GRONINGEN, NETHERLANDS: Two battles appear to have been decisive in this Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off tie.
Friday morning at 6.30am Andreas Haider-Maurer conceded defeat in the first of these battles – against this year’s influenza virus – and knocked on his captain Clemens Trimmel’s hotel room door saying he was unfit to play with a 39 degree Celsius fever.
Some 14 hours later Jürgen Melzer lost the second battle, against an actual Dutch tennis player, when Thiemo de Bakker wrong-footed him with a backhand return at 5-1 in the fifth set of the tie’s most memorable rubber. It meant 2-0 to the Dutch, after doubles player Oliver Marach had served as cannon fodder for Robin Haase earlier on Friday.
It wasn’t officially game over after that but it would take a minor miracle for the Austrians to win the tie, certainly after Melzer aggravated a niggling shoulder injury playing against De Bakker. But even if the doubles and Sunday’s first rubber had gone the Austrians’ way, their fourth or fifth-choice singles player would have to defeat a confident and in-form de Bakker.
It didn’t come to that however, as Dutch doubles pairing Haase and Jean-Julien Rojer put in a strong performance after a hesitant start to beat Julian Knowle and Marach in four sets, extending their unbeaten Davis Cup record as a team. With Jesse Huta Galung beating Melzer in the dead fourth rubber and Marach abstaining from play in the fifth, it meant a 5-0 clean sweep for ‘Oranje’.
And so the Dutch return to the World Group after an absence since 2010, facing a tie against a seeded country in the first round. Captain Jan Siemerink said he’d prefer to play Kazakhstan, the current No. 8 in the Davis Cup rankings and thus the least tough opponent possible. Not because Siemerink sees his team as potential Davis Cup winners – “although I hope you permit me to dream” - but because a victory in the first round would mean that Netherlands would remain in the World Group until at least 2015, which would give a welcome boost to a sport that has been losing the attention of the Dutch public slightly over the years.
Doubles specialist Rojer was thinking less of the long term, when he – erroneously – stated his preference for the World Group: “Spain. Rafa. Bull-fighting arena.” Spain is certainly a possibility, as is Nadal, but if Spain does come out of the draw pot for the Netherlands on Wednesday, it will be “Spain. Rafa. Some Dutch venue.”
But all that is months away. For now, it was time for a party, of which de Bakker was put in charge. Or rather, he put himself in charge, as the Dutch Davis Cup team’s unofficial master of ceremonies. And he clearly put in his second heroic performance of the weekend at the bar and the dancing floor. Bleary-eyed from the events that apparently went on until the a.m., De Bakker lost to Austrian Davis Cup debutant Phillip Oswald 57 46 in an unofficial exhibition match.
It couldn’t dent his spirits however, after his memorable performance against Melzer, coming back from two sets to one behind to record the best win of his career.
Austrian spirits were somewhat lower. Questions were asked about Trimmel’s choice of only selecting two singles players in Melzer and Haider-Maurer, which became a problem after the latter fell ill. (Trimmel explained that he selects his players on the basis that Melzer wins his singles rubbers and a strong pairing wins the doubles. This means that he needs two doubles players in case Melzer would not be able to play three matches).
There were also questions about the average age of the squad (33), but both Trimmel and Melzer said that age is not and should not be a consideration in the selection of players. “Only ability should be the criterium,” Trimmel said. “I pick whoever plays best.”
And then there was the question whether Austrian No. 1 Melzer – who turns 33 next year – will be available for next year’s Europe/Africa Zone play-offs. “I have been always committed to playing in Davis Cup, but I have to see how it goes with my body.”
They may have been injured, tired, and unlucky but the Austrians didn’t use this as an excuse for defeat. “That would be unfair to the Dutch,” Trimmel said. “They were the better team and deserved to win.”
The best thing they took from the weekend was the atmosphere in the stadium - MartiniPlaza.
“This was the best Davis Cup crowd I ever played for,” said Melzer, who has seen many venues in his Davis Cup career. “They were loud but very fair. Of course they cheered louder for their own players, but they showed their appreciation when one of our players hit a beautiful shot. That’s rare.”
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