Australia have taken a 2-1 lead over China in a clamorous doubles encounter before a capacity crowd in Beijing. The biggest roar of welcome was for Lleyton Hewitt, Australia’s most successful Davis Cupper and a giant of the competition, who paired with Chris Guccione for the first time to defeat Mao-Xin Gong and Zhe Li 64 64 64.
Hewitt’s non-selection for the singles delayed his appearance by a day and heightened the anticipation of fans and the adrenaline of the players. The 30-year-old former world No.1 may have plummeted to No. 173 in the rankings, making him his country’s No.4, yet he remains the talisman of Australia’s Davis Cup team.
So it proved again, though Hewitt was more than ably assisted by monster serving from the left-handed Guccione, who served out all three sets without drama. In contrast, Hewitt battled on serve, though his returns were fired back with more venom as the match went on.
The younger Chinese pair, Davis Cuppers since 2008 and both well outside the top 350 in the rankings, took it right up to the vastly more experienced Aussies, Li even echoing Hewitt’s trademark ‘Come on!’. The Aussies could have been forgiven for feeling disoriented by the cacophony of ’Come ons’ reverberating around the indoor arena from the 2,500 fans.
New Australian captain Pat Rafter left the door open to a Hewitt return for the reverse singles, depending on the state of Lleyton’s troublesome left foot. His form today, as well as the short match time of 2 hours 10 minutes, bodes well for that plan. Rafter also has to factor whether Marinko Matosevic can bounce back from his five-set heartbreaker on Friday.
The 20-year-old Ze Zhang, ranked No. 380, is slated to play the first of the reverse singles on Sunday, followed by 19-year-old Di Wu - already making his name as a Davis Cup specialist - versus new Aussie gun Bernard Tomic.
In Kobe, Japan has edged ahead of Uzbekistan 2-1, with Kei Nishikori and Go Soeda eking out a hard-fought doubles against Denis Istomin and Murad Inoyatov 75 76(5) 75 in 2 hours 38 minutes.
For Japanese ace Nishikori, it was his first doubles win in Davis Cup, his energy levels boosted by an abbreviated singles on Friday, when Farrukh Dustov, suffering from dehydration, retired at the end of the third set having won the first.
The 21-year-old Nishikori has the chance to wrap up the tie in the first of the reverse singles, though Ukbek No.1 Istomin is ranked only 18 places below him at No. 68, and has a wealth of Davis Cup experience. Istomin will play his 38th rubber tomorrow, compared with Kei’s sixth.
On New Zealand’s surf coast of Taranaki, it’s party time after the Kiwis swept their tie against Philippines 3-0 with a straight-sets doubles victory. Marcus Daniell and Artem Sitak defeated Cecil Mamiit and Ruben Gonzales 76(0) 63 62 at the TSB Hub in Hawera to keep the Silver Fern flying next year in Group I of Asia/Oceania.
New Zealand’s first win over their regional rivals in 22 years was achieved by a new and youthful team. Doubles specialist Daniell, 21, clinched his first win in the competition after three losses. Russian-born Sitak, 25, debuted for New Zealand in Uzbekistan last March, and No. 1 Kiwi Michael Venus is only in his second year of Davis Cup.
Veteran Filippino playing captain Mamiit sprang a last-minute substitution, throwing himself back into the fray in place of Johnny Arcilla, despite a gruelling five-set loss to Venus on the first day.
The 35-year-old’s gamble looked to be paying off late in the first set, with the Filippinos gaining three breakpoints on the Daniell serve. But the youngster held firm in what proved the turning point of the match. In the tiebreak, it was Mamiit who surrendered it 7-0 with a double-fault.
After six long years in Asia/Oceania Group II, the Kiwis were promoted to Group I in 2011 and have reason to expect a long-term residency with their vibrant and evolving team.
For Philippines, out after a two-year stay in Group I, it doesn’t get any easier. They host the rising Chinese Taipei in September, with the loser facing relegation to Group II.