Davis Cup preview: Spain looks for repeat title

Davis Cup preview: Spain looks for repeat title

Published Mar. 6, 2009 10:54 p.m. ET

There are many different paths to winning the Davis Cup crown, including:

  • Owning two spectacular all-court players who are capable of winning in singles and doubles

  • Benefiting from home-court advantage all the way through the competition

  • Having incredible depth with quality players up and down the line-up.

    Spain, which begins its title defense on Friday against upset-minded Serbia, has a lethal combination.

    It owns the world's best player in Rafael Nadal, who has now proven that he can win on every surface. It has fantastic depth, which allows captain Al Costa to select from seven top 30 players — including No. 12 David Ferrer (who reached the Dubai final on Saturday), No. 15 Tommy Robredo (who just won two South American tournaments on dirt), and No. 27 Feliciano Lopez (a big serving lefty who is always threatening in doubles and has incredible value on fast surfaces).

    Spain is so deep that it is not concerned about missing last year's Davis Cup hero, Fernando Verdasco, who is out with an injury, nor did it need to call upon No. 21 Nicolas Almagro, who won a red clay title in Acapulco last week.

    Spain has won its last 14 home ties, but the last two times it won the title, it was knocked out in the first round the following year. With four-time French Open champion Nadal heading the team this time around, that prospect appears unlikely.

    Serbia, though, does has a very strong team. It's led by world No. 3 Novak Djokovic — who beat Ferrer for the Dubai title last weekend — as well as the enigmatic yet capable Janko Tipsarevic and doubles expert Nenad Zimonjic. If the tie was being held indoors in Belgrade, Serbia would have a strong chance at an upset, but playing on slow clay in Benidorm will surely favor the tireless Spaniards.

    "I know to do better than last year is impossible," Costa said. "But I am going to work hard to create a good atmosphere in the team."

    Like Spain, the United States has solid depth, but doesn't feature an all around world-beater at the top of its lineup. Once again, U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe selected a tried-and-true squad, with Andy Roddick and James Blake in singles and the Bryan brothers in doubles, the same team that won the 2007 crown.

    The U.S. will face a Roger Federer-less Swiss team in Birmingham, Alabama, and from the second that Federer pulled out of the tie with a back injury, America went from being a slight underdog in a highly anticipated tie to a big favorite in what could be a humdrum affair.

    Switzerland still features a top 20 player in Stanislas Wawrinka, but no other player with the serious capability of winning a singles match in front of a raucous crowd or finding a way past the nearly unbeatable Bryan brothers. Stephane Bohli and Marco Chiudinelli aren't going to have Alabama fans in awe.

    "If Roger was playing it would be pretty even," said McEnroe "I certainly think this makes us a pretty solid favorite."

    There's little question about that, unless Wawrinka goes "Ivan Ljubicic" on Roddick, Blake and the Bryans (meaning he wins all three matches, just like he did to Roddick, the Bryans and Andre Agassi back in a stunning 2005 upset in Los Angeles).

    But the quick Wawrinka doesn't own the same nuclear power game that Ljubicic does, instead having to weave his way through points. Although he's capable of knocking off the up-and-down Blake (he's beaten him twice on clay), taking out Roddick (who has been playing very well this year) on a super-fast court, appears improbable.

    Even if the U.S. does smack the Swiss, winning the Cup again will be a very tall task. They will more than likely have to face Croatia again in the next round, but this time it would be away from home. Ljubicic, the red hot youngster Marin Cilic, the attacking Mario Ancic and the service-bombing Ivo Karlovic have an easy tie against Chile on a similar indoor hardcourt to the one the U.S. is using, but if and when the Americans come to visit post-Wimbledon, they are more than likely going to make them play in quicksand.

    If the U.S. is to go abroad and win that tie, Blake must improve his dirtball skills significantly, as he's had no notable success on the surface. Roddick has performed a little better on clay, but he's still 6-9 on the surface in Davis Cup play and cannot be expected to win the tie all by himself.

    It's conceivable that McEnroe might name Sam Querrey to the squad that will face Croatia, as the 21-year-old likes the surface more and performed at a fairly high level against Spain last year when Blake sat out due to mental exhaustion.

    Nothing will come easy for whichever nation comes out on the top half of the draw. France and its new musketeers of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet are all loaded with talent, the Czechs behind veterans Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych are capable, and 2008 runner-up Argentina features David Nalbandian (who is at his best in Davis Cup) as well as top 10 hotshot Juan Martin del Potro, who is said to have committed to the quarterfinals and on.

    The U.S. would have to face France and Argentina away (without question on clay), so they might be praying for the Czechs, whom they would play at home, to get on a hot streak. What McEnroe and his boys would really love is to face Nadal and Spain stateside in the final and attempt to avenge last year's defeat.

    Any way it shakes out, at least McEnroe knows that his main players are committed, which is one of the reasons why his team has reached the semifinals for three straight years. Roddick has only missed one tie since 2001. No one knows who is going to be healthy in the future, and which captain is going to be forced to clean out his closet of players.

    "When you look around the world and you see how much tennis they have to play and how much traveling they have to do, you see what happens with some other players in other countries," McEnroe said. "They don't show up. These guys have answered the call time after time."
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