Davis Cup: Croatia Takes on the Czech Republic

Marianne BevisSenior Writer ISeptember 17, 2009

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 04:  Marin Cilic of Croatia returns a shot against Jesse Levine during day five of the 2009 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 4, 2009 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

This is one in a set of previews of each of the countries involved in the Davis Cup semi-final ties this weekend. Check out the others on Spain, Israel and the Czech Republic from fellow B/R creatures.

For Rajat Jain's take on the Czech Republic, click here.

For antiMatter on Spain, click here.

For Rob York's take on Israel, click here.

Marin Cilic and Ivo Karlovic will lead an optimistic Croatian team against the Czech Republic this weekend on the indoor clay of their homeland in the northern town of Porec.

It may be only the second time that Croatia has reached the semi-finals of the World Group, but last time it went on to win the Davis Cup, in 2005, against the Slovak Republic, the first unseeded nation to do so.

Located in an enviable location along a huge swath of the Adriatic Sea, and with a population of little more than half that of Greater London, Croatia has also won 11 of its last 12 home ties.

It won promotion from the Europe/Africa Group I last year with wins against Italy and Brazil, and has thus far defeated Chile and the United States in this year's World Group competition.

Team captain Goran Prpic has, not surprisingly, retained the same squad who beat the U.S.A. in July.

In the opening match of that tie, Ivo Karlovic came back from two sets down against James Blake for his first five-set victory in 12 career attempts. Then the hugely talented 20-year-old Marin Cilic gave Croatia a 2-0 advantage with another five-set thriller against Mardy Fish.

Despite an eminently predictable loss by Roko Karanusic and Lovro Zovko against the Bryan brothers in the doubles rubber, Cilic once again excelled in beating Blake in four sets to take the tie.

The win marked the third time since Croatia joined the competition in 1993 that they had beaten the 32-time champions of the U.S.A., making it the only team with a positive record against the Americans.

This imminent semi-final tie, though, is the first time Croatia has played against the Czech Republic, and the ATP rankings of the two pairs of teams suggest it will be a very closely fought encounter.

Cilic has just climbed two places to No.15 in the world, on the back of his good run to the quarter-finals of the U.S. Open. In so doing, he overtakes his forthcoming Czech opponents, Radek Stepanek, who dropped to 17, and Tomas Berdych at 18. However, fellow Croatian Karlovic slipped three places to 31,

So the rankings give very little help in predicting the outcome of the tie. What’s more, clay is probably not be the preferred surface of any of the men (though the Croats will enjoy the benefit of playing on the same surface that saw them beat the U.S.A. so recently).

Even the head-to-head records provide little help.

Both Cilic and Berdych have achieved better results on hard courts and indoor carpet than on clay but, to add a little spice to the encounter, they have not played one another on any surface before.

Cilic and Stepanek are one win apiece, both on clay.

Stepanek leads Karlovic 2-0, but they haven’t played each other for four years. Meanwhile, Karlovic has a beaten Berdych in the last two of their three matches.

The stats, the preferences, and the rankings therefore give little away. But on the basis of Cilic’s outstanding performance against Andy Murray in New York just last week, he must warrant the nod in both his singles matches.

The Croatians’ Achilles heel is their doubles pairing of Roko Karanusic and Lovro Zovko. It surprised few that they went down in straight sets to the Bryan brothers in their tie against the USA.

They will now face another daunting opponent in Lukas Dlouhy, who won the doubles title at the U.S. Open and at Roland Garros (both with Leander Paes). He will partner Jan Hernych, ranked world No. 63 in singles, and although it is an unknown combination, the Croats will be hard pressed to win this particular rubber.

So it may all come down to how well Karlovic rises to the occasion. Despite an early exit at Flushing Meadows, he will doubtless draw a lot of confidence from his big win against Blake, on the same surface, in the quarter-final tie. If Cilic lives up to expectations, Karlovic needs only to repeat that one performance.

With the crowd behind them and the home-court advantage, the Croatian men might just pull it off.

Prediction: Croatia 3, Czech Republic 2