2015 Davis Cup World Group 1st-Round Preview

Matt McGladrigan@@mattmcgladriganFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2015

2015 Davis Cup World Group 1st-Round Preview

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    For the most part, tennis is an individual sport. Male and female competitors are playing for themselves; for their own glory and success. The Davis Cup provides a welcome break from that solitude and an opportunity to work, and win or lose, as a team for your country.

    The Davis Cup generates barnstorming, often hostile, partisan atmospheres in big stadiums around the world. Certain players will always get cheered for more at ATP and WTA tournaments, but nothing like the bias of the crowds at Davis Cup ties.

    As the 2015 World Group opening round begins, we expect no different, as some of the ties look extremely tight and will probably go down to the fifth and final rubber.

    Last year’s event was certainly special and drew huge attention because of the great Roger Federer’s participation and Switzerland’s eventual victory. It had been one of the events on the 17-time Slam champion’s list to tick off and win, with his rivals Novak Djokovic (in 2010) and Rafael Nadal (2004, 2009 and 2011) already lifting the trophy.

    He secured the winning point for his country, wrapping up a 3-1 triumph over France in front of a record crowd of over 27,000 people in Lille.

    Federer has publicly said that he will not be playing in 2015, as noted by the Associated Press (h/t ESPN), which is understandable at the age of 33 and after 2014’s success. We all know that winning another Grand Slam is his main priority.

    With his superstar absence, can the Davis Cup generate the same worldwide attention in 2015? Here’s a breakdown of all the World Group first-round ties.

Runners-Up France Try Again; Czechs Host Aussies

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    Germany vs. France

    First up are last year’s runners-up France, who go into Frankfurt to take on Germany, in a repeat of an encounter in 2014. In that tie, the Germans leapt into a 2-0 lead after the opening day, but France stormed back, with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils coming through on the last day, to win 3-2.

    This year, France will be without Tsonga, but should have enough to see off their opponents. In the singles will be world No. 14 Gilles Simon and No. 19 Gael Monfils. Simon has been playing exceptionally well of late, winning the title in Marseille (beating team-mate Monfils in the final) and reaching the Rotterdam semis, thrashing Andy Murray in the process.

    Germans Philipp Kohlschreiber and Benjamin Becker shouldn’t be sniffed at though, particularly in front of a home crowd. However, Kohlschreiber has won just two matches so far in 2015.

    In the doubles, Les Bleus have options. Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin won the French Open doubles title together in 2014. Then there’s Nicolas Mahut, famous for his marathon match at Wimbledon, who is also a handy doubles player.

    Prediction: France.

    Czech Republic vs. Australia

    With the improving Tomas Berdych not participating, this one could be fascinatingly close.

    Australian tennis is in a strong place for the future, with so many young prospects starting to shine through. In fact, the Aussie who has made the most impact recently is not playing, with Nick Kyrgios still struggling with a back injury.

    But world No. 38 Bernard Tomic, who reached the fourth round in Melbourne a few weeks ago, leads the line, alongside huge-serving Sam Groth and Thanasi Kokkinakis. Both of the latter two also impressed at the Australian Open and actually played each other in the second round with Groth coming out on top.

    Joining those three, in what will be his last season of Davis Cup play, is Lleyton Hewitt. He is actually going to take over the role of captain in 2016 for the team. Who better than the passionate Hewitt to guide these young Aussies on to potential future glory?

    Even without Berdych, the Czechs still have some very talented players in their ranks. Lukas Rosol, famed for his upset of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2012, is in the side along with 21-year-old Jiri Vesely. Vesely won first career ATP title in Auckland at the start of the year, but since then, he hasn’t won a match in four tournament appearances, which has to be concerning for the Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil.

    Prediction: Australia. Tomic can lead them to victory with two singles wins and unless the Czechs play Rosol and Vesely in the doubles, too, the Aussies should win that rubber with the depth they have.

Murray Leads Great Britain Against USA, Again

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    In 2014, Andy Murray and Great Britain stunned the U.S. on the clay of San Diego (why they picked clay we’ll never know) at this same stage of the tournament, the World Group first round. In 2015, though, it’s the Brits that possess home advantage.

    While Murray was superb throughout in San Diego, it was James Ward’s stunning victory over Sam Querrey that effectively won the tie. For GB to win again, you feel Ward is going to have to do the same and beat either John Isner or Donald Young.

    World No. 5 Murray, who lost to Novak Djokovic in the recent Australian Open final, should take care of business and beat Isner and Young, who will struggle to match the Scot’s consistency and movement on a hard court surface. The Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, are certainly favourites for the doubles over five sets, meaning it’d be up to those other two ties featuring James Ward.

    However, the Bryans winning their rubber is by no means a given. GB do boast some world-class doubles players, with Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot both included in the team. Inglot, with his Romanian partner Florin Mergea, actually bested the Bryans in Dubai last week, 10-8 in a match tiebreak. Also, depending on how the first day unfolds, Andy could play in the doubles, too, with one of these specialists.

    World No. 47 Donald Young’s selection was a surprise for some, but he has made good runs of late to the final in Delray Beach (lost to Ivo Karlovic) and the semis in Memphis (beaten by Kevin Anderson). Worryingly for the USA, though, he retired hurt in Acapulco last week.

    Steve Johnson was the obvious other option for U.S. captain Jim Courier. Ranked at No. 44, Johnson reached the third round at the 2015 Australian Open. Querrey, the world No. 43, who lost an enthralling battle with Kei Nishikori on a third-set tiebreak last month in the Memphis last four, was also left out.

    It’s great to have Andy Murray committed to playing in the Davis Cup, though, particularly with Federer not involved in 2015. His superstar status has drawn in the expected capacity crowd at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow this weekend. He was playing some of his strongest tennis down in Melbourne, but he has clearly not been overly bothered in his last two tournaments in Rotterdam and Dubai. But this competition matters to him, so expect to see some purposeful, powerful play from the Scot in this tie.

    Prediction: This is extremely difficult. Heart says Ward will find a way in front of the home crowd to upset Isner or Young. Head says they’ll be too strong for him. But go with your heart: Great Britain to win again.

Italy Head to Kazakhstan; South Americans Duel

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    Kazakhstan vs. Italy

    In 2014, Kazakhstan pushed eventual champions Switzerland all the way, with Roger Federer having to rescue his nation in the fifth and final rubber.

    Andrey Golubev was a revelation that weekend, and he will need to be again against a solid Italy side. Golubev beat Stan Wawrinka in the first match of that time against the Swiss, before he and Aleksandr Nedovyesov stunned Federer and Wawrinka in the doubles. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t win a third rubber, with Federer downing him in straight sets in the deciding match.

    Golubev is again being asked to play three rubbers, against slightly easier opponents this time in Italy. Despite their highest-ranked player, Fabio Fognini, not being pencilled in to play singles, the Italians should still trouble their opponents through Andreas Seppi and Simone Bolelli. Seppi scored the best victory of his career recently in Melbourne, when he stunned five-time champion Federer in four sets.

    Fognini is scheduled to play the doubles with Paolo Lorenzi on Saturday. Yet he won the Australian Open doubles with Bolelli only weeks ago, so if Bolelli is fit enough to play three matches, surely a substitution will be made there.

    The world No. 22 Fognini has had a very mixed start to 2015, losing in his opening round of three tournaments, including the Australian Open—which is probably why he hasn’t been selected for singles. However, he did beat Rafael Nadal on clay in the semi-final in Rio de Janeiro, a feat that not many can say they have accomplished.

    Mikhail Kukushkin is the top-ranked for Kazakhstan, sitting at No. 58 in the rankings. His head-to-head with Seppi is tied at 1-1. Kukushkin won their last meeting in 2013 on a hard court in Moscow; while Seppi won in five sets at Roland Garros the year before. So that match, scheduled to be the fourth rubber, could be a tight encounter.

    Prediction: Italy. 

    Argentina vs. Brazil

    Ears pricked up when these two neighbouring nations were drawn out to face one another—old South American rivals Brazil and Argentina are known to hate each other mainly because of football. Now, they will face off in five, five-set contests of tennis on the clay of Buenos Aires.

    With the continued absence of Juan Martin del Potro, it is Leonardo Mayer, ranked at No. 29, who leads the home side. Mayer is comfortably the highest-ranked singles player in the tie but was beaten by Brazil’s Joao Souza only a few weeks ago in Sao Paulo.

    Argentina certainly have plenty of options for their No. 2 spot, with Diego Schwartzman, Carlos Berlocq and Federico Delbonis all chosen.

    Brazil will fancy their chances in the doubles contest as they have two fine, established players in Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares.

    Prediction: Brazil. They might sneak a win on day one, win the doubles and put themselves in a strong position for the away victory.

Djokovic Leads Serbia; Depleted Swiss Play Belgium

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    Serbia vs. Croatia

    The presence of world No. 1 and 2015 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic ensures that this contest between two eastern European rivals will be one of the most highly followed World Group ties.

    Djokovic’s match with young and upcoming prospect Borna Coric could be one of the most interesting rubbers, though. Coric raised eyebrows by hammering an out-of-sorts Andy Murray in Dubai last week and reaching the semis. However, Roger Federer brought him back down to earth with a 6-2, 6-1 masterclass. But Coric is showing signs that he can compete with these top players, particularly from the baseline.

    He displays many attributes of the top-ranked Serb, in fact, and not just the immovable hair. His movement is extremely good; he’s strong and has a knack for getting a lot of balls back into play. He made Murray go for way too many shots because of his defensive skills.

    Croatia are missing Marin Cilic and Ivo Karlovic, though, and don’t appear to have much chance against the power of Djokovic. His good friend Viktor Troicki, who has been rebuilding his ranking and reputation since he returned from a failed doping test ban, will support Djokovic in the No. 2 spot. Nenad Zimonjic’s doubles experience could help the Serbs win that rubber as well.

    Prediction: Serbia.

    Belgium vs. Switzerland

    Our final World Group tie for the opening round of the 2015 Davis Cup features the current champions, who look significantly lighter than they did in November in Lille. Gone are last year’s heroes Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer, with the latter saying “it wasn’t a difficult decision” to miss 2015’s proceedings.

    It’s back to the drawing board for Switzerland, as somehow, world No. 344 Henri Laaksonen and No. 576 Michael Lammer will attempt to beat Belgium and help their country remain in the World Group.

    The one boost they have received is that the silky, baby-faced David Goffin will not be participating in Friday’s singles, at least, according to the official Davis Cup website. That means Ruben Bemelmans will take his place, alongside Steve Darcis, mildly known for beating Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon first round two years ago.

    Prediction: Belgium. The glory days are over for the Swiss, and they will have to hope that Wawrinka plays in the World Group play-off that they will inevitably be in after this tie.

Young Guns Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori Go Head-to-Head

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    Two of the hottest emerging ATP stars will go toe-to-toe in this intercontinental clash in Vancouver. The two of them couldn’t be more opposite in their playing styles either, with the big-serving, heavy-hitting Milos Raonic taking on the quick and accurate Kei Nishikori.

    Nishikori is constantly breaking new ground. He reached the US Open final last year, and last week, he moved up to a career-high No. 4 in the rankings. While he hasn’t ascended to those heights just yet, Raonic is also getting closer and closer to the extreme summit of the men’s game.

    On an indoor hard court that has a pace rating of "medium fast", Raonic’s serve should be very effective. The same applies for Canadian No. 2 Vasek Pospisil, who himself has a strong serve. Both of them could struggle with Nishikori’s consistency and precision of groundstrokes, though. The Japanese star hits the ball so early, which won’t give Raonic the time he likes to run around and hit a forehand.

    Doubles world No. 5 Daniel Nestor should lead the Canadians to victory in that particular match, and if either Go Soeda or Tatsuma Ito can cause an upset over Raonic or Pospisil, then the tie will be decided by Raonic vs. Nishikori, which is becoming a bit of a rivalry to watch out for.

    Nishikori leads their head-to-head 4-2, but No. 6 Raonic beat him at the start of the year in the Brisbane semis. It was a match decided by three tiebreaks. Their two previous five-setters have been split. Raonic won in the Wimbledon fourth round last year but Nishikori avenged him at the US Open later in 2014.

    Prediction: Canada. Nishikori’s two wins won’t be enough for Japan.

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