Novak Djokovic has the opportunity to increase his win streak to 24 this weekend but even that may not be enough for Serbia against defending champions Czech Republic in the 2013 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final at the Belgrade Arena.
The news that Janko Tipsarevic has been forced to pull out due to a right heel injury sustained in Valencia last month is a blow for the hosts, although it provides a chance for his 23-year-old replacement Dusan Lajovic to become a national hero.
Lajovic’s only previous taste of the Davis Cup came in a dead fifth rubber against Sweden in Nis last year. It is a very different experience to the one he will face on Friday when he steps on court in front of 15,500 raucous fans to face Tomas Berdych, which follows the opening rubber between Djokovic and Radek Stepanek.
The hosts hope that Lajovic can rise to the occasion in his first ever best-of-five set match. The world No. 117 has lost all four tour-level matches he has played this year, with his last tour victory coming in April 2012 against Russian Evgeny Donskoy. However, he did win his second Challenger title of the season just two weeks ago in Seoul.
“I would say it’s very exciting,” said Lajovic. “I have been feeling like this since I heard the news. I hope that this positive energy will lead me to play my best game on Friday. To play for your country in such an important match is incredible.
“From one side, Tomas will be the toughest player I have ever played. From the other side, maybe the good thing could be that he doesn’t know me so I might have some advantage in the opening games of the match. I just hope that I can give my best and try to surprise him.”
As clear a favourite as Berdych is, it could be a tricky situation for the world No. 7. “There is going to be a bit of scouting,” he admitted. “I’ve never played him, I’ve never seen him play any match but I think the guys around the team and my coach will help me with that. For me the most important thing is to stay focused and play my best.”
Following his victory in the final of the ATP World Tour Finals against Rafael Nadal in London on Monday night, Djokovic immediately boarded a flight and arrived in Belgrade in the early hours of Tuesday.
He admits that he may not be feeling fully fresh but is hoping that the support of the crowd can help spur him and his team-mates to a second Davis Cup title in what has become a bit of a fortress for Serbia, having only ever lost one tie at the Belgrade Arena.
“The crowd support is very important, maybe crucial,” said Djokovic. “Not just in my match but in the match of Dusan Lajovic. The crowd is actually a key player in those matches. With their support, if’s the same as what we have had in previous years, then everything is possible.”
It is set to be a long and tough weekend for 34-year-old Stepanek and it could not get off to a much tougher start than taking on the world No. 2 in his own backyard. Stepanek has only beaten Djokovic once in their nine meetings and that was more than seven years ago in Rotterdam when the Serb was 18 and ranked No. 81.
“There is no tougher cookie than this one, playing Novak in front of his own crowd after the run of form that he has had,” said Stepanek. “Definitely it’s a challenge but all I can do is try to play my best tennis and see where I can push him.
“I am ready to do no matter what it takes. If I have to be on the court five hours a day, this is my job. I’m here for the team and I’m here for my country to give everything.”
Like Stepanek, Djokovic may also be required on all three days. Given that he is widely reckoned to deliver two points in his singles matches, the doubles rubber on Saturday could well be where the tie is won or lost and Serbia captain Bogdan Obradovic has considered fielding his star man on Saturday as well.
“We know that Novak is playing the best tennis in the world so he is the one that is capable of winning three matches in this tie,” said Obradovic. “We have discussed playing him in the doubles if he is mentally and physically ready to play that. When you have him on the court, the Czech team will have huge pressure.”
While Djokovic comes into the tie with an unbeaten run, the Czechs also have a streak of their own. It has been 32 months since they lost a tie – to Kazakhstan in March 2011 – but the man who has led them to nine wins in succession is sadly absent.
Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil is at home recovering after being hospitalised last week with a pulmonary embolism. However, he is keeping in regular contact with stand-in skipper Vladimir Safarik, a former coach who now finds himself on the team bench after helping to organise Davis Cup ties for 14 years.
“I am speaking to Jaroslav almost every day,” said Safarik. “Even though I have been with the team for many years, I was not the captain so there are things I have never experienced. I talk to him and he tries to give me some advice.”
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Novak Djokovic (SRB) v Radek Stepanek (CZE)
R2: Dusan Lajovic (SRB) v Tomas Berdych (CZE)
R3: Ilija Bozoljac/Nenad Zimonjic (SRB) v Jan Hajek/Lukas Rosol (CZE)
R4: Novak Djokovic (SRB) v Tomas Berdych (CZE)
R5: Dusan Lajovic (SRB) v Radek Stepanek (CZE)
Captain Vladimir Safarik (CZE) - 14/11/2013
Novak Djokovic (SRB) - 14/11/2013
Dusan Lajovic (SRB) - 14/11/2013
Captain Bogdan Obradovic (SRB) - 14/11/2013
Radek Stepanek (CZE) - 14/11/2013
Nenad Zimonjic/Ilija Bozoljac (SRB) - 14/11/2013
Tomas Berdych (CZE) - 14/11/2013
Jan Hajek and Lukas Rosol (CZE)