Davis Cup captains have the ability to move pieces around – trying to find the right combinations and match-ups to maximize their team’s chances of winning a best-of-five match tie.
This weekend’s World Group first round between Canada and Croatia in Osijek is not exactly chess or musical chairs but there are similarities, although things seem a little more settled after Thursday’s draw ceremony.
The first question to be answered was whether or not Australian Open runner-up Marin Cilic would be ready to play after just three days back in his homeland and two days on the red-clay court in the Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt arena in Osijek.
“Physically I haven’t recovered fully and my body doesn’t feel like it’s 100 per cent ready yet,” the 29-year-old said explaining why he won’t play in Friday’s opening singles. “Yesterday (Wednesday) was my first practice and to get ready and by Friday was too early – and also changing the surface and sliding and things like that are a little more difficult and require a couple of more days. So for Friday it was difficult to be ready but for Saturday and Sunday I’ll be ready to play if necessary.”
Expanding on his current mental and physical wellbeing, Cilic added, “mentally the tournament in Australia was very demanding and usually the way it happens is after the tournament the body just goes on vacation. The last match (five sets vs. the great RF) that I had was quite difficult and physically as well. The last two months I was pushing quite a lot, plus the travel and changing (time zones) here it left a little bit of a scar.”
It would be a shock if Cilic doesn’t play Saturday’s doubles with Ivan Dodig, with whom he has Davis Cup wins over the Bryan brothers and Frenchmen Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, and isn’t substituted in, as need be, for either the fourth or fifth match on Sunday.
While Cilic’s absence was not totally unexpected, Canadian captain Frank Dancevic choosing Peter Polansky over Vasek Pospisil for the second singles spot was a surprise.
Croat captain Zeljko Krajan acted cool and sounded like he had anticipated the move by the Canadians. “We watched some practices and realized that Polansky spent a lot of time on court,” he said, “so from the beginning we were expecting him to be the second singles player.”
As for his man Cilic (above serving at targets) and the possibility of him participating, Krajan said, “for sure there’s a chance. That’s why he’s here with us. With all the things that he had lately – which weren’t easy. We’re thankful for him to be here and we hope we’re going to see him on the court this weekend.”
As for Dancevic, his take on the Cilic situation was, “we were kind of expecting him more to play than not but we also kind of suspected this could be a possibility. They have so many good players that they can pick and choose a lot of different combinations.”
About his selection of Polansky over Pospisil, he explained, “it was based on Vasek playing a lot of matches last week on hard court (winning a Challenger event in Rennes, France) and he didn’t have the ideal preparation – coming here having played a lot of matches and having to be rushed to practice to play Friday. Pete has been here and he has been playing a lot. They’re both playing really well and it was tough but it was my decision that Peter was maybe a little better to start off on Friday.”
Like Cilic, Pospisil could be substituted for the singles on the final day. He’s already slated to play doubles with Daniel Nestor on Saturday against Dodig and Franko Skugor – but it’s basically a foregone conclusion Cilic will replace Skugor.
“There’s a chance for sure,” Dancevic said about Pospisil playing on Sunday, likely in the fifth match. “We have a lot of depth on our team and it’s something we’re thinking about for sure – giving Vasek those extra days and definitely he could be playing on Sunday. Also he was struggling with a little bit of a virus coming in – he lost a day of practice there and that’s one of the reasons why Pete, with the extra time on court, was a good choice.”
From Pospisil’s side of things, he said, “I got in pretty late (Monday) and I wasn’t physically ready to go. I got the flu when I arrived so I lost time and was feeling pretty weak. Peter has been playing great and everyone has been preparing longer than I have. It didn’t make sense to play tomorrow (Friday) but at the same time I was feeling the ball pretty well today and I’ll be ready to go when I need to be on the court.”
Tie referee Norbert Peick of Germany, with a spiffy pair of specs at the draw ceremony, indicated Borna Coric’s name out of the bowl first, meaning that the Croat No. 1 and Polansky will be first up at 2 p.m. (8 a.m. ET in Canada) on Friday.
They have only played once – in the qualifying for a Challenger event in Irving, Texas, in 2014 when Coric was 17. Polansky won 6-2, 7-5.
“I saw some of his matches – not many to be honest,” the no. 47-ranked Coric said Thursday about Polansky. “We practiced once so obviously I need to do some checking tonight trying to see how he plays to prepare for tomorrow.”
As for no. 141 Polansky, he recalled, “I played him many years ago when he was really young, just coming out of juniors. He’s a great player, a good clay court player, pretty solid. I’ve been playing some pretty high level tennis for the last year or so and I’m happy where my game’s at. I look forward to a good battle.”
Regarding his second match against Viktor Galovic, the 18-year-old Shapovalov said, “I don’t know Viktor that well, I haven’t seen him play that much. I’ll go over the match with the team. I’m definitely motivated and hopefully I can get the team a win.”
As for the o. 181-ranked Galovic, the 27-year-old was 1-1 in the qualifying at both the Brisbane International and the Australian Open last month. His knowledge of Shapovalov seemed fairly limited. “He’s a lefty,” the 6-foot-4 Galovic said, “and this year I lost two times to lefty guys. But now I’m more confident and I’m playing better than at the beginning of the year so I think I can overcome that thing that he’s a lefty.”
In doubles, the No. 8-ranked Dodig is the backbone of his team, and has support from his hometown as the above sign, already in the arena on Thursday, shows.
“Definitely we played a couple of times against each other,” the 33-year-old Dodig said about facing the 45-year-old Nestor. He deadpanned, “we’ve never played together and somebody mentioned that I’m the only guy that never played with him – he had over 100 partners.” Nestor has indeed had a few partners, but the actual number is between 50 and 60.
The line-ups are now set and the 4,000-seat Sportska Dvorana Gradski Vrt arena will be likely be at capacity on Friday with 150 seats still available for sale late Thursday.
Locals will be disappointed that Cilic is not in action Friday because a year ago he was supposed to lead the Croats against Spain and Rafael Nadal in the same arena (see poster above). But neither of them played.
This time it appears Cilic will take to the court – and it’s even possible he could play Friday. But that would only be permitted if either Coric or Galovic had a valid medical reason for not playing. The same could be said for Pospisil being piloted in to replace either Shapovalov or Polansky.
There was a minor concern about Shapovalov on Thursday when he cut his practice session a bit short after the draw ceremony. In the above picture he can be seen leaving the court with captain Dancevic.
The chess game of this weekend’s Canada – Croatia tie may finally be at its conclusion. But the musical chairs surely still has a piece or two to be moved in or out of position.
AROUND THE WORLD
There are eight 2018 Davis Cup World Group ties going on this weekend on three continents:
Here’s a brief look at all of them:
Netherlands at France: The defending champions start out at home in Albertville playing on Rebound Ace and have a perfect 10-0 record against the Dutch. It will be a power-packed French line-up of Pouille, Tsonga, Gasquet, Herbert and Mahut against an under-whelming Dutch team led by no. 42-ranked Robin Haase.
Italy at Japan: The last time these nations played was in Genoa in 1930 and Milan in 1932 and Italy won both 3-2. With no Kei Nishikori and the Italians fielding Fognini, Seppi, Lorenzi, Bolelli and Fabbiano, they will be favoured against Japan and its singles players – no. 42 Yuichi Sugita and no. 100 Taro Daniel – on a hard court in Morioka.
Great Britain at Spain. Playing in the vacation paradise of Marbella, the British team will be overwhelming underdogs after it was determined Aussie Open semifinalist Kyle Edmund is not fit enough to play. Even with Edmund, on red clay the Brits just can’t rival a Spanish team featuring PCB (Carreno Busta), RBA (Bautista Agut) ARV (Ramos-Vinolas) as well as F. Lopez and D. Ferrer captained by two-time Roland Garros winner Sergi Brughera.
Germany at Australia: After the two headline players – Sascha Zverev and Nick Kyrgios – there’s a decided drop-off for this glamour first round tie on a Plexicushion court at Pat Rafter Arena in Brisbane. Alex de Minaur, the 19-year-old sensation of the early season Down Under takes on Zverev and Kyrgios plays Jan-Lennard Struff in the opening singles.
Switzerland at Kazakhstan: Playing at home at the National Tennis Centre in Astana, the Kazakhs have won nine of 10 ties since 2008. It should be 10 of 11 after the hosts, led by the only Top 100 player in the tie, no. 73 Mikhail Kukushkin, face a Swiss line-up sans Federer or Wawrinka but led by Federer mentor and proxy, captain Severin Luthi. The victor plays the winner of Canada – Croatia in the World Group quarter-finals April 6-8.
Canada at Croatia: Details above.
USA at Serbia: The Serbs won the two previous ties in 2010 (Belgrade) and 2013 (Boise, Idaho) – both with Novak Djokovic winning the decisive fourth match. Without him this time and led by no. 84 Dusan Lajovic and no. 88 Laslo Djere, the hosts face the Jim Courier led visitors featuring Querrey, Isner, R. Harrison and S. Johnson, but not no. 8 Jack Sock, indoors on red clay in Nis.
Hungary at Belgium: Buoyed by the fine showing of no. 63-ranked Marton Fucsovics – a fourth round loss to Federer – at the Australian Open, the visitors face a daunting task on the hard courts in Liege. The host will go with old reliables no. 7 David Goffin and no. 120 Ruben Bemelmens in a bid to reach the Davis Cup final for the third time in four years.
CROATIAN POST CARD
One of the striking features of Osijek is its suspension bridge – 210 metres wide and 35 metres high – across the Drava River. Strictly for pedestrians and cyclists, the bridge, opened in 1981 and renovated in 2007, is even more striking at night when it changes colour illuminations.