This year, it is the bridge that takes the players from three full months of hard-court competition—including the first Grand Slam and the two biggest Masters of the year—to the warm, sunburnt orange of sliding feet, stained ankles and Mediterranean temperatures. The clay season is here, a segment with three Masters that culminates in the small but perfectly formed Grand Slam, the French Open.
How seemly, then, that the very competition bridging the two seasons—the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup—should, for the first in its history, be entirely played out on clay.
In a packed holiday weekend, the best nations in the world, ranked one to eight, will battle for a place in the semi-finals. Only two of them, Austria and Argentina, have not won before and Argentina will be bidding for its first victory after four times reaching the final—including last year.
Argentina lost to Spain in December, as many have before them. The Spaniards have dominated the last decade of Davis Cup competition with five victories and a runner-up place since 2000. This year, however, they are without their star player, Rafael Nadal, who confirmed before the season began that he would not play in the competition this year.
2012 is an especially intensive year, with the Olympics slotted into the late summer schedule, and the top players—the ones who invariably go deepest into tournaments—are all keeping a weather eye on their schedules to avoid overplaying and injury.
Nadal was clearly a very tired man at the end of the 2011 season, as was the man who beat him at almost every turn along the way. Novak Djokovic cut a swathe through the tour, winning 70 of 76 matches, five Masters and three Grand Slams.
By the World Tour Finals, he was sore and exhausted and, with his focus squarely on new titles this year—the French Open and Olympic gold would bring him several special records—he is leaving Serbia’s Davis Cup campaign in the capable hands of world No8 Janko Tipsarevic and No26 Viktor Troicki.
Andy Murray, too, is not involved in the GB Group 1 tie against Belgium and Roger Federer’s Switzerland lost to the USA in the World Group first round and will not play again until the September’s play-offs.
The top-four man aside, however, the very best of men’s tennis will be on show. Nos 5 to 14 will all don their national colours—all except No9 Mardy Fish and No13 Gael Monfils who were both last-minute withdrawals with illness and injury. And by chance, their combined absence has levelled the playing field in what is the most anticipated contest this weekend between two of the Davis Cup’s most successful countries, France and the USA.
The rivalry between these two teams is one of the oldest in the competition’s history, dating back to 1905. Since then, they have met 15 times, with the USA holding the smallest of leads, 8-7. Only twice in that time has the visiting team come away with the win, so the French will relish the home clay in possibly the most beautiful tennis venue in the world, set in the hills above Monte Carlo.
France (4) v USA (7), Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, outdoor clay
France is joint-third on the all-time list of champions with nine titles, most recently in 2001, and has been runner-up on seven occasions. However, the USA is the most successful nation in Davis Cup history—champion on 32 occasions.
Despite the loss Monfils, French captain Guy Forget could still select from No13 Gilles Simon or No18 Richard Gasquet. The nod has gone to the fully-fit Simon, Gasquet feeling he may be unable to compete over five sets on clay due to a niggling elbow injury.
Fish’s place has been taken by the fast-rising teenage talent, Ryan Harrison, but the current star of the side is John Isner, who might not look like a clay court player, but he defeated Federer on the indoor clay away from home in February and pushed Nadal to five sets in the first round at Roland Garros last year.
The doubles rubber could prove crucial and, although the USA is fielding the reunited Bryan brothers, France also has a great pairing in Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau.
Friday 11am BST
R1: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) v Ryan Harrison (USA)
R2: Gilles Simon (FRA) v John Isner (USA)
Saturday 1pm BST
R3: Julien Benneteau / Michael Llodra (FRA) v Bob Bryan / Mike Bryan (USA)
Sunday 10am BST
R4: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) v John Isner (USA)
R5: Gilles Simon (FRA) v Ryan Harrison (USA)
Spain (1) v Austria (8), Oropesa del Mar, Spain, outdoor clay
Without either Nadal or David Ferrer, Spain whitewashed Kazakhstan in the first round, a 22nd consecutive home victory and a Davis Cup World Group record.
This time, No5 Ferrer is back and supported by No12 Nicolas Almagro, who has 22-7 win-loss record this year.
Austria, whose best performance came in 1990 with a semi-final finish, has reached its first World Group quarter-final in 17 years with a team led by world No22 Jurgen Melzer. Almagro’s role could be key: He is in good form and full of confidence, but Melzer beat him last year, at the same venue in the Monte Carlo Masters.
Austria has traditionally caused Spain difficulties, winning three from four previous meetings, most recently in 1995.
Friday 11am BST
R1: Nicolas Almagro (ESP) v Jurgen Melzer (AUT)
R2: David Ferrer (ESP) v Andreas Haider-Maurer (AUT)
Saturday 2.15pm BST
R3: Marcel Granollers/Marc Lopez (ESP) v Oliver Marach/Alexander Peya (AUT)
Sunday 11am BST
R4: David Ferrer (ESP) v Jurgen Melzer (AUT)
R5: Nicolas Almagro (ESP) v Andreas Haider-Maurer (AUT)
Czech Republic (5) v Serbia (2), Prague, Czech Republic, indoor clay
This is the 11th meeting between the Czech Republic and Serbia, each side holding five wins. The last meeting, the 2010 semi-final, went right to the wire with Djokovic and Tipsarevic pulling Serbia back from a 2-1 deficit on the final day.
On home soil, the Czech duo of world No7, Tomas Berdych and No24 Radek Stepanek will this time hope to take advantage of the absence of Djokovic.
Serbia went on in 2010 to win the title for the first time. The Czech Republic—as Czechoslovakia—was champion in 1980 and runner-up in 1975 and 2009.
Friday 2pm BST
R1: Tomas Berdych (CZE) v Victor Troicki (SRB)
R2: Radek Stepanek (CZE) v Janko Tipsarevic (SRB)
Saturday 2pm BST
R3: Frantisek Cermak / Lukas Rosol (CZE) v Nenad Zimonjic / Ilija Bozoljac (SRB)
Sunday 12 midday BST
R4: Tomas Berdych (CZE) v Janko Tipsarevic (SRB)
R5: Radek Stepanek (CZE) v Victor Troicki (SRB)
Argentina (3) v Croatia (6), Buenos Aires, Argentina, outdoor clay
Argentina and Croatia are meeting for a third time, both previous encounters also coming in the quarters, in 2002 and 2006. Both also came down to the smallest of margins, with Argentina winning both in the fifth rubber. However, Croatia has done what their opponents have failed to do: win the title—the first unseeded nation to do so—in 2005.
Juan Martin del Potro returns to the Argentina team after missing their victory over Germany in February. David Nalbandian’s singles performance in that 4-1 win, together with a surge of form that took him to the quarters of Indian Wells, has earned him the other singles role over the higher ranked No21 player, Juan Monaco—though Monaco remains in the squad.
Friday, 2.30pm BST
R1: David Nalbandian (ARG) v Marin Cilic (CRO)
R2: Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) v Ivo Karlovic (CRO)
Saturday, 4.30pm BST
R3: David Nalbandian / Eduardo Schwank (ARG) v Marin Cilic / Lovro Zovko (CRO)
Sunday, 2.30pm BST
R4: Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) v Marin Cilic (CRO)
R5: David Nalbandian (ARG) v Ivo Karlovic (CRO)
The winners of second round ties progress to the World Group play-offs in September, while the losers remain in Group I for 2013. The winners of the first round play-offs remain in Group I, while the losers face a relegation play-off tie in September or October.
Great Britain v Belgium, Glasgow, GB, indoor hard, 2nd round
Great Britain squad: Josh Goodall (replaces James Ward), Dan Evans, Colin Fleming, Ross Hutchins
Belgium squad: Olivier Rochus, Steve Darcis, Ruben Bemelmans, David Goffin
Israel v Portugal, Ramat Hasharon, Israel, outdoor hard, 2nd round
Israel squad: Dudi Sela, Amir Weintraub, Jonathan Erlich, Andy Ram
Portugal squad: Rui Machado, Frederico Gil, Joao Sousa, Gastao Elias
Netherlands v Romania, Amsterdam, Netherlands, indoor hard, 2nd round
Netherlands squad: Robin Haase, Thomas Schoorel, Igor Sijsling, Jean-Julier Rojer
Romania squad: Petru Alexandru Luncanu, Andrei Daescu, Darius Florin Bragusi, Florin Mergea
Uruguay v Chile, Montevideo, Uruguay, outdoor clay, 2nd round
Uruguay squad: Pablo Cuevas, Marcel Felder, Martin Cuevas, Ariel Behar
Chile squad: Paul Capdeville, Guillermo Hormazabal, Jorge Aguilar, Nicolas Massu
Brazil v Colombia, São José do Rio Preto, Brazil, outdoor clay, 2nd round
Brazil squad: Thomaz Bellucci, Joao Souza, Bruno Soares, Marcelo Melo
Colombia squad: Santiago Giraldo, Alejandro Falla, Robert Farah, Juan Sebastian Cabal
Uzbekistan v India, Namangan, Uzbekistan, indoor clay, 2nd round
Uzbekistan squad: Denis Istomin, Farrukh Dustov, Murad Inoyatov, Sarvar Ikramov
India squad: Yuki Bhambri, Sanam Singh, Leander Paes, Rohan Bopanna
Australia v Korea Rep, Queensland, Australia, indoor hard, 2nd round
Australia squad: Bernard Tomic, Matthew Ebden, Marinko Matosevic, Chris Guccione
Korea squad: Suk-Young Jeong, Jung-Woong Na, Jae-Min Seol, Min Hyeok Cho
Chinese Taipei v PR China, Kaohsiung City, Chinese Taipei, outdoor hard, 1st round play-off
Chinese Taipei squad: Tsung-Hua Yang, Jimmy Wang, Hsin-Han Lee, Cheng-Peng Hsieh
China squad: Ze Zhang, Di Wu, Ya-Nan Ma, Zhe Li
South Africa v Slovenia, Johannesburg, South Africa, outdoor hard, 2nd round
S Africa squad: Izak van der Merwe, Raven Klaasen, Ruan Roelofse, Jean Anderson
Slovenia squad: Blaz Kavcic, Grega Zemlja, Janez Semrajc, Nik Razborsek
Mexico hosts Barbados
Venezuela hosts Dominican Republic
El Salvador hosts Paraguay
Puerto Rico hosts Bolivia
Philippines host Pakistan
Indonesia host Thailand
Lebanon host Pacific Oceania
Hong Kong, China host Sri Lanka
Ukraine host Cyprus
Hungary host Latvia
Belarus host Bosnia/Herzegovina
Poland host Estonia
Morocco host Monaco
Egypt host Ireland
Turkey host Moldova
Madagascar host Luxembourg
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BIOGRAPHY: Marcus Rashford