Biggest Storylines to Watch in the 1st Round of the 2016 Davis Cup

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMarch 2, 2016

Biggest Storylines to Watch in the 1st Round of the 2016 Davis Cup

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    Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

    The 2016 Davis Cup has arrived, which means that defending champion Great Britain will be counting on their hero, Andy Murray, to keep the sun rising over their new empire. OK, so it’s not easy to win back-to-back Davis Cup titlessomething only tennis-rich powers Spain and the Czech Republic have accomplished in the 21st century.

    The first round promises to be competitive with 16 worthy teams vying for eight important, clinching spots to stay as participants for the first round in 2017, and they will also compete to play on for a shot at this year’s championship.

    Which countries are the favorites to move on, and which storylines will be the most intriguing for tennis fans?

Great Britain vs. Japan

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    Andy Murray and coach Leon Smith have had a tight bond.
    Andy Murray and coach Leon Smith have had a tight bond.Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

    Andy Murray deserves front-page news for 2016 after turning in perhaps the greatest year in Davis Cup history. The feisty Scottish champion took all eight singles rubbers last year and teamed with brother Jamie for three doubles wins.

    In 2016, Team Great Britain figures to be better. They have rising talent Kyle Edmund, a top-100 player to man the No. 2 singles spot, and he could help take pressure off Murray with a win. He is evenly matched with Japanese No. 2 Taro Daniel, but he has the home support of Birmingham’s faithful British supporters.

    But an upset could happen. Great Britain might be better than last year, but they need things to break their way. There was no wriggle room last year if Murray lost, and Edmund has not proved he can win a do-or-die match on Sunday. That could happen if Japanese star Kei Nishikori defeats Murray and the British doubles team loses.

USA vs. Australia

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    Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt watches "future star" Nick Kyrgios.
    Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt watches "future star" Nick Kyrgios.Robert Prezioso/Getty Images

    Two proud tennis countries with rich traditions that have struggled since the brief reigns of Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt flickered out like fast-burning candles. Roddick and his United States team won in 2007, and Hewitt’s Aussies won in 2003. Since, both nations have been itching for tennis stars to return their countries to prominence.

    Team Australia will be a solid favorite in its home country, and the grass courts at Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club should be a great spectacle for tennis tradition. The bounce is higher and slower than Wimbledon’s slicker grass, but it will be great for big servers like Australia’s Nick Kyrgios and Sam Groth as well as America’s John Isner and Jack Sock.

    Now both nations are investing in their talented youth. For Australia, the future is now with Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic, but the U.S. might have one eye on their teenagers like Taylor Fritznot yet participating but perhaps an infusion of new blood as soon as 2017.

    Something to note could be the health of Kyrgios and Tomic. Kyrgios sat out practice with a virus on Tuesday, and Tomic has had wrist problems recently, per the Australian Associated Press (via ESPN.com).

    Another important factor could be the American advantage with the doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan. That Saturday contest could be crucial if the U.S. can split on Friday and Sunday.

Germany vs. Czech Republic

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    Jiri Vesely celebrates with his Czech teammates.
    Jiri Vesely celebrates with his Czech teammates.MONEY SHARMA/Getty Images

    This might be the best tie of them all. Germany will host the deep, veteran-laden Czech Republic that won Davis Cup titles in 2012 and '13. There’s world No. 7 Tomas Berdych and aggressive offensive strikers in Lukas Rosol, Jiri Vesely and Radek Stepanek.

    The key for Germany will be if the No. 2 player, 19-year-old Alexander Zverev, can grow into a Davis Cup star on his first attempt. He has that kind of talent with his lanky body and impressive groundstrokes. Will he feel composure behind a partisan crowd that has seen German athletes win big championships in their favorite sports?

    Likewise, veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber needs a split, and the athletic Dustin Brown is capable of whipping up some magic on fast indoor courts.

Serbia vs. Kazakhstan

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    World No. 1 Novak Djokovic
    World No. 1 Novak DjokovicAssociated Press

    Any time the best player in the world is available, it’s a story. Novak Djokovic could use a little work before Indian Wells following his withdrawal from the Dubai Tennis Championships last week because of an eye infection. Viktor Troicki, ranked No. 23, backs up Djokovic and is playing solid tennis in 2016, including a title at Sydney.

    Djokovic could be extra motivated to get Serbia to the next round, because it would mean a likely clash against Andy Murray’s British champions. Nothing gets Djokovic more motivated than a shot to beat down his nearest rival. Somewhere in Spain, Rafael Nadal is nodding his head.

Sleeper Ties

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    Croatia's Borna Coric is looking for young success.
    Croatia's Borna Coric is looking for young success.Associated Press

    The biggest disappointment will be Team Switzerland heading to Italy without Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka. It will be a likely exit for the 2014 champions, who will have to grind it out against Italian clay-courters.

    France and Canada have plenty of star power with France’s quartet of top-20 players opposing Canada’s thin team that will be without star Milos Raonic. Furthermore, the Canadians will travel to the old continent to play on clay. France has too many versatile stars to let this one slip away, and not even the singles and doubles abilities of Vasek Pospisil will put much of a dent into their ride into the second round.

    Last year, Argentina was a surprise semifinalist, but it will be a test for their clay-court grinders to play on a speedy Polish court against powerful but inconsistent Jerzy Janowicz. Otherwise, the Poles will need someone else to step up.

    Finally, and not merely an afterthought, is the overlooked Belgian squad that was most known for being the final step to Andy Murray’s Davis Cup triumph. David Goffin has been a strong Davis Cup leader, and he will need to be at his best against Croatia’s talented, enigmatic Marin Cilic and possible future star, Borna Coric. It could be too much for the Belgians this time around.

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