The great—or disastrous, depending on your point of view—Davis Cup experiment of 2019 begins this weekend, with 12 ties that will decide who qualifies for the winner-take-all final round in Madrid in November. For such an historic occasion, this inaugural qualifying weekend has garnered precious little media attention or fan buzz. But that doesn’t mean it won’t have ramifications. If the organizers of the new Cup want the ATP’s biggest stars to make it to Madrid—which they certainly do—many of those players’ teams are going to have to advance this weekend.
While the Davis Cup Final will use a new, faster format, this weekend’s tie’s will look familiar: Two singles on Friday, doubles on Saturday, reverse singles on Sunday. With 24 teams in action, it will be a lot to take in. Here are five things to look for.
No Defense is a Good Offense
Even the staunchest defenders of the old Cup format, myself included, had to admit how ridiculous it was that each year’s championship team had to begin its title defense just four months after winning the whole thing. For example: After three decades of frustration, Argentina won its first Cup in November 2016; by the following February, they had been eliminated again.
So it’s good news all around that the Croatia team, winners of the Cup last November, don’t have to play this weekend. Along with the other three semifinalists from 2018—Spain, the U.S., and France—the champs have been given a bye into the final. They’ll be joined there by two wild-card teams, Great Britain and Argentina. If nothing else, this was an easy way for organizers to guarantee that Rafael Nadal (of Spain) and Juan Martin del Potro (of Argentina) will have a chance to play in November.
Is There a Different Attitude Among the Players?
When the new Davis Cup format was announced last year, I wrote that its success would likely depend on whether the best players still saw the competition as something they desperately wanted to win for their countries. Cup skeptics, especially in the U.S. have always harped on the fact that the event doesn’t draw the game’s stars, and doesn’t have the magnitude of the majors. But virtually every male Hall-of-Famer, including each of the Big 4, has brought a Cup home. That passion is what continued to make Davis Cup viable, even as its format and scheduling began to seem more and more archaic.
So is the passion still there in 2019? It’s too early to tell for sure; we have to see what happens at the finals. But so far the interest seems similar to the recent past: Young players are into it, veterans not so much. Next Genners like Alexander Zverev, Alex De Minaur, Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime all want to win their first Cup, and are all playing this weekend. But Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, David Goffin, Tomas Berdych, and Nick Kyrgios all of whom have been Cup regulars in the past, will be absent. As for the ATP’s newest star, Stefanos Tsitsipas, his nation, Greece, isn’t part of the qualifying.
Will the Big 4—or whatever we want to call them now—make it to Madrid?
The fact that marquee players like Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, Murray and others have often been AWOL for the Cup was the primary reason—or at least the most-often-stated reason—for changing the format and reducing its time commitment. Will it make a difference in November?
Barring a late-season injury, which is always a possibility, Nadal should be there. Spain has a bye into the final, and the event is being held at the Caja Magica. That’s not Rafa’s favorite arena, perhaps, but it is in the capital of his home country.
Barring a miracle and a change of heart, Andy Murray won’t be. While Great Britain has been granted a wild card into the final, Murray announced earlier this month that Wimbledon will likely be his last tournament. He also underwent another hip surgery earlier this week.
Federer’s presence seems like a long shot. He only played the Cup sporadically in his prime, and hasn’t played it all since Switzerland won it in 2014. He is also committed to his own, rival team event, Laver Cup. Even if Federer wanted to be involved, it seems unlikely that his country will qualify. This weekend Switzerland will put Henri Laaksonen and Marc-Andrea Huesler up against Russia’s far-higher-ranked duo of Karen Khachanov and Daniil Medvedev.
Djokovic is also a question mark. He led Serbia to the Cup in 2010, and has been willing to commit to it when possible since. But as the head of the ATP Player Council, his priority will likely be the tour’s own rival team event, the ATP Cup, which will debut next January. Djokovic’s presence in November will also depend on what his lower-ranked teammates do this weekend. Dusan Lajovic and Filip Krajinovic will travel to Uzbekistan, a team that will be led by Denis Istomin. The Serbs will be favored, but Istomin won’t be an easy out.
What are the ties to watch this weekend?
Canada vs. Slovakia: Organizers are going to want Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime in Madrid. But they have to get past a Martin Klizan-led Slovakian team, in Slovakia, first.
Australia vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina: This tie is in Adelaide, and an Aussie team led by captain Lleyton Hewitt seem as fired-up as ever. Instead of Kyrgios, though, they have John Millman playing singles alongside De Minaur. This isn’t a gimme.
Czech Republic vs. Netherlands: The Dutch will be led by Robin Haase, the Czechs by Jiri Vesely.
Serbia vs. Uzbekistan: Lajovic and Krajinovic are solid players, but Istomin could surprise either of them. And this is in Tashkent.
Germany vs. Hungary: Alexander Zverev hasn’t committed to playing in Madrid, but he’ll probably help his country get there. The Germans will be heavy favorites against a Hungarian squad led by 368th-ranked Zsombor Piros.
Do any of these teams look like potential champions?
We’ll see which nations make it to Madrid, and which players actually show up there, but Russia seems to be fielding a strong contender. The country’s singles players, Khachanov and Medvedev, are both Top 20, and their doubles team, Andrey Rublev and Evgeny Donskoy, are a quality duo as well. They’re also young and hungry to win their first Cup, an attitude that should serve them well when the final comes along at the end of a long season. Davis Cup has been a proving ground for other stars-in-the-making in the past, and maybe it will be for this Russian team.
Who knows, the more radically things change, the more they may end up staying the same...
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