BELGRADE, SERBIA: The man of the moment has landed! Novak Djokovic arrived home on Thursday afternoon from his triumphant exploits at the US Open on Monday night, and he is due to open Serbia's Davis Cup by BNP Paribas semifinal against Argentina on Friday. But players and captains from both teams were finding it hard to disguise their suspicion that Djokovic might not play on Friday.
The Davis Cup rules are clear. Once a player has been nominated at the draw ceremony, he has to play on the opening day unless he can produce a medical certificate from the independent tie doctor showing he is unable to play.
The rule exists to protect the integrity of the opening day nominations, but to leave open enough flexibility to replace a genuinely ailing player and thereby avoid the demoralising spectacle of a walkover.
It's a rule Djokovic made use of last year in almost identical circumstances. He played a Monday night final at the US Open, was nominated for the opening singles against the Czech Republic four days later, but woke up on Friday morning with a viral problem, and didn't play until Saturday. This year he is back even later than last year, and was given dispensation to miss the draw ceremony because of his extended media commitments in New York. At the time the draw took place, Djokovic was still in the air, but he was due to practise on Thursday afternoon.
That means that, for the time being at least, the line-up for this semifinal reads as follows:
R1: Novak Djokovic (SRB) v David Nalbandian (ARG)
R2: Janko Tipsarevic (SRB) v Juan Martin del Potro (ARG)
R3: Janko Tipsarevic / Nenad Zimonjic (SRB) v Juan Ignacio Chela / Juan Monaco (ARG)
R4: Novak Djokovic (SRB) v Juan Martin del Potro (ARG)
R5: Janko Tipsarevic (SRB) v David Nalbandian (ARG)
The missing name in that list is Victor Troicki; Serbia's hero from last December's final when he won the decisive fifth rubber against Michael Llodra. But Troicki is preparing to play.
“We're still waiting for Novak to arrive from New York,” he said, “and we'll see how he feels. If he's not that great, I'll be definitely ready to play the first match against Nalbandian. Last year I found out three hours before the match that I would play, but this time I'm aware that he might not play if he's not right.”
Argentina's selection is a gamble in itself. Nalbandian is the talisman, a proven Davis Cup player who has won vital matches even when not fully fit.
After a run of injuries, it's unlikely the 29-year-old can play on all three days, so the decision to throw him in on the opening day is clearly based on facing Troicki, against whom Nalbandian has a 3-1 winning head-to-head.
Argentina's captain Tito Vazquez appears happy with his selection gamble, even with Djokovic nominated. “David has been a main feature for Argentina in Davis Cup for the last few years, he's a real cup player, he's been trying quite hard to come back on the circuit, he played an excellent first set against Nadal in the US Open, and he's a player who's capable of beating anybody, so that's why we chose him. Every match is difficult in this tie, but every match counts, so we're going out from the beginning to put out the best that we have.”
With all the speculation around Djokovic and Argentina's gamble with Nalbandian, the second singles has almost become overshadowed, but it could be the key to Argentina's chances of reaching a fourth Davis Cup final.
Juan Martin del Potro takes a 2-0 winning record into his match against Janko Tipsarevic, both victories on hard courts. But Tipsarevic is up to a career-high ranking of No. 13 following his US Open quarterfinal, and the low-bouncing medium-fast surface could help him as the shorter of the two players.
And with all the speculation surrounding personnel, it would be a surprise if the doubles nominations remain unchanged. Certainly Nenad Zimonjic says he's keeping open the option of partnering Djokovic, Tipsarevic or Troicki on Saturday, depending on how Friday's events unfold, and while Chela and Monaco have been practising together in Belgrade this week, the possibility of Nalbandian coming in cannot be ruled out.
Live scores, live radio commentary and live streaming of this tie will be available on the Davis Cup website.
Novak Djokovic (SRB) - 15/09/2011
Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) - 15/09/2011
David Nalbandian (ARG) - 15/09/2011
Janko Tipsarevic (SRB) - 15/09/2011
Captain Tito Vazquez (ARG) - 15/09/11
Captain Bogdan Obradovic (SRB) - 15/09/11