July 21, 2015

Some Strong Statements: Davis Cup Quarterfinal Recap

I was admittedly a little behind the eight ball last week and almost entirely missed the action as a couple countries vied for the semifinal spots in this year's Davis Cup World Group. But despite my lack of attention, there was a ton to talk about this weekend -- from stunning comebacks to one-sided drubbings we saw heavy favorites be shown the exit and some long counted out emerge as real forces. And the teams left standing at the end may not have been the ones you expected.

France vs. Great Britain

Despite its long history and legendary athletes, Great Britain hasn't been much of a force in the World Group for a while -- they'd been relegated to regional play for years, and after finally winning a playoff tie in 2013, they lost in the quarterfinals to Italy last season. And while they faced an intimidating opponent over the weekend -- three top fifteen players, including Wimbledon semifinalist Richard Gasquet, helmed the French squad -- they brought some firepower of their own. After Gilles Simon gave France an early lead, world #3 Andy Murray came out swinging against an always-tough Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, narrowly winning the first two sets before running away with the third. Murray then teamed with his older brother Jamie in the doubles rubber to give the Brits a 2-1 lead going into the final day of play. And while Simon put up a fight in the first reverse singles match, the two-time Grand Slam champion proved the stronger, rebounding after dropping the opening set and clinching the win in four. It sends the team to their first World Group semi since 1981, and maybe makes them a real favorite to take home the Cup.

Australia vs. Kazakhstan

Of course there are a couple ties left before the trophy is handed out, and if this weekend's performance is any indication, the ever-persistent Aussies continue to be a force. But somewhat surprisingly, despite a host of hot young stars, it was the veterans who ultimately delivered. Nineteen year old Thanasi Kokkinakis, who made his way to the Roland Garros third round, and 2014 upstart Nick Kyrgios, who stunned Milos Raonic this year at the All England Club, both lost their singles matches, putting the boys from Down Under at a 0-2 deficit to the Kazakhs by the end of Friday. But then the older guys stepped up to the plate -- big-serving Sam Groth and Lleyton Hewitt, likely playing his last few matches in Davis Cup, teamed up to get Australia on the board. And each dominated their singles turns, cementing an unlikely comeback late on Sunday. Whether they'll be able to repeat against Britain in the semis -- or whether the young guns will be able to step up to the plate this time -- remains to be seen. But it sure serves notice that the team can never be counted out.

Argentina vs. Serbia

Argentina, three times a runner-up for the Davis Cup crown in the last decade, was never in quite so precarious a situation this weekend, despite facing off against a tough Serbian team, themselves champions a few years ago. A couple of under-the-radar players -- Leonardo Mayer, barely in the top forty, and Federico Delbonis, ranked sixty-sixth in the world -- took advantage of an absent Novak Djokovic to give their country a 2-0 advantage heading into the weekend. And, maybe more impressively, Mayer teamed with Carlos Berlocq -- ranked now well in the triple digits -- to pull off a stunning defeat of 2014 comeback kid Viktor Troicki and doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic and clinch the win on Saturday. Young Dusan Lajovic was able to get the Serbs on the board, avoiding a total shut-out, but it was too little, too late, and the South Americans were able to earn a trip back to the semifinals. And with decidedly more experience than their next opponents, they have a solid shot at continuing their run.

Canada vs. Belgium

But maybe the hugely underrated Belgians will put up a bigger fight than we expect. Playing in their first World Group quarterfinal in eight years, the team, which had dethroned the reigning champion Swiss in the first round, pulled no punches against the Canadians this weekend either. Giant-killer Steve Darcis came back after dropping the first set to give his country an early lead, while 2014 standout David Goffin easily handled Filip Peliwo in three sets. Without their top player Milos Raonic, Canada was certainly at a disadvantage, but even with the help of their own star veteran Daniel Nestor, a doubles titleist in Dubai and Sydney so far this year, they weren't able to make an impact and the Belgians swept over them with an astounding 5-0 score. Interestingly the Europeans do hold an edge over the Argentines in Davis Cup play -- they won the only tie the pair's ever contested way back in 1948 -- but with homefield advantage for September's semifinal tie, they might be able to ride their underdog status to a win again.

With a couple new faces getting themselves in the mix this year at Davis Cup, things really could get shaken up a bit as we come down to the wire. Whether highly-decorated stars add a long-missing honor to their resumé, or emerging talent makes a big statement for their country, it seems like we're in for a little more excitement than usual.

And whoever takes the opportunity to shine now could reap some big rewards.

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