New format, different restrictions
The Davis Cup Finals kick off on Thursday and this time, instead of having 18 teams hosted in Madrid, as was the case two years ago, group stage action is spread across three venues: Madrid Arena in the Spanish capital, Olympiahalle in Innsbruck, Austria and the Pala Alpitour in Turin, Italy.
Two groups are stationed at each venue, with the host nation having the advantage of competing at home. Innsbruck and Turin will host one quarter-final each, while Madrid will stage the two remaining quarter-finals, the semis, and the final on December 5.
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Newly-introduced Covid-19 restrictions in Austria have forced organisers to announce that the Group C and F ties in Innsbruck will be held behind closed doors, unlike the matches that will take place in Madrid and Turin.
“It’s a different format this year,” world No. 1 Novak Djokovic said on Wednesday. “We have three different locations hosting two groups each. I was always personally a proponent of that – Davis Cup as a competition should be able to be experienced by more locations. I don’t think the format of two years ago worked very well, I was personally not in favour of that.
“But it’s good that at least there are more countries with the possibility to host at least Davis Cup group stage ties.”
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Defending champs look to repeat on home soil
Spain won the Davis Cup for a sixth time two years ago in Madrid and will start their title defence against Group A rivals Ecuador on Friday before facing a daunting Russian squad on Sunday.
In the absence of Rafael Nadal and Roberto Bautista Agut, the Spaniards will rely on Pablo Carreno Busta and Carlos Alcaraz as their top two singles players, and have a strong doubles tandem in Marcel Granollers and Feliciano Lopez. World No. 45 Albert Ramos Vinolas was a last-minute addition to the roster in the wake of Bautista Agut’s withdrawal.
“For me it’s fine to be the No. 1 but I prefer to be the No. 2 if we have Roberto with us or Rafa,” said Carreno Busta, who has 2-4 Davis Cup record in singles and 1-1 in doubles.
“We need to think just in the next matches against Ecuador and Russia. I know that now probably we have tougher matches than before but I think I’m ready to be the No. 1 of Spain.”
Djokovic chasing second Davis Cup crown
Serbia’s sole Davis Cup triumph to date came back in 2010 and Novak Djokovic seems intent on ending that drought this upcoming fortnight.
After missing out on medals in singles and mixed doubles at the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year, the world No. 1 is keen on ending the year by gifting Serbia a piece of silverware.
In the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid two years ago, Djokovic and his team-mates were all in tears and inconsolable after they lost in the quarter-finals to Russia.
They have a shot at redemption under the guidance of debutant team captain Viktor Troicki, who was part of Serbia’s squad as a player in the Spanish capital two years ago.
“We didn’t have Davis Cup last year so the last memory we had was quite a sad one,” admitted Djokovic on Wednesday.
“We were all very emotional because of that ending. But nevertheless we were also very motivated to come back together and give it another go. We knew that chances and opportunities will come. And here we are together once again.”
The Serbs, awarded a wildcard into the competition, have been drawn in Group F alongside Germany and Austria in Innsbruck. Djokovic is joined by top-50 players Dusan Lajovic and Filip Krajinovic, and Davis Cup debutants Miomir Kecmanovic and Nikola Cacic on the Team Serbia roster.
Full-strength Russia seem unstoppable
The last time Russia turned up for a team event with Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, Aslan Karatsev and Evgeny Donskoy on the squad, they walked away with the ATP Cup, going undefeated through the group stage and knockouts.
Nine months later, the Russians have flown to Madrid with the same line-up, but with a significant addition in the form of ex-world No. 8 Karen Khachanov.
With four top-30 players – including two in the top five – Russia are considered one of the top contenders for the Davis Cup title and will prove a handful for anyone they face. It would surprise no one if they emulated their countrywomen who recently clinched the Billie Jean King Cup in Prague.
Spain aren’t the only side missing its biggest names. Austria are without their main man Dominic Thiem, who has been sidelined with a wrist injury since June and 2019 runners-up Canada have made the trip to Madrid without their top two stars Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov.
Italy were dealt a blow when world No. 7 Matteo Berrettini had to pull out last week with an abdominal issue that ended his ATP Finals campaign prematurely.
Team GB are in Innsbruck sans Andy Murray and the Germans will have to face a Djokovic-led Serbia without ATP Finals champion Alexander Zverev among their ranks.
Young stars set to shine on debut
A pair of young guns who have had incredible 2021 seasons are set to make their Davis Cup debuts for their respective countries this week: Italian Jannik Sinner and Spain’s Alcaraz.
The 20-year-old Sinner is expected to make a seamless transition from competing in the ATP Finals at the Pala Alpitour in Turin last week, to enjoying his first outing for Italy in the Davis Cup Finals at the very same venue on Friday against USA.
“He’s growing up very, very fast. He’s 20 and like every 20-year-old guy he has his emotions, but he’s great to manage with that,” said Italy captain Filippo Volandri.
“I knew Jannik many years ago when he was still a junior, he’s a really special guy. He doesn’t care about the victory or the win, he wants to improve himself and I think this is a good stage to grow up and raise his level. Even if it’s going to be his debut, he’s going to be ready.
Alcaraz, who started the year ranked 146 in the world and is now up to 32, won a maiden ATP title this season in Umag before reaching the quarter-finals at the US Open in September and lifting the Next Gen ATP Finals trophy earlier this month.
The 18-year-old recalls watching his countryman David Ferrer from the stands of the Plaza de Toros in Valencia in 2018 as he clinched a quarter-final tie victory for Spain with a brutal five-set win over Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber.
“Since that moment I thought that one time I will be in his position,” Alcaraz said on Wednesday. “For me it’s a dream come true.”
Rivalries renewed, but from the bench
Several Davis Cup captains will square off against former rivals from their playing days, adding some extra spice to the ties.
Match-ups in Group E will see Mardy Fish captain Team USA against Alejandro Falla’s Colombia and Filippo Volandri’s Italy. As a player, Fish was 3-2 head-to-head against Falla and 2-0 against Volandri.
“Alejandro and I have played a lot of matches just personally. Certainly remember the one in Colombia that I beat him in his home city. We’ve had some great matches over the years, and he’s one of the best guys,” Fish said on Wednesday during Group E’s captains’ press conference.
“Filippo, too, I remember in junior tennis, we were the same age, and he was an unbelievable junior player to the point where it was like you didn’t want to see him on a clay court, for sure. You were going to lose. So it’s different. In 2019, Frank Dancevic was Canada’s captain, and it’s fun. It’s not as stressful as playing, per se, but it’s out of our control, really, so maybe it’s a bit more uncomfortable at the same time.”
Other captains who have faced off as players include France’s Sebastien Grosjean who was 3-6 against Australia captain Lleyton Hewitt and Serbia’s Viktor Troicki, who was 2-0 against Hewitt. Sweden captain Robin Soderling shares playing history with Hewitt, Fish, Volandri and Grosjean.
USA and GB can contend
With the surface at the Pala Alpitour slowed down from its super-fast speed during the ATP Finals, Fish believes his US squad have the perfect conditions to cause some serious damage at the Davis Cup Finals.
Fish says big-servers like Reilly Opelka and John Isner prefer a slower surface. “Their serves can still go through pretty much any court,” he explains, and that the high bounce is perfectly-suited for players as tall as they are.
The Americans have three top-40 players in their ranks, in the form of Isner (No. 24), Opelka (No. 26) and Frances Tiafoe (No. 38), and a rock-solid doubles duo in Jack Sock and 37-year-old debutant Rajeev Ram.
USA have won the last of their 32 Davis Cup titles in 2007.
Meanwhile, 2015 champions Great Britain will be led by world No. 12 Cameron Norrie and No. 25 Daniel Evans. The Brits made the semi-finals in Madrid two years ago, and have a strong team representing them in Innsbruck, where they share Group C with France and Czech Republic.
Two-time Grand Slam doubles champion Joe Salisbury could make his Davis Cup debut for GB this week, and he’ll likely partner up with this year’s Wimbledon mixed doubles champion Neal Skupski. Liam Broady, who made his competition debut in 2018, received a late call-up after Andy Murray confirmed he is unable to play.
GB captain Leon Smith is pleased with his squad but admits competing in the group stage without any fans is going to be tough.
“It will be of course a bit challenging for the players that are in our groups, because they’re going to be looking at the other events in Madrid and Turin and seeing fans and the atmosphere, but we have to accept it, it is what it is,” said Smith.
“Our players are still extremely proud to represent their country, you just have to pull on that as much as possible. We’ve got support team people that get on well, it’s like a big family unit that get behind each other and we’ll have to create some noise as best we can.”
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