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The Quest Begins: Davis Cup First-Round Preview, Part I (UPDATED)

Jan 29th 2014

The first round of Davis Cup offers a cross-section of tennis that reveals just how global the sport has become.  Sixteen nations open each year with hopes of lifting the trophy.  Eight of them will see those hopes evaporate a month into the season, consigned to playoff ties that will determine whether they return to the World Group next year.  The first round thus has higher stakes than any round except the final.  A look at four of the eight ties this weekend identifies the key areas in each matchup. 

Milos Raonic

Japan vs. Canada:  The hosts will need as much as they can get from home-court advantage to withstand the explosive firepower across the net.  Two of the brightest young talents in the ATP, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisilaccompany doubles superstar Daniel Nestor to Tokyo.  The singles rubbers should feature fascinating contrasts of styles between the baseliners from Japan and the forward-moving attackers from Canada.  Japanese No. 1 Kei Nishikori likely must win both of his rubbers against Raonic and Pospisil, neither of whom looked as impressive as he did in Melbourne.  Canada will be heavily favored in the doubles, since Japan can field no doubles specialist of a quality comparable to Nestor.  That leaves Go Soeda with the task of winning one match against the two Canadian flamethrowers.  The tie should come down to his fifth rubber against Pospisil, who stood tall in Davis Cup action last year.

Prediction:  Canada 3-2

France vs. Australia:  The past and the future of Australian men’s tennis square off against a French team spearheaded by two top-10 men in singles.  Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have not always shone under the Davis Cup spotlight, however, whereas Australian No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt relishes playing under his flag.  Hewitt can be expected to play three rubbers over the weekend, a test of endurance for a man who turns 33 next month.  Barring an extraordinary weekend, he'll need help from one of two prodigies from Greek origins, both of whom turned heads in Melbourne.  Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis each won a match in the main draw at their home major, but they never have toppled someone of Gasquet’s or Tsonga’s stature.  France chose to host this tie on indoor clay, not the best surface for anyone on either team.  The belief that it will discomfit their stars less than the grass-loving Hewitt and the raw Aussie youngsters is probably well-founded.

Prediction:  France 3-1

Kazakhstan vs. Belgium:  Sometimes a Davis Cup team can be more than the sum of its parts.  That seems to be true of Kazakhstan, not a name that jumps to mind when thinking of tennis powers.  But Mikhail Kukushkin and Andrey Golubev, who have spent the bulk of their careers at the Challenger level, have played well above their rankings in team competition.  They even upset the Czech Republic in a 2011 tie, just a year before the Czechs won consecutive Davis Cup titles, and 2014 marks their fourth consecutive year contesting the World Group.  Kazakhstan will fancy their chances of reaching the quarterfinals for the third time in that span when they host a Belgian squad without any singles player in the top 100.  Belgian No. 1 David Goffin has accomplished little since reaching the second week of Roland Garros two years ago, while 33-year-old stalwart Olivier Rochus is a shadow of his former self.

Prediction:  Kazakhstan 3-1

Stanislas Wawrinka

Serbia vs. Switzerland:  A year or two ago, this tie might have been a blockbuster battle involving four top-10 men.  As it turns out, only two of those men will participate, and both of them for the same country.  Roger Federer announced on Wednesday that he would join Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka for the trip to Serbia, where they will meet a team without Novak Djokovic, the injured Janko Tipsarevic, and the suspended Viktor Troicki.  Swiitzerland's World Group future looks essentially secure with world No. 117 Dusan Lajovic spearheading Serbia's depleted squad.  Lajovic looked overwhelmed by the occasion in last year's Davis Cup final, when he lost the decisive rubber in straight sets to Radek Stepanek.  The Federer/Wawrinka Switzerland pairings have suffered some surprising stumbles before, most notably at home on clay against Team USA.  But it would be shocking if Serbia won anything more than the doubles rubber, where seasoned doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic might give them an edge.

Prediction:  Switzerland 3-1

What about the other four ties?  Another columnist’s look at three more will follow, as will a separate, detailed preview of the tie pitting Team USA against Great Britain.