The good burghers of Osijek are little wary of this weekend’s Davis Cup tie in their hometown. A year ago national hero and 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic pulled out of a first round tie versus Spain just days ahead and they felt cheated.
Playing without Cilic or Borna Coric, the Croats were beaten 3-2 after leading 2-1 going into the final day.
This weekend’s tie versus Canada is still not sold out largely because of scepticism and disappointment related to 2017. But when Cilic arrives on the scene as expected on Wednesday – he flew into Zagreb from Australia at midday on Tuesday – it’s expected the burghers will believe and respond by making it a full house in the 4,000-seat Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt arena for this weekend’s 2018 World Group opening round.
Vasek Pospisil arrived Monday in Osijek following his triumph at the 64,000 euro Challenger in Rennes, France, last Sunday.
He had chills and a temperature and hardly slept on Monday night but there he was at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday hitting on the court at Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt.
“I got a fever last night so I was up all night sweating but actually my temperature dropped this morning and I felt quite good,” he said. “Considering I’m feeling a bit weak, I had a light hit.”
“The courts feel pretty good,” Pospisil said, adding about the hard part of going from hard courts (Rennes) to the indoor clay in Osijek, “it’s definitely aspects of the movement. For me the hardest transition is to go from any surface to clay. Hard court to clay is the most difficult because it’s different footwork. Going from clay to hard courts is easy – one because I grew up on hard courts and also because it’s much more controlled. But it felt pretty good. Tomorrow I’ll do more movement and point situations, things like that.”
Reflecting on a great week in Rennes capped by a 6-1, 6-2 victory over No. 136-ranked Ricardas Berankas of Lithuania in the final, Pospisil said, “I played extremely well. I was playing better as the tournament was going on and I played pretty much a flawless final. It was good feeling – hitting the ball well coming off a Challenger win gives you confidence. Any time you win matches is good. I had four in Australia and five last week. So I’ve had a pretty busy two weeks. I have a lot of tennis behind me so it’s a good spot to be in going into the weekend.”
Potentially, Pospisil could play Cilic in the opening singles – although there are doubts about the no. 1 Croat and Australian Open finalist actually posting on Friday (more about that later).
“I just remember he was playing extremely well,” Pospisil said about his match – 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6(5) – against Cilic in the opening round of the Aussie Open in Hisense Arena. “It forced me to really raise my level in the third and fourth sets. I had a slow start. I wasn’t serving particularly well. It was a bit windy and I have a bit of a higher ball toss. That was definitely affecting me in the early parts of the match. I wasn’t getting any free points and you get a little uneasy if your weapons aren’t firing well. Then the wind kind of died down and I suddenly found my rhythm on my serve and I kind of eased into the match. I played quite well in the third and fourth sets but he was very sharp. I remember really having to kind of go for it and play some risky tennis and getting out of my comfort zone. I felt like he was seeing the ball really well, which showed in the rest of the event obviously – with him being one set away from the title. I just remember it being a pretty high level from him and from me in the third and fourth sets.”
Whether Cilic will play on the opening day was a hot topic when Croatian captain Zeljko Krajan and Canadian captain Frank Dancevic had their media conferences on Tuesday.
“Yes there is a chance,” Krajan said about Cilic not being ready. “If he doesn’t play it will be (no. 181-ranked) Viktor Galovic.” The 27-year-old Galovic has a career-high ranking of no. 179 (2015) and is 1-0 in Davis Cup singles – a 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 win over Alejandro Gonzalez on clay in Bogota in the inconsequential fifth match of the Croats 3-1 victory over Colombia last September.
“I think it’s definitely a possibility,” Dancevic chimed in about Cilic delaying his entrance. “It all depends on how the last couple of days have been with him. We’ll just do things from our side, focus on what we have to do and wait and see what happens.”
If Cilic didn’t play, it would be Canadian no. 1 Denis Shapovalov against Galovic and Pospisil versus the Croat’s replacement no. 1, Coric, in Friday’s opening singles.
Krajan (on left with doubles player Ivan Dodig) was asked about the absence of red-hot Mate Pavic, the current no. 5 in doubles and winner (with Austrian Oliver Marach) of all three tournaments – Doha, Auckland and the Aussie Open – that he has played so far this year.
Krajan’s straight-forward response was, “because he refused to play,” regarding a matter that has been hyped in the Croatian media. A Croat source said there’s a personality conflict between Krajan and Pavic and that the 24-year-old has said he will refuse to play as long as Krajan remains the captain.
Krajan, when asked if the hosts had chosen a red clay surface because they expected Milos Raonic to play, answered a Canadian reporter by saying, “it’s not just Milos, it’s all your players. I don’t think (Denis) Shapovalov has played so much on clay – and Canada is mostly a hard court country.”
When Dancevic, 33 and still an active ATP player with a no. 350 ranking, was questioned about Raonic’s absence, he said, “he played in Australia but I still think he was playing through lots of pain. He didn’t feel 100 percent fit and he needed some time to recover and get his body ready for this year’s season.”
Red clay, or clay of any colour, has rarely been the surface of choice for Canada’s top players. Reacting to Croatia’s choice in the Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt arena, Dancevic smiled and said, “it’s normal. We weren’t expecting to come here and play on a surface we like to play on. It’s a challenge we’re going to face. We got here early to prepare as soon as the court was ready (Sunday – Daniel Nestor and Peter Polansky with Shapovalov practicing Monday and Pospisil on Tuesday). We’re preparing as best we can for the tie.”
There’s always time in the Davis Cup week for casual discussions among players and tie officials. Above Nestor, Dancevic and other Canadian team members talk with referee Norbert Peick of Germany. They were mostly discussing the Davis Cup format and an often talked about change from best-of-five to best-of-three set matches and whether that might encourage more of the top players to participate.
A final word on the reaction to the Canadian players (note Pospisil and Shapovalov included in the event poster) by Davis Cup drivers and other workers at the event. Apparently this year’s visitors are much more friendly and polite than the Spaniards (Roberto Bautista Agut and Pablo Carreno Busta among others) were a year a year ago in Osijek for the same round of Davis Cup play.
In 1991 during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, a tank from the Yugoslav army in Osijek drove through the city and was challenged by an offended local resident in a Fico car. The tank hit the car but not until after the driver had fled.
In the representation here, not far from the arena where Canada and Croatia will meet in Davis Cup this weekend – beginning at 2 p.m. (8 a.m. ET in Canada) on Friday – the car is the same model as the original.