Despite World #2 Novak Djokovic leading Serbia–which won its only Davis Cup in 2010–against Croatia this weekend, the 2017 Davis Cup Opening Round is lacking top ATP stars. This lack of star power is likely to impact fan and viewer interest, while at the same time creating some intriguing matchups in the singles rubbers. Djokovic, along with Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, are the only members of the top 15 participating, despite 12 of the remaining 13 players in the top 15 being eligible to take part in World Group Round 1 ties.
The decline in relevance and top player participation in Davis Cup has been talked about for years, and without making any major changes to the format of the Davis Cup, along with the elimination of ATP ranking points last year, that decline is likely to continue of the once-illustrious event.
Regardless of the lack of top players, national pride is still on the line, and given it’s the only top level men’s event on tour this week, here is a look on which names should shine for their nation this weekend, and lead their teams into the World Group quarterfinals. The losers will head to the World Group playoffs, with a lot at stake for their nation’s tennis federations.
Germany, France, Serbia, Spain, and the United States look to be near certain locks to take five of the eight quarterfinal spots in the World Group. Fresh off strong showings in Melbourne, Mischa and Alexander Zverev get to show off their talents to home fans in Germany, as they take on a Belgian team that is missing their top player, David Goffin. Veteran serve and volleyer Steve Darcis is still a tough competitor, but Germany also brings along the experienced Philipp Kohlschreiber, giving captain Michael Kohlmann a variety of options for how he approaches the first five possible rubbers. Despite recent DC success, Belgium looks to be head to the playoffs.
France lacks an elite player, but they have depth in spades, as they are once again one of the handful of countries with a shot at winning the trophy. Jetlag is probably the toughest opponent for veterans Richard Gasquet, Nicolas Mahut, and Gilles Simon, as Japan doesn’t have Kei Nishikori, and their best player is probably the young Yoshihito Nishioka. The combined experience in singles and doubles, and as a team, is leaps and bounds ahead of Japan, and Yannick Noah’s charges are hoping to escape Tokyo with a routine victory.
The one-two punch of Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki sets up Serbia for a potential home sweep against Russia. Russia has been in and out of the World Group recently while Serbia start the 2017 campaign as overall favorites to take the Davis Cup title for the first time since 2010. With little chance in the tie, a learning experience is at hand for Russian young guns Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov, who have already shown this year that their games are making huge strides in a positive direction. Alongside Andrey Rublev, these three young men are the future of Russian tennis. The slightly older Andrey Kuznetsov is also on hand to compete for Russia and has shown much improvement in the past 12 months.
Spain is another side with tons of ATP caliber depth, they bring the Lopez brothers, Feliciano and Marc for doubles, plus Pablo Carreno Busta and an in-form Roberto Bautista Agut for singles. The Spanish Armada face a Croatia side without Marin Cilic, Ivo Karlovic, or Borna Coric. The defending finalists Croatia may not survive the playoff round to come, presuming that the challenger level Franko Skugor and his countryman are unable to pull off a herculean upset in front of home fans.
American fans will be happy to know that their squad is the best the red, white, and blue can compile at the moment. With the Bryan Brothers retiring from Davis Cup, Jack Sock now leads the Yanks in doubles. He is also a great singles player, and he’s joined by the veteran presence of former college player John Isner, and Sam Querrey, along with Steve Johnson, who is a fantastic team player, having been an NCAA champion at USC. After exhausting efforts in Melbourne, Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer are not part of team Switzerland for the away tie, and there is only so much career journeyman like Marco Chiudinelli can be expected to do against a team made up of ATP top 50 players.
There is a tie taking place not far from the Australian Open location. Nick Kyrgios, presumably fit, joins AO Men’s Doubles champion John Peers, for a likely victory against a Czech team that is missing Tomas Berdych, and instead will be relying on the experience of Radek Stepanek and the talents of Jiri Vesely. The Czechs aren’t hopeless in this tie, but they are certainly the underdogs, with Lleyton Hewitt having more options over a possible five rubbers, as big server Sam Groth and young gun Jordan Thompson are also available to him.
Ties between Italy and defending Champion Argentina, and 2015 champion Great Britain and Canada are the most likely to go the distance, and produce meaningful tennis on Sunday. Both the Italian and Argentine teams like playing on red clay, as the in-form Andreas Seppi leads Italy, against an Argentina team led by Diego Schwartzman that tends to outplay its ranking in team competition. Having Fabio Fognini, alongside Seppi, Paolo Lorenzi, and Simone Bolelli, who comes off a long injury layoff on their squad makes Italy a stronger team than Argentina’s Schwartzman, Carlos Berlocq, Leo Mayer, and Guido Pella squad that is missing the tower of Tandil, Juan Martin Del Potro. The location certainly favors the defending champions however. The doubles point should prove crucial, and on clay, with a lot of grinders playing, I expect some very long five set matches all weekend, with Italy having a slight edge.
Milos Raonic and Andy Murray both skipping Canada hosting team GB this weekend likely hurt ticket sales, but Canada will still need tons of fan support if they are going to overcome their commonwealth allies in this tie. Canada’s squad of Vasek Pospisil, teenager Denis Shapovalov, journeyman Peter Polansky, and the ageless 44 year old doubles specialist Daniel Nestor is in much worse form, than a team GB squad that consists of Dan Evans, Kyle Edmund, and Jamie Murray and Dominic Inglot for doubles. Evans has found his range from the backhand side in early 2017, starting the season 7-2, while the big serving Pospisil lost his way at the ATP level last year and has yet to find his way back. Shapovalov is a player to watch, but he’s inexperienced, even compared to the relatively young Kyle Edmund. The matches should be close, and the doubles match will feature elite skill, but team GB are clear favorites.
Having gone through all eight World Group round 1 ties, all that is left to say is enjoy the tennis this weekend, as you hopefully get the chance to watch players you don’t always see in primetime.