NOVI SAD, SERBIA: With the Davis Cup a rare piece of silverware missing from his packed trophy cabinet, former world No. 1 Roger Federer appears set to lead Switzerland’s effort to win its maiden title in the competition when the nation takes on an understrength Serbian team in its World Group first round tie this weekend.
Federer sent shockwaves through the tennis world on Wednesday when he turned up in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad, hosting the Friday-to-Sunday tie.
Having last played for Switzerland in a 2012 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off win over Netherlands, Federer has once again teamed up with 2014 Australian Open winner Stanislas Wawrinka, who has battled through fatigue and jet-lag after beating the world’s top-ranked player Rafael Nadal to win the first Grand Slam title of his career in Melbourne Park on Sunday.
"I always kept a tiny door open and I am glad to be here," a relaxed-looking Federer told a news conference after Thursday’s draw, pitting him against Ilija Bozoljac in Friday’s opening singles rubber.
"Playing here is something I was excited about when I left Australia. I spoke to team captain Severin Luthi and Stan, we talked about it and the decision was made pretty quickly," added Federer, who was knocked out by Nadal in the Australian Open semis.
But he also played down the prospects of strolling through the unpredictable 16-team World Group, having emphasised that Switzerland had to take Serbia seriously although the hosts will miss their top three players, including world No.2 Novak Djokovic.
"My priority is to win tomorrow’s match and I am looking forward to the entire weekend but not much further than that. I don’t want to think too far ahead. We have a chance but this is a year-long competition and there is plenty of time," Federer said.
Djokovic was photographed by local media enjoying his skiing holiday in southern Serbia’s resort of Mount Kopaonik earlier this week, tackling inviting slopes with friends and family to recuperate for a gruelling schedule that lies ahead on the ATP Tour.
Any hopes nurtured by Serbian fans that he might have a last-minute change of heart and gatecrash the party vanished into thin air after the Serbian team turned up at the draw without the player who steered them to the 2010 title and last year’s final, which they lost to the Czech Republic on a home court in the Belgrade Arena.
But a defiant team captain Bogdan Obradovic put on a brave face and said he expected his players to give the Swiss a decent run for their money in the SPENS Sports Centre, where a sellout 8,000 crowd is expected to turn up throughout the weekend.
"It’s going to be very tough but the good thing is that we are under no pressure at all because my players are up against Federer and Wawrinka, the former being one of the best players ever and the latter the Australian Open champion," said Obradovic. "We will do our best on the court and it’s also a big chance for the players who are here to show that we can stretch our roster."
"Apart from Djokovic’s absence, we are also missing the injured Janko Tipsarevic and suspended Viktor Troicki. Hence it will be good to see what kind of support our second-string players can provide in the future."
Despite Federer’s arrival reducing Serbia’s chances of an upset to a bare minimum, Obradovic welcomed the prospect of watching his less heralded players take centre stage against the 32-year old Swiss maestro.
"I was actually not too surprised that Federer turned up, knowing that you can change the nominations up to an hour before the draw. It is very good for the Davis Cup when the best players decide to play in the first round and it is also a unique opportunity for tennis fans in Serbia to watch Federer in action."
Federer too was philosophical about Djokovic’s absence, pointing out that his presence would have been the icing on the cake of what now looks likely to develop into a one-sided contest. "We were all hoping he was going to be here but we understand he has good reasons not to be and we all know how much he has done for his country," said Federer. "It would have been more exciting and more difficult for us if he was here and all we can do now is take this opportunity to try to win the tie."
Wawrinka meets Dusan Lajovic in Friday’s other singles, while Serbia’s Nenad Zimonjic and Filip Krajinovic have been nominated to play Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer in Saturday’s doubles.
Lajovic is due to play Federer and Bozoljac locks horns with Wawrinka in Sunday’s reverse singles.
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Ilija Bozoljac (SRB) v Roger Federer (SUI)
R2: Dusan Lajovic (SRB) v Stanislas Wawrinka (SUI)
R3: Filip Krajinovic/Nenad Zimonjic (SRB) v Marco Chiudinelli/Michael Lammer (SUI)
R4: Dusan Lajovic (SRB) v Roger Federer (SUI)
R5: Ilija Bozoljac (SRB) v Stanislas Wawrinka (SUI)
Ilija Bozoljac (SRB) - 30/01/14
Roger Federer (SUI) - 30/01/14
Dusan Lajovic (SRB) - 30/01/14
Captain Bogdan Obradovic (SRB) - 30/01/14
Captain Severin Luthi (SUI) - 30/01/14
Stanislas Wawrinka (SUI) - 30/01/14