BELGRADE, SERBIA: Novak Djokovic leads Serbia into this weekend’s Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final against defending champion Czech Republic intent on guiding the host nation to a second triumph in the competition.
Three years on from winning its first Davis Cup crown at the Belgrade Arena, Serbia is through to its second Final and will again turn to trump card Djokovic to do the nation proud.
"After that win for Serbia in 2010 we said that we might not have another opportunity to play at home and fight for this title," said Djokovic. "Now three years later it happens that we have a second chance to win the title at home, which is great.
"Hopefully we can use the unity that we have as a team and the experience that we have as Davis Cup champions [to win]."
Born and bred in Belgrade, 26-year-old Djokovic enters this weekend’s Final on a 22-match winning streak, having won the last four tournaments he has contested in Beijing, Shanghai, Paris and London, and will bid to put the gloss on an incredible season in front of 15,500 home fans in Belgrade.
On current form alone, Serbia captain Bogdan Obradovic couldn’t ask for a better leading man under the roof than Djokovic, unbeaten in 15 indoor hard court encounters this year.
"I've won a lot of matches and a lot of tournaments lately," said Djokovic. "I'm full of confidence and obviously that will help me to play well on the court."
The biggest challenge standing in the way of the world No. 2, both in stature and on court potency, is 6’5” Tomas Berdych, who alongside Radek Stepanek led Czech Republic to its first Davis Cup crown since winning under the flag of Czechoslovakia in 1980 with victory over Spain in last year’s Final in Prague.
Big-hitting Berdych has struggled in match-ups with Djokovic in the past, winning just two of their 16 encounters, in the 2010 Wimbledon semifinals and in the quarterfinals at the Rome Masters this year, and has lost all 12 of his meetings with the Serb on a hard court. That said, the proud Czech is a different animal when wearing country colours and will be determined to give his nation a fighting chance in the tie.
“It’s not going to be easy at all,” admitted Berdych. “But we are in a position that this is not a single tournament – we have five matches to try to score three points."
Djokovic, for one, isn't writing off the Czech.
"Tomas is one of the best tennis players in the world for many years already," he said. "He's an established Top 10 player, he loves playing on hard court and even though I never lost to him [on a hard court] we have had a couple of very long and close matches."
The No. 2 singles ties and doubles rubber could well be where the tie is won and lost this weekend. Former top tenner Janko Tipsarevic misses out on the Final after failing to recover from a foot injury sustained just three games into his last competitive outing in Valencia.
That leaves Dusan Lajovic with a hugely challenging task of facing any one of Radek Stepanek, Lukas Rosol or Jan Hajek, who will all be ready to pounce if called upon for the second singles by stand-in captain Vladimir Safarik.
Regardless, the Czechs have already identified Saturday’s doubles as a must-win point. Berdych and Stepanek are the most successful partnership in Czech history with a 13-1 win-loss record together in the competition, but their likely Saturday doubles clash against Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjic could easily prove a lengthy struggle.
The Serbian duo have twice forced an extended fifth set on Davis Cup duty this year, defeating the indefatigable Bryan Brothers 15-13 in the final set of their quarterfinal against USA in Boise in April, before narrowly losing to Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil 10-8 in the fifth during their semifinal bout in September.
A positive result for the Czechs in the doubles would almost certainly guarantee a live final day and, while Serbia will long to secure a glorious triumph in front of a partisan crowd with the help of their exceptional No. 1, the Czechs are a strong unit whose players often uncover another gear when competing in national colours.
Let the battle commence.