February 4, 2013

The New Crop

It wasn't just the same old during this weekend's Davis Cup action -- sure, plenty of favorites made it through their first rounds, but after a couple surprises it looks like we'll have a little new blood in the quarterfinals. And the pressure will be on them to deliver, now that they've shown what kind of force they can be.

Of course it wasn't all Cinderella stories. The defending champion Czechs clinched their return to the quarters with a win over the Roger Federer-less Swiss, the French, runners-up in 2010, blanked a lackluster Israeli team, and the Serbs wrapped up their victory in the first two days of play, though they did end up losing the dead rubbers when the subbed in the B-team. There were some interesting results, too, even among those who advanced through the first tie. The U.S., a surprise semifinalist last year, went down to the wire against a spunky Brazilian team while, Argentina -- three times a runner-up in recent years, but missing their biggest star -- wholly demolished a strong German squad which sported two top-thirty players for themselves. But at the end of the day, it's wasn't their victories that made the biggest impact.

The little-known Kazakhs, on the other hand, pulled off some of the more notable upsets this weekend -- the fact that no one on their team was ranked in the top hundred makes that feat even more impressive. Andrey Golubev and Evgeny Korolev each scored wins on Day One, the latter besting former top-ten player Jurgen Melzer in three fairly one-sided sets. Though the Austrians were able to stay alive by taking the doubles rubber on Saturday, Golubev was able to seal the deal, coming back after losing a set to Melzer and securing only the country's second World Group win in its nineteen appearances. They'll meet the Czechs next, a rematch of the 2011 first round -- which they won against all odds. It won't be an easy task of course, but with months to go before that showdown, the Kazakhs have plenty of opportunity to prep. And with their recently strong history, it doesn't look like they should be counted out just yet.

Meanwhile the Italians were able to notch some big victories of their own on their home soil. Against a tough Croat team that boasted top fifteen plater Marin Cilic and one-time standout Ivan Dodig, they were the on-paper underdogs, and they kept us guessing until the end. After Cilic won a marathon first rubber to give his team the lead, Italian #1 Andreas Seppi delivered to keep things even. The Italians won the doubles round, but Cilic came back in the battle of the favorites. That left things to recently struggling Fabio Fognini, who'd won just one match since losing the St. Petersburg final last September. He'd lost his only previous meeting with Ivan Dodig a little over two years ago, but after dropping the first set this time around, he found a way to rally, giving Italy its first World Group win in fifteen years. They made it all the way to the final that year, which will be hard to replicate. But given their performance so far, there's no telling what they can still do.

For their efforts the Italians will meet in the quarters an even bigger underdog Canadian team, which scored its very first World Group win over the weekend after four failed attempts. Pitted against the top seeded Spaniards -- missing, incidentally, their top four players -- both high-flying Milos Raonic and largely unknown Frank Dancevic won their Day One rubbers and the Canucks very nearly clinched it before Spain got on the board after a long doubles man. But it was too little, too late -- Raonic kicked off Sunday against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, a man who's been known to draw some big wins in his time. But the Canadian got the better of him this week -- in straight sets he secured the victory and put his country in quite a good place to make a bigger dent in this year's draw.

Whether these gentlemen are able to keep their momentum going remains to be seen, but with the wins they've already scored this weekend, they've certainly shown they can put up the right fight. Of course with some more experienced groups still very much in the mix, it's going to be a long road to eventual Davis Cup glory, but there may never be a better chance for these teams to get there. And with plenty of new faces out there, who's to say what can happen.

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