OSTRAVA, CZECH REPUBLIC: In the immediate aftermath of the Netherlands Davis Cup by BNP Paribas victory over Austria in September, which sealed the country’s return to the World Group for the first time since 2009, team captain Jan Siemerink remarked he was hoping for the easiest tie possible in the first round.
Sadly for Siemerink, that wish went unfulfilled. Netherlands find themselves in Ostrava facing two-time defending champion Czech Republic, a country that hasn’t been beaten in nine Davis Cup matches, stretching back more than two years. As ties go, it doesn’t get much tougher than this.
Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil will again be able to call on the talents of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek, the men who propelled this weekend’s host nation to its second straight Davis Cup title against Serbia last year, while Siemerink’s team will be spearheaded by Robin Haase, ranked 46th in the world.
The draw, made in Ostrava’s sprawling City Hall, pitted Stepanek against Haase in Friday’s opening singles rubber, followed by Berdych versus Igor Sijsling. The reverse singles on Sunday will see Berdych take on Haase, before Stepanek meets Sijsling.
World No. 7 Berdych is riding high after reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open for the first time in his career last week. He will be heading into the unknown against Sijsling as it is their first competitive encounter.
“I still have enough time to get kind of a scouting of him,” Berdych said. “It’s going to be another match of playing our first time. I did it a couple of times, especially in Melbourne that I played three guys that I never played, so it’s going to be a similar approach to those matches. Try to be focused especially on myself and try to build up on my strengths.”
Haase and Stepanek have also never met before. The Dutchman lies just four places above his opponent in the world rankings but is still searching for his first tour victory of the season. Despite this, he is happy with his current form.
“The matches I’ve played, I’ve played quite well, but I lost them,” Haase said. “Of course you always would like to win, but it’s not a confidence problem. I always believe in myself, and especially in Davis Cup, you never know what happens.”
Lukas Rosol and Jiri Vesely are currently slated to line up for the Czechs in Saturday’s doubles rubber, although Navratil strongly hinted the pair would again be replaced by Berdych and Stepanek, who have lost just one of the 15 Davis Cup matches they have played together.
The Czechs have chosen an indoor hard court to suit their playing style, although the surface is slower than both sides expected. History also favours the hosts: they lead the head-to-heads 4-1, with Netherlands recording their only success way back in 1925.
Siemerink said: “We’re really looking forward to this tie. It’s great to play against the Czech Republic, No. 1 in the world rankings, winner of the last Davis Cup tournaments, big names and a traditional tennis country. For us, it’s a good opportunity to show what we have.”
There had been speculation that Rosol, having risen above Stepanek in the world rankings, would claim the team’s second singles berth. But Navratil has decided to stick with a winning team.
“From my side, it’s no different if Radek is second or third [ranked Czech player],” the captain said. “Radek is a little bit better player, still now with more experience than Lukas, and we want to finish this game very early.”
Meanwhile, Stepanek will be presented with a Davis Cup commitment award before the tie gets underway on Friday, reflecting his dedication to the competition. The 35-year-old has represented his country on 20 occasions, and after last year’s success, became the first man ever to win live fifth rubbers in successive finals.
“When I came back to the team in 2007, I had one goal, to try to win this cup,” Stepanek said. “To play in front of your home crowd and to play for your country (…) the responsibility is completely different. I love this competition, and that’s why I always give everything I have.”
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Radek Stepanek (CZE) v Robin Haase (NED)
R2: Tomas Berdych (CZE) v Igor Sijsling (NED)
R3: Lukas Rosol/Jiri Vesely (CZE) v Thiemo de Bakker/Jean-Julien Rojer (NED)
R4: Tomas Berdych (CZE) v Robin Haase (NED)
R5: Radek Stepanek (CZE) v Igor Sijsling (NED)
Captain Jaroslav Navratil (CZE) - 30/01/2014
Radek Stepanek (CZE) - 30/01/2014
Tomas Berdych (CZE) - 30/01/2014
Captain Jan Siemerink (NED) - 30/01/2014
Robin Haase (NED) - 30/01/2014