Davis Cup 2016 preview: Tsonga, Cilic headline as Djokovic, Murray rest

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray take a break as the Davis Cup quarter-finals get underway on Friday

The eight nations that make up the quarter-finals of this year’s Davis Cup, which gets under way this Friday, feature three of the four most successful in the tournament’s century-old history, and three of its earliest participants.

The United States and founding partner Great Britain have won 42 titles between them, 32 and 10 respectively, while France, who first played in 1905, has won nine times.

Indeed only one of the eight nations has not won the title before, and that one, Argentina, has been runner-up four times—which is more finals without winning the title than any other nation.

But many of the big-name players who spearheaded their nations to recent glory will not be doing so this week, for it is Olympic year, and Rio 2016 begins in just three weeks time.

Coming as the Olympics do on the back of two closely-packed Grand Slams at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and just a fortnight before the last, the US Open—and sandwiched between two big Masters tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati—this is the most challenging phase in the tennis calendar.

So squeezing in three days of best-of-five matches amid the cauldron atmosphere of intra-national competition—often on an entirely different surface—is a step too far for those with medal and Grand Slam ambitions. And that means the likes of Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, French Open champion Novak Djokovic, and the man who was semi-finalist at one and quarter-finalist at the other, Tomas Berdych, are absent.

So one of the most hotly-anticipated ties of the year, between Serbia and Great Britain, which promised to bring together this year’s two Grand Slam champions and Nos 1 and 2 in the world, has become a rather different affair—though as it happens, it could still be one of the most closely contested ties of the week.

However the loss of Berdych to the Czech Republic leaves France, already one of the favourites for the title, as a hot favourite to reach the semi-finals.

Will it be title No10 for France?

France is blessed with more top quality players in the rankings than almost any other: 12 in the top 100, six in the top 30—four of whom are either current or former top-10 players.

With such depth, the burden on each individual through a nation’s annual campaign is reduced, so while the likes of Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon will not line up against the Czech Republic tomorrow, No10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No21 Lucas Pouille will, and to rub salt into the Czech wound, two more top-100 players who together are reigning doubles champions in two Grand Slams, Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, add their weight to the mix.

France has reached the final three times since its last win in 2001, most recently beating the Czechs in the semis in 2014, but falling just short of a 10th title each time. Unfortunately for the France, though, if they do win, they will again play away from home—but with the breadth of ability at their disposal, they will continue to have flexibility and variety at their disposal.

Grand Slam champions to the fore

Mahut and Herbert are not the only Major champions in action this week. In the tie that is perhaps the hardest to call, featuring Croatia and the USA, Marin Cilic, ranked 12, will be supported by the talented teenager Borna Coric, ranked 54, not to mention Grand Slam doubles champion Ivan Dodig. But across the net—and on home hard courts—will be No16 John Isner, No26 Jack Sock, plus perhaps the best doubles duo ever to lift rackets, Mike and Bob Bryan.

Another Major champion, Juan Martin del Potro, returns to the Argentine squad for the first time since 2012, though he is set to play only doubles. The big man is still working his way back to form after years of injury, but if the tie against Italy is in the balance come Sunday, his formidable power could be just what the doctor ordered.

Can Murray’s presence inspire young fellow Brits?

Defending champion Great Britain may be without Murray in the line-up, but he has still made the journey to Serbia to give both moral support and some knocking practice for his team-mates.

It was always a big ask, after such an intense and successful season, for Murray to step up again—and few will forget just how much he has stepped up in recent ties, not least in helping GB beat Japan and Kei Nishikori in the first round.

Since that gripping tie in Birmingham, which came after his final run in Australia, Murray reached the semis in Monte-Carlo, the finals in Madrid and won the Rome Masters. A career-best final run at Roland Garros was followed by a record fifth Queen’s title and a rousing second Wimbledon title. So he deserves a rest more than anyone else ahead of the rigours of Toronto, Rio, Cincinnati and New York. But how uplifting it must be for young Kyle Edmund, who played Murray so hard at Queen’s and takes up the No1 position for GB with a career-high 67 ranking, to have that support.

In fact Edmund is the highest-ranked singles player in the tie, with former top-10 Janko Tipsarevic only lately beginning his return to the circuit after repeated injuries. James Ward takes the place of Dan Evans—Ward won a key tie on hard courts against Isner last year—while Grand Slam doubles champion Jamie Murray joins with doubles expert Dom Inglot for what could be the key rubber.

World Group quarter-finals, 15-17 July

Serbia (No7) vs Great Britain (No1)

Venue: Tasmajdan Stadium, Belgrade, Serbia, on outdoor clay

Friday (4pm local, 3pm UK)

Rubber 1: Janko Tipsarevic v Kyle Edmund
Rubber 2: Dusan Lajovic v James Ward

Saturday (4pm local, 3pm UK)

Rubber 3: Janko Tipsarevic/Nenad Zimonjic v Dominic Inglot/Jamie Murray

Sunday (3pm local, 2pm UK)

Rubber 4: Dusan Lajovic v Kyle Edmund
Rubber 5: Janko Tipsarevic v James Ward

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