April 4, 2013

Unusual Suspects: Davis Cup Quarterfinal Preview

There are going to be a couple unfamiliar flags flying this weekend as the eight countries left in the hunt for the 2013 Davis Cup crown contest the quarterfinals. And while there will certainly be plenty of star power in the field, there are enough wildcards out there that there's really no telling who'll be left standing on Sunday night.

Canada vs. Italy

The Canadians are playing in their first ever World Group quarterfinal, but despite their relative inexperience they could be the spoilers in this tie. World #16 Milos Raonic will be the highest-ranked player on the courts this weekend and comes to Vancouver with a 11-4 record on the year, including a title in San Jose. He's never met either of Italy's likely singles players, though, and with just five top twenty opponents so far this season he hasn't really been tested yet. And while he is by far the best on-paper singles player on the Canadian squad, the team could eventually find its leadership in veteran doubles star Daniel Nestor, holder of eighty crowns in his twenty-plus year career. The forty year old could very well help clinch the win for his countrymen if Raonic is able to take care of his job on his own.

The Italians can't be fully discounted though. All four of their representatives are ranked in the top eighty in singles and they've each pulled off a few upsets in their time. Andreas Seppi, sitting at his highest ever ranking more than a decade since going pro, has won two titles in the past twelve months and famously took the first two sets off Novak Djokovic at last year's French Open. Fabio Fognini, who did his best to end Andy Roddick's career in New York, made his way to the finals in St. Petersburg last fall and the semis in Acapulco in February. The disadvantage the team has, though, is that most of their success has come on clay -- all ten of Paolo Lorenzi's Challengers titles and seventy-five percent of Simone Bolelli's have been on the dirt. If the 1976 champions can't make a quick adjustment to the hardcourt, they might be sent home much sooner than they expected.

U.S. vs. Serbia

Somewhat surprisingly the U.S. is sporting the better recent Davis Cup record than the 2010 champs. After shocking wins over Switzerland and France, their magical 2012 performance ended at the hands of Spain in the semifinals. The Serbs, meanwhile, were summarily dismissed in the quarters to the eventual Czech titleists. Still it could be a tough task for the Americans to repeat last year's success. Former top-ten player John Isner has been nursing a knee injury most of the year, withdrawing from the Australian Open and falling in his Indian Wells opener, dropping points he'd accumulated by making the final last year. Sam Querrey is now the top player for the U.S., and with fourth round showings at both of the American Masters events and wins over the likes of Kei Nishikori, Fernando Verdasco and, stunningly, Novak Djokovic late last season, he certainly has earned that spot. If both players play to their potential, it would be a good sign for the U.S. -- if not, it could come down to the doubles tie here too with the record-breaking team of Mike and Bob Bryan needing to come through for their country again.

The Serbs will do their best to keep that from happening. World #1 Novak Djokovic returns after taking last year off from Davis Cup play, having already avenged recent losses to both Querrey and Isner. His twenty-two match win streak ended in the Indian Wells semis, though, and he failed to capture a third straight Miami trophy when he lost to Tommy Haas in the Sony Open fourth round. But with solid winning records against the Americans, he should be able to tie up his matches cleanly. The bigger question mark will be Viktor Troicki, #12 in the world less than two years ago but with just three Tour-level wins so far this year. He has winning records against both potential opponents, but hasn't met either since 2011. If he ends up losing both his rubbers, former doubles #1 Nenad Zimonjic might have to carry the burden against the Bryans. Ultimately this tie will probably come down to whether Isner has recovered enough to put up a fight against a mid-forties player or whether Troicki will be able to recapture the talent that sent his star soaring not so long ago.

France vs. Argentina

It's a bit of a shame that these two recent powerhouses are meeting so early this year -- runners-up in 2008, 2010 and 2011, both squads have what it takes to stir the pot at Davis Cup. France is led by world #8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who holds a solid 14-3 record in Davis Cup play. He won the title in Marseille in February, outlasting rival Tomas Berdych in the final, and only has a couple sub-fifty losses on his resumé this season -- but Tsonga's had some long matches too, having already played thirteen tiebreaks in 2013. We might actually see bigger things from Gilles Simon, just out of the top ten but steadily climbing the rankings over the last five months. The French #2 #3 has notched wins over Janko Tipsarevic and Juan Martin Del Potro and has made at least the quarters of five events this year. He may be relegated to second rubber status this weekend, but don't be surprised if he ends up becoming the star.

The Argentines meanwhile are missing their biggest weapon in Del Potro, who lost his opener in Miami after shocking both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic on his way to the Indian Wells final. Instead Juan Monaco, who last year climbed to #10 in the world, a full decade after going pro, will lead the team. He's struggled, though, winning just two matches so far, albeit both during Davis Cup play in February, and dropping nearly all the points he'd earned by making the Miami semis last year. With losing records against both Tsonga and Simon, it'll be difficult for him to deliver now. Carlos Berlocq, a semifinalist in Viña del Mar and a fourth rounder in Indian Wells, may be a better bet, but at #71 in the world he's no sure thing. I wouldn't be surprised if the South Americans subbed surprise Chilean champion Horacio Zeballos in for the singles action -- with a win over Rafael Nadal on clay this season, he may have shown the most spunk on this team and could surprise us all.

Kazakhstan vs. Czech Republic

In what's likely the strangest match-up this weekend, the little known Kazakhs take on the defending champion Czechs and carry with them home-court advantage and a surprising 1-0 record against their rivals. There's not a lot of star power on the squad, though -- no singles player is ranked in double digits -- and Mikhail Kukushkin, who made the fourth round in Melbourne last year hasn't won a main draw match yet this season. And Andrey Golubev, #205 in the world, has played mostly qualifying matches in 2013 -- he did cement the Kazakhs' win over Austria in the first round, though, and could be the spoiler this time around.

And that's because the Czechs may have opened the door for an upset -- world #6 Tomas Berdych is sitting out this tie and last year's clincher Radek Stepanek has been relegated to the middle Saturday doubles rubber. That's not to say things won't be shifted around, but as it stands, world #94 Jan Hajek -- just 2-5 this year -- and giant-killer Lukas Rosol will be opening up singles action. Again, Stepanek may very well be called in to pinch hit should the Czechs find themselves in a hole after Friday's action, but if the Kazakhs pounce early we could see a big surprise by one of the biggest underdogs in the field.

With so much room for upsets and surprises, things could get really interesting this weekend. Plenty of players have an opportunity to prove themselves -- either that they're back in contention, or that they should be taken as seriously as the biggest stars in the sport. Whatever shakes out at the end of the day, though, could set a new stage in the world of tennis. And it sure looks like all these guys will be eager to capture the audience from the start.

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