Our reporter in Antwerp, Richard Fleming, reflects on the contrasting futures of the two teams involved in last weekend’s Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off at the Lotto Arena, Belgium and Austria.
Gilbert Schaller will have departed Antwerp a satisfied man after steering Austria to victory in his last tie as captain, assuring the nation of their place in next year’s World Group.
He ended his four-year reign on a high, with Austria defeating Belgium 4-1 at the Lotto Arena. The tie was done and dusted after Sunday’s opening reverse singles, won by Jurgen Melzer.
Melzer is the foundation on which Austria’s incoming captain will want to build, though in Andreas Haider-Maurer there lies potential. Playing in just his second-ever Davis Cup tie, he shocked Belgium’s No. 1 Xavier Malisse in Friday’s opening singles rubber, winning in straight sets.
Melzer suffered at the hands of Steve Darcis on day one. Oliver Marach and Alexander Peya then combined to overcome Darcis and Olivier Rochus in Saturday’s doubles, but it was arguably that win for Haider-Maurer which set the tone for the weekend as – such was the impact of that result – Belgium were effectively now a man down.
Malisse’s confidence was low coming into the tie. It hit rock bottom by mid-afternoon on Friday, after Haider-Maurer dealt him that devastating defeat. So short was his self-belief that debutant captain Johan van Herck felt unable to risk him in the fourth rubber, thereby severely denting Belgium’s chances.
Van Herck said: “The way he played on Friday, we knew it was impossible to make him play on Sunday. Xavier plays a lot on feelings. He needs to feel well. He didn’t feel well at all, so he didn’t have to tell me (he couldn’t play). We knew his weekend was over.”
Malisse must now go away and rebuild his shattered morale, leaving Van Herck to look toward 2012 and life in the Europe/Africa Zone Group I.
Van Herck added: “I think the players responded well to my first week as Davis Cup captain. Now we’ve got to see how we move on, to see what goals we set for next year.”
The goal will clearly be to try to return to the World Group. Easier said than done, especially with a side lacking strength in depth, though Olivier Rochus has already signalled his intent to put things right.
He stressed: “I’ll be 31 next year but if the captain thinks I can do a job for the team then I will keep representing my country. That said, I’d be quite happy to step aside if younger talent comes through.”
For Austria, another year in the World Group, and Schaller feels he leaves the new captain with more options. He said: “We have players coming through, which is important, and we’re strong in doubles with different combinations.
“We have a bigger team now, including players such as Martin Fischer and Julian Knowle. When I took over the team, we had three or four players. Now we have a greater range and it’s a good opportunity for the new captain.”
And with that, he was off – job done. For van Herck, the hard work is just beginning.