Davis Cup 2015: Murray plays for history, Federer and Wawrinka for World Group

Davis Cup 2015: Some of the biggest names in tennis are putting their Grand Slam-weary bodies to the test in the coming days

For the very best men in tennis, committing to Davis Cup is a huge task, but this week, with a place in the grand final in December at stake for the select few, and membership of the elite World Group at stake for many others, some of the biggest names in tennis are putting Grand Slam-weary bodies to the test in support of their nation’s efforts.

Two of the world’s top four, No2 Roger Federer and No4 Stan Wawrinka, with US Open final and semi-final runs in their legs, are hot favourites to beat the Netherlands in Geneva. After taking Switzerland to its first Davis Cup title last year, they opted out of the first round this spring—but then Olympic qualification as well as the World Group beckons, and both answered the call.

Two top-30 Italians, Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini, hope to give their nation a boost before Olympic year against India, and world No6 Kei Nishikori returns from an early loss in New York to spearhead Japan’s campaign.

One of the most high-profile contests comes from beyond the confines of the World Group, as Spain fights to avoid relegation to Group 2 after its shock 2-3 defeat from 2-0 against Russia in July.

Spain, five-time champion this millennium, has one of the strongest presences in the rankings—five men in the top 30 and 14 in the top 100—but Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer have not played a tie for two years. Now they return, fresh from first-week losses in New York, to try and lift their nation back to its former glory—no doubt also with a weather eye on Rio 2016.

But the man who perhaps carries the greatest hope, expectation—and weight—this week is world No3 Andy Murray. Having got three tennis burdens off his back in the last three years—becoming the first Briton since 1908 to win Olympic gold, the first since Fred Perry in 1936 to win a Grand Slam, and then the first since Perry to win Wimbledon—he aims to lead GB to its first Davis Cup final in 37 years, and beyond that to its first title since 1936, when GB was again led by Perry.

To reach this stage, Murray has already performed a near-superhuman task, returning to Queen’s Club three weeks after taking the title—and with a semi-final run at Wimbledon in between—to play on three consecutive days against one of the strongest nations in the world, France. Murray beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon in two tough singles rubbers, and joined forces with brother Jamie to beat Tsonga and Nicolas Mahut.

The victory set up the prospect of a tantalising semi-final against old adversaries Australia, a mighty Davis Cup nation returning to the elite level with a combination of fiery experience in Lleyton Hewitt and some fiery young stars such as No23 Bernard Tomic and teenage rising star Thanasi Kokkinakis.

Australia joined the Davis Cup ‘family’ in 1905, just five years after GB and the USA initiated the competition, and the last time GB won the Cup in ‘36, it happened to be against Australia.

Leon Smith, the young GB Davis Cup captain, afterwards described Murray’s quarter-final endeavour: “It’s incredible how he finds a way to dig as deep as he can… You’re sitting there a set and a break down, and 4-1 down in that tie break, but he fights, and he fights and he fights.”

It captured Murray’s efforts: three days, three wins, everything left on the court.

And as the highest ranked player left in the 2015 title campaign, his should, on paper, win whichever rubbers he plays, especially backed by a vociferous home Glasgow crowd.

But there is one more element to compel in this tie: The Hewitt factor. The last time Australia won the title was in 2003, with Hewitt winning the opening rubber. Since then he has become his nation’s most prolific player, with a win-loss record in the competition of 58-19—and now aged 34, this is his retirement year. Would he like to hang up his racket with the Davis Cup once again? Judging from the Aussie’s performance to get to the semis—he won the doubles rubber with Sam Groth and then the fifth rubber to pull Australia back from a 0-2 deficit against Kazakhstan—he wants it just as much as Murray.

It is, then, too soon to begin bracketing Murray with another Perry milestone, but with No15 David Goffin the only other top-40 player in the second semi-final, Belgium against Argentina, it is not entirely fanciful either.

Runners and riders: The semi-final essentials

Great Britain (6) vs Australia (7)

Venue: Emirates Arena, Glasgow, Great Britain (hard indoor)

Head-to-head: Australia leads 8-4
GB: Andy Murray (3), Kyle Edmund (100), Jamie Murray (8 doubles), Dominic Inglot (26 doubles) [NB James Ward and Dan Evans are on hand should a fall sideline Edmund]
Australia: Bernard Tomic (23), Sam Groth (54), Thanasi Kokkinakis (72), Lleyton Hewitt (286)

• Australia has won the last three meetings between the two nations 4-1, in 1983, 1986 and 2003.

• This is the first meeting between Australia and Great Britain on a hard court.

• GB are nine-time champions, most recently 1936, Australia has 28 titles, most recently in 2003.

• Great Britain is seeking its 20th Davis Cup final.

• Andy Murray has never lost a Davis Cup singles rubber on a hard court, currently 9-0

• Lleyton Hewitt is his nation’s most successful player, and has also played the most ties for Australia, with 40 (prior to this one) over 17 years.

Belgium (8) vs Argentina (4)

Venue: Forest National, Brussels, Belgium (hard indoors)

Head-to-head: Belgium leads 1-0
Belgium: David Goffin (15), Steve Darcis (64), Ruben Bemelmans (87), Kimmer Coppejans (105)
Argentina: Leonardo Mayer (39), Federico Delbonis (65), Diego Schwartzman (68), Carlos Berlocq (137)

• In their only previous meeting, in 1948, Belgium beat Argentina 3-2.

• Argentina has been runner-up four times (most recently in 2011), Belgium runner-up (to GB in 1904) once.

• Belgium is through to World Group semis for the first time since 1999 and only the 2nd time since 1981.

• Argentina is through to its 10th World Group semi since 2002, but is without top players Juan Monaco and the long-absent Juan Martin del Potro.

• If Belgium wins this weekend, it will either host Australia or Great Britain in the final, and if Argentina wins, it will travel to either Australia or Great Britain in the final.

World Group Play-offs: the background

India (21) vs Czech Republic (1)

Venue: R K Khanna Tennis Stadium, New Delhi, India (hard outdoors)

2013 champions the Czechs failed to reach the semis for first time in four years, missing their top-10 stalwart Tomas Berdych, and he is missing again in their attempt to stay in the World Group, but India has no player ranked in singles over 125, so Jiri Vesely and Lukas Rosol should save the Czechs’ day.

Switzerland (2) vs Netherlands (19)

Venue: Palexpo, Geneva, Switzerland (hard indoors)

2014 champion Switzerland have a 5-3 lead over the Netherlands, with their last meeting in 2012 also producing Federer and Wawrinka to fend off World Group relegation. This has the makings of a one-sided affair, with No144 Thiemo de Bakker the highest ranked Dutchman—unless No71 ranked Robin Haase makes a late appearance after playing a clay Challenger this week.

Russia (22) vs Italy (11)

Venue: Sports Palace ‘Baikal-Arena’, Irkutsk, Russia (hard indoors)

Italy holds a 4-1 advantage over the host nation. Italy, who reached the semis last year, have by far the stronger squad, led by Seppi and Fognini, but the No58-ranked Teymuraz Gabashvili can play lights-out tennis on his day, and with home support, this is not a given for the Italians. Russia, for example, beat a Tommy Robredo-led Spain in July.

Uzbekistan (27) vs USA (13)

Venue: Olympic Tennis School, Tashkent, Uzbekistan (clay outdoors)

Uzbekistan, led by sole top-20 player Denis Istomin, aims to end a run of seven defeats in the World Group play-offs, in their first home tie since 2000. They have chosen clay against the big-hitting No29 Jack Sock and No41 Sam Querrey—though the USA has two more top-50 players in the wings, and could send the US into Zone Group competition for the first time since 1988.

Colombia (24) vs Japan (14)

Venue: Club Campestre, Pereira, Colombia (clay outdoors)

After three failures in the World Group play-offs, Colombia will hope it is fourth time lucky. They last met Japan in Tokyo in the 2013 play-offs, when Nishikori and Go Soeda edged the tie 3-2, but his time they are on South American clay, and Nishikori’s form has been patchy through the North American swing. Perhaps history awaits the Santiago Giraldo-led Colombians.

Dominican Republic (23) vs Germany (15)

Venue: Centro Nacional de Tenis Parque del Este, Santo Domingo, DR (hard outdoors)

The surprise package this weekend, the Dominican Republic appears in its first World Group play-offs, only the third Caribbean nation to feature at this stage after Bahamas and Cuba. By contrast, Germany has spent just three years out of the World Group since 1981, and won the title in 1988, 1989 and 1993. It is perhaps a surprise that the home nation chose hard courts against Philipp Kohlschreiber and Dustin Brown, and hard to see Victor Estrella Burgos saving the day.

Brazil (18) vs Croatia (16)

Venue: Costao do Santinho Resort, Florianopolis, Brazil (clay outdoors)

Brazil has lost seven of the nine World Group play-offs over the last nine years.
Croatia, though, won their previous contest back in 2008 and has been in the World Group for 12 of the past 13 years. However, they are missing Grand Slam champion Marin Cilic, who picked up an ankle injury in New York, leaving Croatia’s top spot to teenage No33 Borna Coric. With Brazil’s Thomaz Bellucci in decent form, at No30, and their No2s evenly matched, this could be a close one.

Poland (20) vs Slovakia (17)

Venue: Gdynia Arena, Gdynia, Poland (hard indoors)

Slovakia, which won their only meeting back in 1996, is looking to get back into the World Group for the first time since 2006, while Poland has never reached the competition’s top tier. It is a tough one to call, with the huge Jerzy Janowicz the top man for Poland and No36-ranked Martin Klizan for the Slovakians.

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