We break down each of the World Group semifinal and playoff ties this weekend in Davis Cup.
Spain vs. USA: Not since 1999 has Spain lost a Davis Cup tie at home on its favorite surface, having produced a generation of clay masters far deeper than Nadal. Nevertheless, Team USA upset a Federer-led Switzerland in February on red European clay before toppling a Tsonga-anchored France on the same surface, so they will bring plenty of experience to this tie. Crucial to those victories were upsets by Isner of Federer and Tsonga, which demonstrated the American #1’s ability to project his overpowering serve on the slowest surface. He will face an equally stiff test this Sunday in Ferrer, the spearhead of a Spanish team much more cohesive and decorated in Davis Cup than the Swiss and French. Although the USA can count on a doubles rubber from the Bryans, just a week after winning the US Open, the hosts will enter each singles rubber as favorites.
Having won a set from Nadal in a Madrid tie once, Querrey must build upon those memories to harbor any hope of solving Ferrer in the opener to the tie. Since Spain almost certainly will collect that victory, though, the pressure will rest on Isner’s shoulders to secure essentially a must-win rubber against Almagro. Contrary to expectations, the Spaniard won their only previous meeting on the grass of Wimbledon in 2011, so the American must deliver an effort closer to his Winston-Salem title run last month than his tepid US Open display in a first-week loss to Kohlschreiber. If Isner can eke out the crucial victory, USA likely would take an improbable 2-1 lead into Sunday, when much would hinge on the fourth-rubber clash of #1s. On outdoor tournaments, Ferrer has won all three of their meetings, all on the North American hard courts where one would favor the tower of power more than one does here. At that stage, all signs suggest that the tie would rest in the wavering hands of Querrey and Almagro, both uncertain occasionally in situations like the do-or-die dynamic of a fifth rubber. Tellingly, their previous matchups have divided in general according to surface, with the American winning on hard courts and the Spaniard delivering two straight-sets victories on clay at the Rome Masters 1000 tournament. Unless Querrey maintains an exceptional percentage of first serves, home-court advantage and surface superiority should propel Spain into the final.
Argentina vs. Czech Republic: After each showcased excellent tennis at the US Open, respective #1s Del Potro and Berdych will aim to translate that momentum to clay, where the former defeated the latter at Roland Garros this spring. Arguably the most talented tennis nation never to win the Davis Cup, Argentina has suffered two recent defeats in the finals of the competition and must burn more fiercely than ever for a breakthrough. All the same, Czech Republic also fell to Spain in the 2009 final and may feel that it deserves a title in an era defined by the partnership of Berdych and Stepanek. This unlikely combination of personalities has overachieved in team competition, including several doubles victories on weekends when nobody else took the court for the Czechs. If the visitors choose that route again, fatigue may become a factor on Sunday.
Overshadowed by Del Potro, Argentine #2 Juan Monaco reached the top 10 for the first time this year while proving himself something like a poor man’s version of Ferrer. This indefatigable grinder has not always competed with confidence against the elite, but his compatriots can expect him to gain inspiration from his surroundings and his favorite surface. That said, Monaco likely will not prosper against Berdych on a Friday that might feature consecutive routs, for Del Potro should encounter no significant resistance from fast-court specialist Stepanek in the first match. Although each team has submitted their two non-singles players for the doubles rubber, one wonders whether that strategy could shift should the tie enter the day deadlocked. Despite having enlisted Nadal-killer Rosol, Czechs may suffer for their lack of a compelling #2 if the tie reaches a fifth rubber with the capable Monaco waiting. In the evenly balanced third and fourth rubbers, the doubles and Del Potro-Berdych, the home-court advantage might prove decisive in a venue that has gained a reputation for energetic fans and against a team that has gained a reputation for sporadic psychological frailty. The tie may hinge on whether Berdych can win three best-of-five rubbers in three days, and this assignment looms especially large in the aftermath of his draining albeit impressive effort at the US Open last week.
A quick glance at the playoff ties:
Kazakhstan vs. Uzbekistan: Not content with qualifying for the World Group, Kazakhstan stunned the Czech Republic in Davis Cup last year. These startling overachievers enjoy a home tie against a fellow former Soviet Republic that imported Denis Istomin, the only top-50 player on either squad. In fact, all but Istomin and Kazakh #1 Korolev lie well outside the top 100, which makes this tie nearly impossible to predict considering how closely players cluster below that threshold. Kazakhstan
Germany vs. Australia: Without Haas or Kohlschreiber, the hosts will rely on the inconsistent Florian Mayer and world #127 Cedrik-Marcel Stebe to survive a home tie on indoor clay. Bringing a fully staffed squad of Tomic, Hewitt, and Matthew Ebden to Germany, the visitors should fancy their chances on talent alone despite playing on their worst surface. But the enigmatic Australian #1 remains the key player to watch this weekend, just after captain Patrick Rafter questioned his maturity and competitive desire. If Tomic implodes, Hewitt may not have the strength to save Australia. He spares no effort in Davis Cup, though, and seems likely to snatch the fifth rubber from Stebe if required. Australia
Japan vs. Israel: Plucky nations who frequently surpass expectations in Davis Cup, these two should engage in a feisty encounter at the Ariake Coliseum. Had Israel played before their raucous fans, one might favor them to secure a mini-upset. In Japan, by contrast, Nishikori should outclass both of his singles opponents on a squad that brings no player ranked higher than #98. Like the USA, Israel will enter the doubles as a clear favorite, based on the credentials of Ehrlich and Ram, but will enter each of the singles matches as clear underdogs. Japan
Belgium vs. Sweden: Combined with familiar veteran Steve Darcis for the home side is summer sensation David Goffin, who reached the second week of Roland Garros and briefly flustered Federer there. Back on the same surface, Goffin should delight his compatriots with comfortable victories over a Swedish team without a player ranked in the top 300. With neither Soderling nor home-court advantage, the depleted visitors must pin their hopes on the Cup’s history of dramatic upsets. Belgium
Canada vs. South Africa: In this version of the Commonwealth Cup, the hosts will rely on Milos Raonic and the promising Vasek Pospisil to outclass a largely anonymous collection of South Africans. As though their singles superiority did not suffice, Canada should field a creditable doubles squad with specialist Daniel Nestor and the imposing serves of either Raonic or serve-volleyer Frank Dancevic. One struggles to imagine a way for South Africa to keep the tie alive into Sunday. Canada
Brazil vs. Russia: A fading power in men’s tennis, Russia faces the most compelling playoff contest this weekend of the sport’s traditional bastions. Thousands of miles from home on South American clay, Tarpischev’s squad will hope for a respectable effort from Alex Bogomolov, the man of fluctuating nationality who has done little for his latest adopted country since professing an ardent desire to join them. On this surface, the clay skills of Igor Andreev could prove a valuable asset, but Brazil features a usefully balanced team with a talented singles anchor (Bellucci) and an even more proficient doubles squad (Melo/Soares). Such a combination generally spells at least two victories and thrusts the burden onto the opponents to produce something special. Brazil
Italy vs. Chile: Yet again, the home nation fields its best squad or something close to it against a group of thoroughly overmatched visitors. Notorious for his career-long struggles in Cup competition, Capdeville will need to reverse that trend dramatically this weekend by winning at least two and probably three rubbers. The trio of Jorge Aguilar, Guillermo Hormazabal, and Christian Garin should count themselves lucky to submit somewhat competitive efforts against the likes of Seppi and Fognini, the former of whom has enjoyed an especially fine season in 2012. Italy
Netherlands vs. Switzerland: Here, at last, arises an exception to the theme of the weekend’s playoffs. Whereas the visitors will bring their usual deadly duo of Federer and Wawrinka, the Netherlands will rest their fortunes on Robin Haase and Thiemo de Bakker as well as whatever advantage they can glean from the tie’s location and surface (outdoor clay). While the challenge of conquering any team with Federer looms large, the Americans exposed the fractures within this Swiss squad in February and even demonstrated that one need not concede the GOAT’s two singles rubbers. Although Switzerland did bring four total players, they have seen no need to disguise the fact that their two leading men will play the doubles as well, expecting (probably correctly) that a tired Federer and Wawrinka still represent their interests better than a rested Chiudinelli and Lammer. Vulnerable at times to chronically dangerous journeymen like Haase and de Bakker, the Swiss #2 arrives on a momentum surge from a strong summer and should enjoy the clay as much as any Dutchman. Switzerland