January 29, 2014

Into the Spotlight: Davis Cup 1st Round Preview

It's always nice to feel the team spirit that comes along with Davis Cup contests -- buoyed by their compatriots in a way you don't often see at a traditional tournament, some players find a way to pull out inconceivable wins against heavy favorites. And this year, perhaps more than others, the likelihood of some star-making performances is high as can be.

The two-time defending Czech champions are bringing their usual cadre of talent, with Australian Open semifinalist Tomas Berdych leading the pack. But also look out for Jiri Vesely, last year's ATP Star of Tomorrow -- the twenty-year old put together a two-set lead over big-serving Kevin Anderson in his Melbourne opener, his first appearance down under, and made the semis at last week's Heilbronn challenger. He'll likely only play doubles this weekend against the Dutchmen, but if his teammates put together a strong enough lead, I wouldn't be surprised to see him get a bigger platform for success.

More likely to get top billing despite his low profile is Serbia's Dusan Lajovic, but he'll have a tough test. The 2010 champs were runners-up last year, but they're now missing captain Novak Djokovic and open against a team led by newly-minted Grand Slam titleist Stanislas Wawrinka. Lajovic hasn't had a lot of experience in Davis Cup -- he lost his two singles rubbers in last year's final -- but he did open 2014 by qualifying for his first Major main draw. He even won a match, taking out wildcard Lucas Pouille in his opener. Of course stakes will be high this weekend, but with Wawrinka the only man on the Swiss team ranked in the top hundred(-fifty!) there is more than a good chance this underdog comes out on top at some point.

Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios is hoping to do the same. Behind veteran Lleyton Hewitt he'll take on an intimidating French team comprised of two top-ten players and no one ranked lower than #40 in the world. At #162, he hasn't quite broken into that tier yet -- after all, he only played two Tour-level matches before this season started -- but he did put up a big fight in the Australian Open second round this month, winning the first two sets in tiebreaks over twenty-seventh seed Benoit Paire during the scorching early heatwave. He won't have home court advantage this time, though, so he'll have to raise his game even higher. But if his momentum continues, we might see his star start to shine just a little bit brighter.

But perhaps the man with the greatest opportunity to break through this weekend is Melbourne Cinderella Roberto Bautista Agut. The Spaniard stunned an admittedly injured Juan Martin Del Potro in the second round and went on to beat an exhausted Paire -- a man he'd also taken out on his way to the Auckland semis -- to make his first Major fourth round. From a country with a plethora of talent to choose from -- and a full hand of Davis Cup trophies this century -- this will be Bautista's first tie, and it'll be a rough one against a strong German team. But a hair outside the top fifty now, he'll likely face no one more intimidating than what he endured in Australia and could cement his status as the next big force in an already forceful country.

There are plenty other players who might make a name for themselves this weekend too. Vasek Pospisil, suddenly in the top thirty, can prove he's not the only Canadian worthy of attention when he takes on a Japanese team led by world #18 Kei Nishikori. And David Goffin will look to show us he's no one-hit wonder when he leads a sparse Belgian team against a not-much-better set of Kazakhs. And while each of these guys' performances will only be a part of the whole of their Davis Cup results, any one of them could launch themselves into a new realm with some big successes here.

And what they do at that level could mean big things for the future of tennis.

No comments: