember this and seek vengeance when Kyrgios and Kokkinakis mature.
Next up for France: Germany, home
Great Britain d. United States, 3-1
(San Diego, United States; outdoor red clay)
Andy Murray was the unchallenged big dog in this tie, but the hero was world No. 175 James Ward. His stunning upset of Sam Querrey on the first day of play was the desperately needed miracle that enabled Great Britain to move on to the quarterfinals.
The mission for the visiting Brits was obvious. Given the outstanding 21-4 Davis Cup record of Bob and Mike Bryan, the remarkable American doubles team, two singles wins by Murray simply wouldn’t be enough. They needed Ward to win a match—but very few thought he could accomplish that against Querrey, the American No. 1 with John Isner sidelined.
Before that, Murray dominated Donald Young in straights, and then Ward’s shocker gave Britain a 2-0 lead at the end of Day 1. The Bryans did what they always do—they won to keep U.S. hopes alive. But Murray did his job in workmanlike fashion, clinching Britain’s first World Group win since 1986 with a four-set defeat of Querrey in the key fourth rubber.
The loss forces the U.S. (along with all the other losing teams in this first round) to face a must-win situation come September. The squad hasn’t had to survive the playoff round in order to remain in the elite World Group since 2010, at Colombia.
Next up for Great Britain: Italy, away
Italy d. Argentina, 3-1
(Mar del Plata, Argentina; outdoor red clay)
Funny, emotional, and flashy Fabio Fognini doesn’t really seem like your classic typical Davis Cup hero. Yet he won three matches (one with doubles partner Simone Bolelli) to lead the charge against the most successful tennis nation to never win the Davis Cup, Argentina.
Things didn’t start out poorly for Argentina, with Carlos Berlocq earning a tie-opening win over Andreas Seppi. Then Fognini took over. He allowed Juan Monaco just nine games in the second rubber, and helped Bolelli win the doubles in four sets—the first three of which ending in tiebreakers. Fognini then put together a masterful four-set win over Berlocq in the fourth rubber to clinch for Italy.
Could it be that the team spirit and pride shown by Italy’s fantastic Fed Cup players is either rubbing off on the men, or shaming them into becoming more adept and enthusiastic Davis Cuppers? I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case, but in any event, Italy also has a well-balanced squad of solid singles players who are also good at doubles. With a good draw, the Italians could go far.
Next up for Italy: Great Britain, home
Kazakhstan d. Belgium 3-2
(Astana, Kazakhstan; indoor hard)
This one went the distance thanks to a terrific comeback by the Belgians, starting in the doubles. They trailed 2-0 after Andrey Golubev's 12-10 in-the-fifth win over David Goffin, which was preceded by Mikhail Kukushkin's four-set victory over Ruben Bemelmans.
But Bemelmans and Olivier Rochus played an excellent doubles match, winning in four sets to keep the tie alive. The decision to sit Goffin for the doubles seemed an excellent tactical move by Belgian captain Johan Van Herck, because the day of recovery allowed the 23-year-old to recharge his batteries sufficiently; he rallied past Kukishkin to win the fourth rubber, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0.
But in Davis Cup, you can run, but you can’t hide. Bemelmans had to play three days running, and when it got to that critical, dramatic fifth rubber, he had too little left in the tank, losing to Golubev, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.
This tie was a tribute to the genius of the Davis Cup format and the cat-and-mouse games it engenders. By resting Goffin after his win a lengthy first rubber, Van Herck bought himself some time and an extended chance, but eventually the reaper came calling.
Next up for Kazakhstan: Switzerland, away
Switzerland d. Serbia 3-2
(3-0 live rubbers; Novi Sad, Serbia; indoor hard)
That was some bait-and-switch trick the Swiss played on Novak Djokovic. He and Roger Federer had both declared they wouldn’t be available for this tie, but Federer changed his mind just days before the deadline and joined Stanislas Wawrinka (now No. 3 in the world) to create the team that has to be favored to win the championship.
To make matters worse for the Serbs, the champions of 2010, they were without the services of their other two veteran stars, Viktor Troicki and Janko Tisparevic. Thus, world No. 268 Ilija Bozoljac was little match for Federer.
De facto Serbian No. 1 Dusan Lajovic, who played in last year’s final, pushed Wawrinka to four sets, but it wasn’t nearly enough. To clinch the tie, Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer put forth a great effort to surprisingly shut down the favored Serbian doubles team of Nenad Zimonjic and Filip Krajinovic.
Showing good sense as well as sportsmanship, the Swiss nominated Lammer and Chiudinelli to play the dead rubbers (the Serbs won both). The Swiss are unlikely to face such easy sledding going forward, but with Federer on board—and Spain and Serbia out of the running—the Swiss are the prohibitive tournament favorites.
Next up for Switzerland: Kazakhstan, home