Only once, in 2000, have Sweden dropped out of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group and the odds must be heavily on it maintaining its fine record against Italy in its play-off tie in Lidkoping, southern Sweden.
Fortunately for Sweden the retirement of the great all-rounder Jonas Bjorkman coincided with Robin Soderling’s rise to prominence. However, it does place a big pressure on the world No. 5 to take maximum points from his singles rubbers, which he has done on 10 of the last 11 occasions.
Soderling returns to Sweden after a second consecutive outstanding summer in which he went one better at Wimbledon, reaching the quarterfinals this time, while he again made the final at the French Open and the quarterfinals at the US Open. He is now just 125 points behind fourth-placed Andy Murray in the rankings.
“I feel good,” he said. “I know when I’m playing well and hitting the ball well, but it doesn’t only depend on me. We can afford to lose one of my matches and still win.”
With Italy’s No. 1 Potito Starace facing Andreas Vinciguerra in the opening rubber, Sweden may again be looking to Soderling to square the tie. The 29-year-old Vinciguerra may not be quite the player he once was but he made David Nalbandian fight all the way in the decisive fifth rubber against Argentina in March and he knows his way around indoor hard courts better than the clay-court specialist Starace.
Thomas Enqvist, the Swedish captain, who made his debut as captain in the match against Argentina earlier this year is taking nothing for granted.
“Italy has four great players here and we need to perform in every match to have a chance to win,” he said.
Italy certainly has greater strength in depth than Sweden with four players in the top 100 compared to Sweden’s one, but they are going to find the Plexipave surface here at the splendid new Sparbanken Lidkoping Arena uncomfortably quick. Corrado Barazzutti, the Italian captain, thinks it’s the fastest his team has ever encountered – and the ball, he reckons, is pretty quick too.
If this tie was on clay it might be a different story since Soderling lost his last match against Starace, in Barcelona, as well as his last match against Simone Bolelli, the Italian No. 3, in Monte Carlo, also last year. But Fabio Fognini, who faces Soderling in the second of the opening day’s singles rubbers, will no doubt be encouraged by his recent performance in New York, where he may have only lasted one round but took the world No. 8 Fernando Verdasco to five sets.
Enqvist will be looking to his two doubles specialists – Robert Lindstedt and Simon Aspelin - to augment Soderling’s excellence and start building a meaningful partnership in the wake of Bjorkman’s retirement.
Ranked No. 24 and No. 29 respectively, they certainly have the capability and Lindstedt, of course, was a Wimbledon doubles finalist this year alongside Romania’s Horia Tecau.
“Both Aspelin and Lindstedt are coming into this match with good confidence, they have played really well the last couple of months,” said Enqvist. “They have also had time to really practise together for a full week.”
The next great singles player to carry on Sweden’s proud tradition after Soderling, however, is still some way off.
“We have to give them some time,” said Enqvist. “We won the European team championship for under 18s last year, but the tennis today is very physical and it takes longer to break through than it did 10 years ago. I maybe don’t see them having a big breakthrough this year but perhaps in a couple of years time you will see them on the ATP Tour.”
The full draw is as follows:
Andreas Vinciguerra (SWE) v Potito Starace (ITA)
Robin Soderling (SWE) v Fabio Fognini (ITA)
Simon Aspelin/Robert Lindstedt (SWE) v Simon Bolelli/Daniele Bracialli (ITA)
Robin Soderling (SWE) v Potito Starace (ITA)
Andreas Vinciguerra (SWE) v Fabio Fognini (ITA)