March 3, 2011

Davis Cup Preview: What to Watch

There's a lot at stake for the countries and players contesting the first round of Davis Cup this weekend -- national pride, vengeance for recent losses, validation of new coaches, to name a few. Some are bringing out the big guns while others will battle challenges from all sorts of elements.

And while the final rubber scores will of course ultimately determine the winners, there are a couple under-the-radar stories that could matter just as much, no matter what the outcome.

Serbia vs. India

Defending champions Serbia are riding pretty high these days, what with Novak Djokovic’s second Major title and Janko Tipsarevic’s run to the Delray Beach finals. They’re rounded out by tricky Viktor Troicki and a doubles extraordinaire Nenad Zimonjic. With such a stacked team I doubt they’ll have trouble advancing.

And while their prospects for this tie might be dim, I’ll be watching the Indian team closely – newly reunited Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi made their way to the Australian Open finals in their first Slam together since 2002. And Rohan Bopanna, who’s established himself well in the paired discipline, has had some success on the singles side when playing for his country. It might be too much to ask for a win, but if they put up a fight, I’ll be happy.

Sweden vs. Russia

The Russians are the seeded team in this tie, but without their top player Mikhail Youzhny they could be headed for an early exit. Sweden may be resting its hopes on only one player, but if they’re going to put all their eggs in one basket, Robin Soderling is not a bad one to have.

The more interesting story here might be the return of Joachim Johansson, a one-time top-ten player who hasn’t played a lot of Tour matches the last few years. But the Swede, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open in 2004, is still young and powerful -- if he puts in a good showing we might see a lot more of him this season.

Czech Republic vs. Kazakhstan

The Czech’s suffered a close loss to Serbia in last year’s semifinals, so you know they’ll be out to prove something, and against a middle-of-the road Kazakh team they shouldn’t have too much trouble. But that doesn’t mean their star Tomas Berdych will be off the hook -- he's finally started putting together wins again, but he has a ton of points coming off in the next few months. If he doesn’t start performing up to his ranking soon, his top ten ranking may be pretty short-lived.

Argentina vs. Romania

The 2008 runners-up might be missing their theoretic top player in Juan Martin Del Potro, but they should still be heavily favored over the Romanians, whose best hope may be in relatively unknown doubles specialist Horia Tecau.

But a couple of Argentine veterans will be using this as a platform to prove they’re still around. David Nalbandian put up one of the most exciting first rounds at the Australian Open, but retired from the following match -- he'll need to prove he’s not too old to be a factor in the long matches. And thirty-one year old Juan Ignacio Chela made the semis in Costa Do Sauipe and the finals in Buenos Aires -- I'd love to see him show those were not just flukes and that he is capable of putting up even bigger fights.

Chile vs. U.S.

With new coach Jim Courier comes big expectations for the seeded U.S. team, but the players, recovering from sickness and injury might not be in the shape he’d hoped. Andy Roddick played well in Memphis, but withdrew from Delray with the flu while the often unstoppable Bryan brothers haven’t played since winning in Melbourne. Couple that with John Isner's failing to defend most of the points he racked up in the first two months of last year and things may not be as easy as it seems. They may have gotten a bit of a respite as their Chilean opponents boast no one ranked in the top 150, so this will be a good opportunity to test themselves in a relatively safe environment.

Belgium vs. Spain

The Spaniards suffered a surprisingly early exit at last year's Davis Cup, being blanked by France in the quarterfinals after winning the whole enchilada the prior two years. That could explain why they’re bringing their biggest weapons to face a fairly innocuous Belgian team.

There shouldn’t be too much drama in this match, but I’ll still be watching a few players closely. Rafael Nadal hasn’t seen any action since the Australian Open when he suffered a hamstring injury and Fernando Verdasco, who finally seemed to be turning his career back in the right direction, hasn’t won a match since that disappointing loss in the San Jose finals. If he’s not over that defeat, it could take a while before he regains any confidence.

Croatia vs. Germany

Croatia has built itself into a strong team too, but certain players have struggled of late. One of my personal favorites Marin Cilic had a tough start to the year and only recently began winning back-to-back matches again, while big serving Ivo Karlovic continues to out-ace opponents without ever breaking their serve.

It might be strange to say the Croats' best hope may lie with one of its least known players. World #57 Ivan Dodig is having a standout year, being the only player to take a set from Novak Djokovic in Australia and then following it up with his first career title in Zagreb. If he puts in a few wins on the homecourt, it could mean a changing of the guard for the country.

Austria vs. France

Last year's second place French team is missing some of its biggest stars with both Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga out of the mix, so it could be time for some new stars to shine. I’m not talking about Gilles Simon, who is admittedly clawing his way back up the ranks after being the leading athlete in the country just a few years back. Instead, I’ll be watching Michael Llodra who, at thirty years of age has just now established himself as a legitimate singles and doubles threat. If he puts up the kind of showing he did in 2010, it could be a long weekend for the Austrians.

Clearly individual performances aren't the biggest concern during Davis Cup play, but certain team members certainly have a chance to shine during their ties. It might mean a turnaround in their careers or the establishment of a new streak of success. Either way, the opportunities could be enormous -- and they'll all have their entire countries rooting them on.

1 comment:

Kavitha said...

Didn't see the news 'til now that Nole will be sitting out this round of Davis Cup to prepare for Indian Wells & Miami. Still don't think there will be much trouble for Serbia to advance, though it certainly does make things interesting