The Davis Cup by BNP Paribas quarterfinals feature four intriguing clashes and, on paper at least, it’s very difficult to predict who will be playing in September’s semifinals.
Working chronologically through the weekend we will take a look at the key match-ups and where the ties might be won and lost.
Kazakhstan v Czech Republic
Venue: National Tennis Centre
Location: Astana, Kazakhstan
Surface: Indoor clay
As soon as the team nominations were announced last Tuesday this looked like an easy victory for the defending champions. The determined duo of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek would surely lead their country to victory just like they did in the 100th Davis Cup final in Prague last year.
Then it was announced that Czech No. 1 Berdych has had to withdraw due to a shoulder injury (later to be replaced by Ivo Minar) and the tables have well and truly turned.
Kazakhstan, who won their only previous tie against the Czechs in the first round in 2011, are no strangers to causing upsets in this competition and their players have a habit of producing their best when appearing for their country.
A Czech team without its best player and with a No. 2 who is on the comeback from surgery must look like a very beatable team indeed.
Stepanek underwent neck surgery in January and was unable to compete for Czech Republic in the first round. He was unsure whether he would be able to play on all three days of the quarterfinal against Kazakhstan and, if he doesn’t, this one could swing further in the favour of the hosts.
The Kazakh No. 1, Mikhail Kukushkin, might only be ranked No. 156 this week but he is himself on the comeback from injury. He had double hip surgery at the end of 2012 and was crucial to leading his country to an unlikely victory against the Czechs in the first round in 2011.
He will be backed up by Andrey Golubev, who has an incredible record on home soil, and a tough doubles team that will more than likely feature Evgeny Korolev and Yuriy Schukin.
The one player who will have to step up to the plate (with very big shoes to fill) is Czech Republic’s Lukas Rosol. Undoubtedly he will be required to play singles and he will be looking to replicate the kind of form that saw him propelled into the spotlight as the conqueror of Rafael Nadal in the second round at last year’s Wimbledon.
Argentina v France
Venue: Parque Roque
Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Surface: Outdoor clay
The nearly men of the last decade, both Argentina and France play with passion by the bucket load when they take to the court to compete for their country.
Argentina are desperate to shake off ‘that tag’ of being the only nation to reach four Davis Cup Finals without winning one of them, while France have reached just one final in the last 10 years, losing in a decisive fifth rubber to Serbia in 2010.
Both nations also know that a potential semifinal against Czech Republic or Kazakhstan is not the worst draw to be offered but both teams are bursting with talent and this one should be a tightly contested encounter under the Autumn sun in Buenos Aires.
Argentina and France have named unchanged line-ups from the first round and we are likely to see similar tactics deployed by both captains.
Martin Jaite tends to keep the talismanic David Nalbandian out of action on the first day, using him in the doubles and, should it be required, having him as a fresher option for a decisive fifth rubber. Juan Monaco will lead his team in singles and will fancy his chances against any of his opponents despite the recent fall in rankings.
Monaco is much more at home on clay than either of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet and despite the latter playing very well in Miami a partisan Argentine crowd should be enough to lift their No. 1 on Friday and Sunday.
The doubles rubber should be an intriguing contest between established doubles players Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra against Nalbandian and most probably Horacio Zeballos. The Argentine pair has yet to lose a match playing together (they have played just two Davis Cup doubles rubbers before), while the French pair have won two Tour-level titles and hold a 4-2 record in Davis Cup.
USA v Serbia
Venue: Taco Bell Arena
Location: Boise, Idaho, USA
Surface: Indoor hard
Undoubtedly having the world No. 1 on your team is quite the advantage in a team competition but that doesn’t mean this one will go according to the script.
Serbia are the hot favourites to win two of the five rubbers but such is the beauty of this competition that one man cannot win the title alone.
Novak Djokovic will, in all likelihood, provide his team with two victories in the singles against John Isner and Sam Querrey (discounting the fact that the former stunned Roger Federer in last year’s first round and the latter defeated Djokovic in Paris in October) but the other three points are not only up for grabs, they are possibly even in favour of the home nation.
USA has the best doubles team in the world in Bob and Mike Bryan and the twins will be desperate to make amends for losing to Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares in February’s first round tie against Brazil.
Serbia will be looking to Viktor Troicki to win one of his two singles matches against either Isner or Querrey, but that will be no mean feat.
The Americans have chosen to play this tie at altitude to give their big-serving singles stars more of an advantage and if all goes to plan for the hosts they will be heading to the dizzy heights of the semifinals in September.
Canada v Italy
Venue: Thunderbird Sports Centre
Location: Vancouver, Canada
Surface: Indoor hard
Canada versus Italy offers one of these teams a unique opportunity to reach the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas semifinals. For Canada, it would be a first since the introduction of the World Group; for Italy, the first time since 1998. Something has got to give.
Much depends on Milos Raonic for the host nation. The young Canadian is fast becoming one of the brightest prospects in the men’s game and he will need to be at his best if he is to help his team overcome a strong Italian line-up.
Raonic will go into both of his singles matches as favourite – most probably against Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini – and whether he teams up with Daniel Nestor in the doubles remains to be seen.
The Italians know that in order to win this tie they will need to compete for every point. Frank Dancevic stunned Spain’s Marcel Granollers in the first round and in so doing lifted his side to within a point of victory.
If Italy win both of the reverse singles, this tie could well be decided by the doubles on day two. Either way it will be close.