The Canadian Davis Cup team is in Osijek – pronounced oh-see-yek – for this weekend’s 2018 World Group opening round against the host Croatia.
Osijek, located not far from the Hungarian border, is the fourth largest city in Croatia and in tennis terms is the original hometown of the now-retired Jelena Dokic and the current world no. 50 Donna Vekic – sometimes better known as Stan Wawrinka’s girlfriend.
A year ago it hosted a first round tie in the same Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt arena and Croatia (without Marin Cilic) lost 3-2 on a hard court surface against a Spanish team lead by Roberto Bautista Agut and Pablo Carreno Busta. It was the fifth loss in the last six home ties for Croatia – including the 2016 final against Argentina and Juan Martin del Potro – but main man Cilic did not play.
He did last September as the Croats travelled to Colombia and preserved their World Group status for 2018 with a 3-1 victory.
There’s some speculation about the current world no. 3, fresh (or not so fresh) from his runner-up finish against Roger Federer in Sunday’s Australian Open final. Cilic is scheduled to arrive in Osijek on Wednesday, which would only give him barely two days to adjust to the red clay surface installed indoors at the Sportska Dvorana Gradski VRT 4,000-seat facility.
Except for two rows on either end, all the seats in the arena are on the sides and the stands rise up at a noticeably steep angle.
The thought going around about Cilic is that he might sit out Friday’s singles and just play doubles on Saturday and then the reverse singles on Sunday.
Not automatically associated with doubles, Cilic, mostly with current no. 8-ranked doubles player Ivan Dodig, has won all of his doubles the past two years and that includes wins over Bob and Mike Bryan of the U.S., Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut of France, Alejandro Falla and Juan Sebastian Cabal of Colombia and del Potro and Leonardo Mayer of Argentina.
If Cilic sat out until Saturday, that would elevate Croat no. 2 Borna Coric to no. 1 and have him likely playing Canadian no. 2 Vasek Pospisil on Friday. That would mean, instead of playing Coric, Canadian no. 1 Denis Shapovalov would probably face no. 293 Franko Skugor, a 30-year-old, six-foot-six big server in opening day action.
Another option in singles for the Croats would be no. 181 Viktor Galovic, 27.
Dodig is a virtual sure starter for Saturday no matter who he plays with (as is Daniel Nestor). One man who will not be Dodig’s partner is the hottest doubles player in the world at the moment – 24-year-old Mate Pavic. The world no. 5 from Croatia has won every event he has played this year – the ATP 250 in Doha, the ATP 250 in Auckland (defeating Daniel Nestor and his partner in both of them), as well as the Australian Open – all with Oliver Marach of Austria. To top things off, he and Gabriela Dabrowski won the Australian Open mixed doubles on Sunday.
As has been known to happen, there are various disagreements between players and national federations and as a result apparently Pavic is not participating this weekend.
The red clay surface was probably partly chosen by the hosts to blunt the power game of Milos Raonic, who is not playing for Canada. But his replacement as the no. 1 for the visitors, Denis Shapovalov (seen at top with captain Frank Dancevic on Monday in the players room at their hotel in Osijek) has given the surface a thumbs up.
Ranked a career best at no. 48 in this week’s ATP rankings, Shapovalov said he thinks the surface is very good and told of speaking Russian to one of the groundskeepers who was really conscientious and anxious to do everything to please all the players in terms of the quality of the court.
Fredéric Fontang, the Davis Cup coach (above with Dancevic) described the sub-surface as being firm but the clay on top as quite thick, making it slow and even slower if it is well-watered.
Canada is hoping to at least keep its place in the World Group for an eighth year in a row with a win in Osijek – and will be counting on a strong performance from the 27-year-old Pospisil, ranked no. 85 after his win at the 64,000 euro Challenger event in Rennes, France, on Sunday.
The Canadian side, playing for the first time since 2004 without captain Martin Laurendeau as team leader, has not won an away tie dating back to a victory in Israel – propelled by Pospisil – in 2011.
Red clay has never been Canada’s best surface but the fact that this tie is indoors – no wind, no sun and minimal temperature variations – makes things different. Shapovalov and Pospisil’s attacking tennis will be somewhat affected by the slower surface but not necessarily severely blunted.
While there’s maneuvering going on at the moment, there should be a bit more clarity tomorrow about the situation as the respective captains, Dancevic and the Croats’ Zeljko Krajan, meet with the media.
AUSSIE OPEN FINAL THOUGHTS
The 2018 Australian finished with a flourish thanks to compelling women’s and men’s finals on the last weekend. Caroline Wozniacki defeated Simona Halep 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-4 and Roger Federer beat Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-7(5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
Both losers, Halep and Cilic, got off to horrendous starts and one could speculate that cost them at the end of two extremely competitive matches.
There were remarkable ebbs and flows in both finals, with Halep looking good with an inspired comeback to lead 4-3 in the final set and Cilic dominating play in the fourth set with exquisite hitting that had Federer looking strangely unsure and vulnerable.
Two interruptions may have ultimately determined the outcomes. After a patch of nervy play on her part and with Halep seeming to mount a final push, Wozniacki took an injury timeout for a knee problem trailing 4-3 in the final set. The break in the action seemed to halt the Halep momentum and the Romanian lost her edge when Wozniacki returned and steadied to win her first Grand Slam title.
It’s hard to be critical of Wozniacki taking the third set injury timeout because Halep took a similar stoppage in the second set – for dizziness and headache – when it looked like Wozniacki might be on her way to a straight sets win.
As for Federer, one suspects that, on principal, a younger version of himself would not have taken a comfort break after losing the fourth set. But he did – for the second year before the fifth set of the final started. On the other hand, that younger Federer version was usually so dominant he wouldn’t have thought of employing the tactic.
Unfortunately for Cilic, after failing to convert two break points in Federer’s opening service game of the fifth set, he was unable to sustain his inspired play and Federer steadied to win a heady 20th Grand Sam title.
Almost unthinkable, as he himself has admitted, at the beginning of 2017, he has now won three of his last for Grand Slams. And all, technically, past his mid-30s. With the gap between him and closest rival Rafael Nadal (16) widened to four Grand Slam victories, the sublime Swiss may have secured enough separation that his current record of 20 (and counting) will be untouchable for at least several decades to come.
On the women’s side, Wozniacki deserves credit for breaking out of her stubbornly defensive game and opening up with some take-charge tennis, starting with her serve.
As for Halep, the following tweet from her coach said something about the 26-year-old Romanian and the place in many peoples’ hearts she earned with her gritty performances and grace in defeat.
The strongest of bonds. Mama Halep and her little rock star daughter. Inseparable when they arrived and as they leave Melbourne. Big hugs from your entire team, @Simona_Halep 🤗 We could not be more proud of you and your performance in the AO. #inspiring #resttime pic.twitter.com/jFhl2XZQXE
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) January 29, 2018
DABROWSKI TRIUMPHS IN MIXED
Gabriela Dabrowski won her second mixed doubles title in the last four Grand Slam events as she and Croatian partner Mate Pavic defeated Timea Babos of Hungary and Rohan Bopanna of India 2-6, 6-4 [11-9] in Sunday’s Australian Open final. Last June she and Bopanna captured the French Open mixed championship.
Facing championship point at 8-9 in the decisive match tiebreak, Pavic hit two aces and then Dabrowski sealed the victory with an outright forehand service return winner on her team’s first championship point.
Dabrowski and Pavic shared a winner’s cheque of $142,000 Aus. ($142,000 Can.) The previous evening Pavic had won the men’s doubles title with Oliver Marach of Germany.
The 25-year-old Dabrowski was happy and talkative at the trophy presentation, beginning by saying, “thank you so much to Scott (Davidoff) and also Andrea (Rabzak) back home – two coaches that have been helping me for the last little while and without them I don’t think I would have hit that last forehand winner.
“I’d actually like to dedicate this win to Jarmila Gajdosova who retired last year – but she’s a fan favourite in Australia and it holds a really special place in her heart. We miss her out here on tour. So this one’s for you Jarka – I love you.” The 30-year-old Gajdosova, who ranked as high as no. 25 in singles 2011, is now married to American Adam Wolfe and gave birth to their first child Natalia Jarmila in November, 2017.
Lastly, Dabrowski mentioned her parents (Wanda and Yurek). “Also just a really special shout-out to my parents at home (Ottawa),” she said. “Ever since I was a little girl Australia was one of the things I couldn’t stop talking about when I was four or five years old and kind of learned where it was – all the cool animals you guys have here. It’s really awesome. I did it – I made it here. So thanks Mom and Dad for all your sacrifices and making this dream come true.”
Dabrowski, with partner Xu Yifan of China, won the pre-Aussie Open tournament in Sydney and reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open. Dabrowski’s individual WTA doubles ranking is now at a career-best no. 11.
CROATIAN POST CARD
The trip from the Zagreb airport to Osijek is along a highway though farming country with many little towns looking like the one pictured here – rising around a central church and its steeple.