February 8, 2012

Davis Cup Preview: A Man or Two Down

A week after the ladies launched their opening salvos in this year's battle for Fed Cup, the men are ready to do the same. And though a couple top-tier stars will be out battling for their nation's pride, a few teams are left without their stalwarts and could have to really fight for what should be theirs.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan

Defending champion Spain, winner of the Davis Cup three of the last four years, won't have the benefit of Rafael Nadal -- a key player here the last few years -- but comes with some depth and experience that should give them the edge over the upstart Kazakhs.

Nicolas Almagro, playing just his third World Group tie heads up the team and is coming off his best run at the Australian Open -- losing three tiebreaks to Tomas Berdych in their four-set, four-hour slugfest, had a couple balls bounced a different way, he might have scored the win. He's been quiet recently, but on his home turf -- on his best surface -- he could be deadly. He's backed up by world #27 Marcel Granollers, admittedly new to the elite ranks. He's never played singles for Spain and hasn't had a great start to the year, but a title run late last year in Valencia -- which included wins over Marin Cilic, Gael Monfils and Juan Martin Del Potro -- tells me he's got potential to make a big impact.

But the Spaniards can't rest too easy. Though none of the Kazakhs are ranked in the top fifty, Mikhail Kukushkin made a big push to get there in Melbourne. Barely in double digits at the time, the twenty-four year old stunned Viktor Troicki in the second round, and followed it up with his second five-set win in a row, beating Monfils to make the sweet sixteen. Now a perfect 4-0 in matches that go the distance, no one can assume this man will eventually tire out. And with Andrey Golubev -- ranked #33 in the world about a year ago -- backing him up, this may not be as easy as it initially seems.

Germany vs. Argentina

Last year's runner-up Argentine team might have an even harder time. Without big-serving Juan Martin Del Potro playing this tie, they'll have to rely on some consistent, yet veteran players to hold the torch. Juan Monaco is coming off a title at Viña Del Mar and is at his highest ranking in three and a half years. And Juan Ignacio Chela, just a few spots behind him, hasn't been in the top twenty since early 2008. Perhaps their best performance will come from David Nalbandian, who's well off his career-best ranking at #84, but boasts an impressive 22-5 record in Davis Cup singles. The linchpin of the team could help carry them past a tricky German squad.

Still there will be a few close calls. Florian Mayer had some of his best results on clay last year, and though he hasn't played -- or won -- a lot in 2011, he's capable of pulling off some big upsets. He has winning records against both Monaco and Chela, and could pounce if given the chance. And Philipp Kohlschreiber, arguably the stronger player these days, beat Nicolas Almagro in Auckland and Richard Gasquet in Montpellier, while Philipp Petzschner, half of one of the world's best doubles teams, has been notching big wins in singles as well. Either might surprise us this weekend.

Sweden vs. Serbia

Like the top contenders before them, 2010 champions Serbia are also without their team leader Novak Djokovic. But the likes of top-ten player Janko Tipsarevic and doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic should be more than enough to easily handle a Robin Soderling-less Swedish team. The underdogs' best hope might be Robert Lindstedt, ranked tenth in the world in doubles -- he's the highest ranked singles player on the team, at #309. Michael Ryderstedt, almost forty spots behind him, hasn't won a main draw match at an ATP event since July. On paper, it looks like this could be a near-Serbian sweep.

France vs. Canada

France, luckily, comes to their Davis Cup tie fully prepared with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils both in action. They've been solid performers in recent months, with Monfils making the finals in both Doha and Montpellier just last week and Tsonga claiming that Doha title along with runner-up spots in both London and Paris. Teaming with veteran Julien Benneteau and current doubles #5 Michael Llodra, they paint a formidable picture.

But despite the top-tier star power, they shouldn't overlook a wily Canadian team, looking for their first ever World Group win. Milos Raonic looks to be back in form, winning a title to start the year in Chennai. He might not have made as deep a run in Melbourne as he did last year, but he's certainly capable of serving his way through a few sets. And as he gets back on the trajectory he was on before injury stalled his 2011, even on-paper favorites aren't safe. And seven-time Major doubles champion Daniel Nestor could help notch an easy rubber win that may be the decider in a surprisingly close tie.

Italy vs. Czech Republic

The Italians have played the Czechs a surprising ten times at Davis Cup, with the eastern Europeans holding a 7-3 advantage. They haven't met since 1995, when the Italians secured a solid victory, but things may be going back to normal now. Tomas Berdych is coming straight off a title in Montpellier and has amassed an impressive 8-1 record on the year, and Radek Stepanek, once ranked #8 in the world, seems to be playing well again. But also look for Lukas Rosol to try making a statement in a possible reverse singles match -- ranked just seventy-eighth in the world, he is getting more play on the ATP Tour this year, and though he's only scored one win so far, the twenty-six year old may be ready to make a move.

The Italians have some firepower too, but nothing that should pose too big a threat for the Czechs. Andreas Seppi is just out of the top forty, and though he's scored a couple upsets over the last few months, he hasn't beaten a top-ten player since 2008. And Potito Starace, three times a runner-up in his career but never a bride champion, hasn't quite had the breakthrough I've been waiting for. It shouldn't be difficult for a strong -- and stacked -- Czech team to improve their record.

U.S. vs. Switzerland

The U.S. is technically the favorite in this match up -- with a record thirty-two Davis Cup trophies in the case, they certainly have history on their side. But even with their top player -- their top two players, in fact -- they'll likely struggle against a Swiss team that boasts Grand Slam king Roger Federer. Mardy Fish, the best hope for the U.S. in singles, has certainly put up a fight, taking sets from Fed both at last year's year-end championships and in the 2010 Cincinnati finals. But he hasn't beaten the world #3 in almost four years. John Isner doesn't have a better record, going 0-2 against Roger.

There's a little more leeway against Swiss #2 Stanislas Wawrinka. The twenty-six year old has only notched one win in five outings against the two Americans, and he's had some spotty results recently, having advanced past the quarters of only one tournament since last February. And veteran doubles champion Mike Bryan -- playing without twin and brand new father Bob -- could prove to be a great mentor for rising star Ryan Harrison as he seeks to establish himself as the next generation of U.S. athletes. I'm not giving this win to the Swiss outright, but something tells me it could come down to that all-important doubles rubber.

Japan vs. Croatia

This might be the biggest toss-up among this weekend's ties. Croatia has some real tennis talent in its ranks -- unfortunately, neither Marin Cilic, battling a leg injury, nor fellow former top-ten player Ivan Ljubicic will be representing their country. Ivo Karlovic should be able to pick up the reins somewhat, as the big-server seems to be making strides recovering from injury, and Ivan Dodig, one of the biggest flame-outs of 2011, will look to redeem himself here.

But they'll be playing on foreign ground and Japan's #1 Kei Nishikori, on the verge of the global elite these days, will certainly have the crowd on his side. One of the few players to beat Novak Djokovic last year, he's certainly got the talent to defeat most opponents. And Go Soeda, barely ranking in double digits right now, is coming off a Challenger win in Honolulu and a solid run to the semis in Chennai as a qualifier -- incidentally, he beat Dodig during that event. This one will be a battle between rising stars and those on the rebound, and whoever gets in the first punch could do the most damage.

Russia vs. Austria

If the Japan/Croatia tie is the biggest toss-up, this one might have the most at stake. There's a lot of star power on both teams, but not everyone has been playing at their best recently, and anyone might be able to take advantage.

For the Russians Mikhail Youzhny -- #1 in his country, but still out of the top thirty -- will try to build on his Zagreb title from last week. He didn't face much of a challenge from his opponents, though, so we'll get a true test this weekend of whether he's back in form. Alex Bogomolov, playing for the former Soviet Republic despite his former allegiance to the U.S., will make his Davis Cup debut, while former #3 Nikolay Davydenko may be relegated to the doubles rubber. It'll be interesting to see how captain Shamil Tarpischev chooses to stack his team.

Meanwhile the Austrians will hope that Jurgen Melzer, top ten less than a year ago, can live up to his potential. After a tough couple months, he needs to make an impact again on the singles scene -- his teammate Andreas Haider-Maurer has shown signs of potential, but has yet to make an impact on Tour. On the other hand, the sixteenth seed in World Group has a slew of doubles talent to choose from -- Melzer, Alexander Peya, and Oliver Marach are all ranked in the top twenty-five for the paired discipline. Unfortunately, of course, that strength can only translate into one rubber, max. We're going to have to see a lot more depth, if this team is going to advance.

With pockets of powerhouses, and open opportunities, showing up throughout this weekend's rubbers, it looks like we could have some big matches -- and some big upsets. Whether the heavy favorites will make early exits or tricky upstarts will finally get footing is still to be seen. But we've seen almost anything can happen at Davis Cup. And as the field gets narrowed, be ready for a few surprises.

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