The pressure is on Australia this weekend in its Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off tie against Belgium, with the 28-time Davis Cup champions needing to prove their status as an elite tennis nation by producing a win that returns them to the top flight of the competition for the first time in four years.
With Australia’s all-time most successful Davis Cup singles player on board - the gritty former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt – and a sell-out home tie in Cairns, it should technically be one-way traffic for the hosts. But they face a team that back in 2007 instigated their spiral out of the World Group, and it’s whether the Aussies can maintain the psychological advantage this weekend.
In the last meeting between the two nations, the Belgians caused a 3-2 upset of Australia in Liege in the 2007 first round, with Kristof Vliegen capitalising on a momentous five-set win over Hewitt in the opening rubber by finishing off the visitors with a defeat of Chris Guccione in the decisive fifth rubber.
Australia had since battled in the zonal group, earning two further play-off ties against tennis greats Serbia and Chile without a win. However this could be their best chance to make it back to the top, agrees captain John Fitzgerald.
“In recent time we’ve had more than our fair share of tough draws, so I think we absolutely have a fighting chance to get through here and we believe we can win.”
There had been speculation as to whether Fitzy would nominate Carsten Ball or Peter Luczak for the singles but all was revealed at Thursday’s draw, held at a jungle-esque bungee spot up in the hills of Cairns.
The team’s lowest-ranked player, Ball, was announced as Hewitt’s back-up, essentially due to his better adaptation to the sweltering conditions in North Queensland, and Belgian captain Reginald Willems opted for Olivier Rochus and Steve Darcis as his tour de force over the entire weekend.
Always infamous with putting on a fun and interactive draw, the Aussie contingent had arranged for two bungee jumpers to precariously launch themselves into the lagoon below to grab a tennis ball in order to select who would be first up when play gets underway on Friday. Darcis was picked, confirming the line-up for the weekend as follows:
Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) v Steve Darcis (BEL)
Carsten Ball (AUS) v Olivier Rochus (BEL)
Paul Hanley/Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) v Steve Darcis/Olivier Rochus(BEL)
Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) v Olivier Rochus (BEL)
Carsten Ball (AUS) v Steve Darcis (BEL)
For the Belgians, the statistics are against them, with Rochus and Darcis having never defeated Hewitt in previous meetings, and lefthander Ball coming into the tie undefeated in both Davis Cup singles and doubles. Furthermore, the Aussies have a strength in depth thanks to doubles specialist Paul Hanley and the back-up of Peter Luczak, who is used to Davis Cup conditions.
In contrast, the Belgian duo are supported by Davis Cup debutant Niels Diesen and Ruben Bemelmans, who made his debut in a dead fifth rubber against Czech Republic in 2008.
The nation’s number No. 1 player, Xavier Malisse, had made himself unavailable for the tie back in August due to personal reasons, meaning this weekend the pressure is loaded on the shoulders of world No. 117 Darcis and No. 79 Rochus. So what does Willems make of Belgium’s chances this weekend?
“It’s fair they are the favourites and they have a little more pressure than us but we are going to fight and we will see.”
What will count this weekend is whether Hewitt can erase the memories of a poor season on the American hard courts and a shock first round exit at the US Open two weeks ago. Having overcome a niggling calf injury, the former No. 1 is confident he is fully fit for a busy weekend ahead.
“I’m feeling pretty good at the moment, I’ve done a whole heap of rehab and physio,” said the 29 year-old. “It’s a quicker surface here than the one we played on at the US Open so it’s just adjusting to that more than anything, but I always feel at home playing on hard courts.”
With Todd Woodbridge and Pat Rafter in Cairns this weekend to assist the players, the Aussies are certainly throwing everything into this tie. And it’s abundantly clear just how much a place in the top flight of the competition means to the team.
“The World Group literally means the world to us,” said Fitzgerald. “We’re a proud country, we believe in the competition and we want to succeed.”