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Five Questions for the Davis Cup Final

Nov 13th 2013

As it turns out, the last ball struck in 2013 was not an unforced forehand error by Rafael Nadal at the World Tour Finals in London.  Two players much less famous than Rafa may have the honor of closing this season in Belgrade, where Novak Djokovic and Serbia host Tomas Berdych and the Czech Republic.  The storylines extend well beyond the stars in this matchup, however, including a potential decisive duel between national No. 2s Janko Tipsarevic and Radek Stepanek.  Among the questions to ask ahead of the Davis Cup final are these five.

1)  How much will Serbia’s home-court advantage matter? 

At first glance, it appears to matter a great deal.  These evenly balanced teams split their last two meetings in the World Group, but the hosts won both of them.  On second thought, the difference in results may have come more from the presence of Djokovic in 2010 contrasted against the absence of Djokovic in 2012.  The Czech Republic fielded a full-strength squad for the second tie, so Serbia likely could not have prevailed without its superstar, no matter the location.  Moreover, the fraught atmosphere in a Davis Cup final tends to burden both teams, sometimes even weighing more heavily on the hosts when they are favored, as Serbia is this weekend.  And the indoor hard court chosen for the Belgrade Arena should play to the strengths of the big-serving Berdych and the net-rushing Stepanek as much as it does to the hosts.  This is not Spain hosting USA on clay, or Croatia hosting Brazil on carpet.

Novak Djokovic

2)  Can Djokovic deliver?

A proud patriot throughout his career, the world No. 2 has stood tall when wearing the Serbian eagle and competing in front of his compatriots.  Djokovic has channeled the emotion of the Davis Cup surroundings productively without surrendering the discipline in his streamlined game.  He scorched through the fall with a 22-match winning streak that included marquee indoor titles at the Paris Masters 1000 and the ATP World Tour Finals.  Twelve of those 22 victories came against top-10 opponents, including the last eight, so one could forgive Djokovic for feeling a bit drained.  But he holds a 17-1 career record on hard courts against Berdych and Stepanek, not losing to either of them since he turned 20.  Swapping Lukas Rosol for Stepanek probably would avail the Czechs little, for Djokovic crushed Nadal’s Wimbledon nemesis twice on hard courts this year.  Therefore, Serbia likely can count on their leading man to deliver his two singles rubbers.  The beauty of Davis Cup, though, is that a single superstar cannot secure victory.  Czech Republic will prevail if they win the other three rubbers.

3)  Who plays doubles for Serbia?

If Djokovic’s two singles victories look nearly assured, so does a Friday victory for Berdych over the slumping Janko Tipsarevic.  While Tipsarevic defeated the Czech No. 1 in Davis Cup three years ago, he has lost their last two meetings on indoor hard courts and has not defeated a top-10 opponent all year.  Friday thus should leave the tie poised at 1-1 before the doubles rubber swings the balance in one direction before the climactic Sunday reverse singles.  Czech Republic needs this rubber as much as the two singles rubbers against Tipsarevic, so they should send out their A-level squad of Berdych and Stepanek.  That duo has excelled in Davis Cup together despite rarely playing doubles outside that competition.  In response, Serbia will field veteran doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic and—who, exactly?  The options include Djokovic, Tipsarevic, and the mercurial Ilja Bozoljac.  While Djokovic and Tipsarevic are far more accomplished and experienced, Bozoljac partnered Zimonjic to a massive upset of Bob and Mike Bryan in Davis Cup doubles this spring.  Using this journeyman in the doubles also allows Serbia to fully rest its singles players for Sunday.  They often have rallied from 1-2 deficits before, including in the semifinal against Canada, so they should feel comfortable taking that risk.

4)  Will the Czechs wear down for Sunday?

The visitors probably will lean on Berdych and Stepanek, both able Davis Cup competitors, for all five of their rubbers.  Rosol simply has not proven that he can be trusted with a live rubber on a stage of this magnitude against a team as formidable as Serbia, and Jan Hajek will not see live action in any foreseeable circumstance.  Playing three best-of-five matches in three days could leave the Czechs at a disadvantage on Sunday if the Serbs burn Bozoljac on Saturday and allow their singles players to rest.  An indoor hard court usually is a surface designed for short points rather than grinding, physical rallies, and a doubles match does not demand the same level of exertion (physical or mental) as a singles encounter.  On the other hand, Berdych looked weary already in London after the long season, and Stepanek may have limited mileage in his legs as he nears his 35th birthday.  The Czechs will need one last burst of adrenaline to carry them across the finish line, a task perhaps made more difficult by playing in hostile surroundings.  Their triumph in a similar situation last year came at home, with a strong surface advantage, and against a Spanish B-team that included the fragile Nicolas Almagro.

5)  Which team has the less enigmatic enigma? 

If the Czechs take care of business in the doubles, where they should be slightly favored, the tie might well come down to a decisive fifth rubber between Tipsarevic and Stepanek.  Both men finished with losing records this season, yet they might decide the destiny of a trophy over which 16 nations have waged battle all year long.  In relative terms, Tipsarevic underwhelmed even more than Stepanek did because far more was expected from him in singles.  In absolute terms, though, there was little to choose between either of these eccentric personalities who were all bark and no bite in 2013.  Having delivered against Almagro in the same situation last year, Stepanek will feel confident that he can master his nerves as a nation’s hopes rest on him.  Tipsarevic did not contribute to Serbia’s victory in the 2010 final, by contrast, so the edge in experience must go to the visitors.  Yet he stood much taller than his modest height in the decisive fifth rubber of the semifinals, also played in Belgrade.  Tipsarevic played one of his best matches this season in blunting the power of Canadian phenom Vasek Pospisil, gaining inspiration from the crowd. 

When a tie is essentially a coin flip, as it is between these two modern Davis Cup powers, sticking with the home team usually is the smart move.

Prediction:  Serbia 3-2