March 5, 2015

A Long History: Davis Cup First Round Preview

Is it just me, or do the pairings for some of this weekend's Davis Cup ties seem to hold a little more historic significance than usual? Whether the battles bfacring up political tensions, reminders of centuries-old imperialism, or long-standing rivalries, you can't help but feel this weekend won't be the first time a couple of these combatants have faced off.

Germany vs. France

The two euro zone superpowers have a long political and economic history with each other as they jockeyed for control of the Continent, and things could get just as exciting on the tennis courts this weekend. Both teams are bringing their best, but despite homecourt advantage the Germans might find themselves struggling. Top ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber has only won two matches this year, both against sub-#90 players. And Benjamin Becker hasn't done much better, scoring a nice upset of Julien Benneteau in Melbourne, but failing to rebound from a long second round against Lleyton Hewitt a match later. Meanwhile, while the French are missing top dog Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, they do have both Marseille finalists Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils to helm their squad. Simon, who beat his compatriot for the title, also has a win over Andy Murray under his belt this year. With results like that, they'll have a pretty good shot at making a run back to the final.

Great Britain vs. U.S.

Over in Scotland the Americans will make another bid to get out from under British reign, and they may have had the firepower to do it. While big-serving John Isner has fallen a bit off the highs of his game recently, once-struggling Donald Young seems to have re-found his. After briefly falling out of the top two hundred in 2013, he's clawed his way back to relevance, reaching at least the quarters of three events already this year. It's been a while since he's beaten anyone in the top twenty, though, but he might have the momentum to change that this weekend. Of course world #5 Andy Murray will be standing in both their ways -- but the Australian Open runner-up has lost to both Gilles Simon and emerging star Borna Coric in recent weeks and notched a loss to Young in Indian Wells a few years back. Still, he's more than capable of carrying the team on his own. It may ultimately come down to the doubles rubbers and there the U.S. could rely heavily on its beacon Bryan Brothers -- the twins picked up their 106th title together in Delray and have clinched wins for their country on more than one occasion. There's no reason they can't do it again.

Argentina vs. Brazil

We're probably more used to seeing the South American soccer heavyweights face off on a different kind of battleground, but this weekend they'll concentrate instead on the clay courts. And while the surface certainly suits both teams, it's hard to give either one a clear edge. Argentina has the stronger roster on paper, but they are missing their big guns -- former world #4 Juan Martin Del Potro is still recovering from wrist surgery while Juan Monaco, last week's finalist in Buenos Aires, is sitting out this tie. The Brazilians, meanwhile, are bringing their best, but their top player Joao Souza is only just peaking at #75, and Thomaz Bellucci, once so close to the top twenty, hasn't had too many big wins over the last year. The Argentines do bring Leonardo Mayer, one of the more underrated players in the sport, and Diego Schwartzman, who won the year-end Challengers' title last season -- the Brazilians counter with a couple highly-ranked doubles players in Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares. At the end of the day Buenos Aires might provide a slight homecourt advantage, but it could go all the way down to the wire.

Serbia vs. Croatia

The two former Yugoslavian states faced off once before at Davis Cup, with the Serbs winning handily 4-1, and this time might not be much different. The Croats are still without their big star, U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic who continues to recover from a shoulder injury, and are instead led by young Borna Coric. That's not so bad, though -- the eighteen year old beat Rafael Nadal last year in Basel and is fresh off a win over Andy Murray in Dubai. At a career-high #61 in the world, he might just be able to add one more top-ten scalp to his take. Still you have to give a strong edge to the Serbs, who bring world #1 Novak Djokovic and rapidly rebounding Viktor Troicki to the mix. The former followed up a title in Melbourne with a run to the final in the UAE, while the latter picked up his first title since 2010 as a qualifier in Sydney. Add to that Nenad Zimonjic who, at thirty-eight years of age, is still a solid force on the doubles circuit and it's tough to see the home team having too much trouble.

Belgium vs. Switzerland

Of course not all the match-ups this weekend are so fraught with historical undertones, but everyone still has parts to play. The traditionally neutral Swiss are likely to remain typically unbiased this weekend, event as they should be mounting a defense of their first ever Davis Cup title. Roger Federer decided to sit out the 2015 season, while fellow top-tenner Stan Wawrinka, who's also skipping this weekend's action, has yet to decide whether he'll play later in the year. That leaves a host of relative unknowns to make any kind of stand for Switzerland -- the highest ranked player is #292 Yann Marti. That could give Belgian's comeback kid David Goffin an opportunity to make up for some recently lackluster results -- he's lost twice in a row to veteran Marcos Baghdatis and has only gotten past the second round of one event this year. Even Steve Darcis, who notched his biggest career win over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon two years ago, could step up to the plate and notch a couple wins off the Challengers' circuit this year.

Czech Republic vs. Australia

Meanwhile the Czechs will try to reclaim the crown they ceded to the Swiss last year, but they too might have a bit of trouble. While rising star Jiri Vesely and one-time giant killer Lukas Rosol could certainly deliver, they are without their biggest stars, Melbourne semifinalist Tomas Berdych and doubles specialist Radek Stepanek. And the men from Down Under could take advantage of those holes -- players like Sam Groth and a resurgent Bernard Tomic have been rallying of late. And while veteran Lleyton Hewitt is far from his career highs, he's more than proven he can never be counted out. With a little more star power on the Aussies' side, they could stop the Czech's comeback cold.

Canada vs. Japan

We could see some fireworks in the match-up between a couple countries that haven't had a lot of experience in Davis Cup. Canada and Japan have combined for just a dozen years in the World Group -- but in this rematch of last year's first round they're both out to prove they belong. Kei Nishikori climbed to a career high #4 in the world after reaching the final in Acapulco and is coming off what's easily been the most prolific twelve months of his career. He'll be joined by Tatsumo Ito, who beat Stan Wawrinka last year in Tokyo and might be primed for another upset. The Canadians are slightly more armed, though -- Milos Raonic has always had tough matches against Nishikori, but he won their last meeting in Brisbane in three tight tiebreaks. And he'll have back-up from Vasek Pospisil, a man who's beaten John Isner already this season and made a nice run to the Washington semis last year. He's also an accomplished doubles player and might just be called on, with veteran star Daniel Nestor, to serve as a ringer.

Kazakhstan vs. Italy

And in the final tie being contested this weekend, a relatively inexperienced Kazakh team goes up against the long-time also-rans. The Italians have a lot to be proud of -- Andreas Seppi scored an enormous win over Roger Federer at the Australian Open, Simone Bolelli stunned Milos Raonic in Marseill and recently struggling Fabio Fognini pulled off a huge upset of defending champion Rafael Nadal in Rio. While none of these players is quite at their best, they certainly seem to have a little momentum on their side. There could be some surprises this weekend -- Andrey Golubev did take out Stan Wawrinka last year in Davis Cup and veteran Mikhail Kukushkin has had his moments in the past -- but this is really Italy's battle to lose. And there's no reason they shouldn't live up to expectations.

Whether this weekend's Davis Cup ties rekindle old rivalries or start to flame new ones, there's more than enough potential for some combative contests. And whoever emerges as the victors will have to recover quick -- this is just the beginning of what could be a long, drawn-out war.

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