Czech Republic will be the underdogs when they travel to Argentina for the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinals on 14-16 September, but the current form of Tomas Berdych will give the visitors more than a fighting chance.
The Czech No. 1 - who won the indoor hard court title in Montpellier earlier this year, his seventh career triumph - has already posted some impressive clay court results in 2012 with Andy Murray, Janko Tipsarevic and, significantly, Argentine No. 1 Juan Martin del Potro among his scalps.
Berdych’s clay court season started in impressive fashion during Czech Republic’s 4-1 victory over Serbia in the World Group quarterfinals in Prague, where he recorded a pair of straight-set wins against Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki.
The world No. 7 went on to reach the semifinals and final at the subsequent Masters 1000 events in Monte Carlo and Madrid, only bowing out to Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer respectively after intense three-set battles.
Of course, there is plenty of water to go under the bridge before Argentina and Czech Republic go head-to-head in September - including three Grand Slam tournaments and the Olympic Games - but Berdych’s performances of late will give the Czechs hope of an upset.
Czech Republic also have history on their side, leading 3-1 in the series between the two nations. The last time they met in Ostrava in 2009, the Czechs ran out 3-2 winners with Radek Stepanek clinching the vital third point in the fifth rubber.
And if the Czechs are looking for omens they can draw strength from their first meeting with Argentina in Buenos Aires in 1980, when they won 3-2 on their way to lifting the Davis Cup trophy for the only time.
For the Czechs to repeat that feat, the famous Berdych-Stepanek partnership will need to be firing on all cylinders, but Berdych knows that it won’t be easy against a team that lose very few ties on home soil.
“Argentina are definitely the favourites,” said the 26-year-old, who has now played in 21 Davis Cup ties since making his debut in 2003. “They have such a strong team and they play at home, which is one of the best advantages I would say.”
It’s true that Argentina are a formidable force on their own patch. The tie is being played at the intimidating 13,000-seater Parque Roca stadium in Buenos Aires, which is renowned for creating a cauldron-like Davis Cup atmosphere.
In fact, the Argentines have never lost at Parque Roca since the venue opened in 2006. All of their past ties at the stadium have been played on clay, although the hosts are yet to officially announce what surface will be used for this fixture.
Despite this perfect Parque Roca record, Berdych points out that playing in front of a passionate and expectant home crowd can also have a reverse effect when the stakes are high, with added pressure being heaped on the shoulders of the Argentine players.
“Definitely the pressure is on the other side,” said Berdych. “We play in Argentina who have such a strong team and with the crowd they have there... we have nothing to lose. We’re going to try our best and we’ll see how it’s going to go, but at least we have a chance.”
If his players are fit, Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil will have no selection headache when picking his team - Berdych and Stepanek all the way - but his opposite number Martin Jaite has a few more options to mull over.
The five players currently in the frame for a call-up are del Potro, Juan Monaco, David Nalbandian, Eduardo Schwank and Juan Ignacio Chela, although if recent team selections are anything to go by then Chela will be the man to sit out.
Schwank is expected to get the nod as the team’s doubles specialist and the automatic singles pick is del Potro, but who plays alongside him on day one - Monaco or Nalbandian - could prove to be a key decision in the outcome of the weekend.
In Argentina’s 4-1 win over Croatia in the World Group quarterfinals, Jaite went for Nalbandian on day one and the decision almost proved costly. The veteran lost a five-hour marathon to Marin Cilic and then played another five-hour doubles match the following day.
Fortunately for Jaite the tie ended in the fourth rubber, but had it gone the distance he may have been forced to play the more inexperienced Monaco, when the team’s talisman Nalbandian is normally the man you want in such situations.
Whatever Jaite decides this time, Argentina are the favourites to book their place in the Final for a second straight year, but write-off Berdych and Stepanek at your peril as the Czech duo will be desperate to have another crack at getting their hands on the Davis Cup trophy.