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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds the Davis Cup trophy as he celebrates with his teammate David Ferrer during the third and last day of the final Davis Cup match between Spain and Argentina on December 4, 2011 in Seville, Spain.

Barely two months ago, Spain celebrated the latest title captured by its Davis Cup dynasty.  But now the greatest power of the past decade must start to defend its crown once more.  While their path does not look steep, other contending nations eye more imposing challenges to their hopes.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan:  In its first year of World Group experience, the Kazakhs burst onto this grand stage by ambushing the Berdych-led Czech squad in a victory of David over Goliath.  When David traveled to Argentine clay, though, their discomfort on the surface led to an emphatic shutout.  Once again mired in clay, they face the nation most renowned for its success on the terre battue.  But most of that success came from two players absent from Spain’s B-level squad in Oviedo, Nadal and Ferrer.  As Spain enters an era of Davis Cup without its leading stars, the defending champions rely on the fading Ferrero and the enigmatic Almagro, together with the unremarkable Granollers and the second-tier doubles specialist Marc Lopez.  Considering the quality of their competition and home-court advantage, Spain should advance routinely even with this relatively modest quartet.  This easy draw provides a chance for the team’s comprehensive remodeling to coalesce before meeting stiffer resistance.  ESP in 3

Austria vs. Russia:  Not especially intriguing at first glance, this tie features no player in the top 30.  Several curious subtexts lurk beneath its apparent mediocrity, however, including the narrative of Alex Bogomolov’s debut in Russian colors after controversially spurning the United States.  The most reliable member of either squad in Cup action, Youzhny arrives with his spirits soaring from a Zagreb title and owns a 4-2 advantage over Austrian #1 Melzer.  Likely to appear if needed in Sunday’s reverse singles is the Austrian resident Davydenko, whose aggressive ball-striking suits the indoor hard courts better than Bogomolov’s counterpunching style.  Bereft of imposing singles #2s, the hosts will lean heavily on Melzer to participate in winning three rubbers, for they have little hope of survival if the tie hinges upon the 127th-ranked Haider-Maurer.  While the streaky Austrian #1 could ride his lefty net-rushing to a heroic feat, he has won consecutive main-draw matches only once since last July.  His best tennis almost certainly lies behind this 30-year-old Wimbledon doubles champion.  RUS in 5

Canada vs. France:  Like the Austrians, the Canadians pin their ambitions upon a single potential hero in Milos Raonic.  Although Vasek Pospisil and Frank Dancevic have excelled on home soil before, one would not fancy their chances to win two singles rubbers from Tsonga and Monfils, even with the latter perhaps not fully fit.  In the doubles, Canada might combine Dancevic’s net skills with the vast doubles expertise of Daniel Nestor, only a little less effective with age.  Nevertheless, Franch also will bring a talented doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra, who have won titles together before and might out-serve the Canadians on these fast courts.  Stirring internal Canadian controversy before the tie was fiercely patriotic advertising by Tennis Canada that irritated the country’s French-speaking citizens.  The weekend’s action will unfold far from Quebec in the British Canadian city of Vancouver, though, notorious for fanaticism in other sports.  Famously fallible throughout their history, the French Davis Cup team must ignore the distractions to showcase their more versatile talent.  Outside the serve, Tsonga and Monfils have far more weapons than Raonic, who might upset one of them but seems unlikely to topple both without their assistance.  Three best-of-five victories on three straight days represents a towering task for the towering Canadian.  FRA in 4

Switzerland vs. USA:  Whereas the previous two ties look more interesting upon further inspection than at first glance, this tie looks more interesting at first glance than upon further inspection.  On the indoor clay in Fribourg, Federer and Wawrinka should tie knots around the one-dimensional American servers.  Unimpressive at the Australian Open, neither Fish nor Isner will bring the level of self-belief necessary to overcome the Swiss master, although Isner did win two sets from Nadal at Roland Garros.  A stronger competitor than formerly (except against Federer), Wawrinka still struggles with maintaining a positive attitude under pressure sometimes.  One wonders a little how he will respond to the challenge of blunting the American serves under the gaze of his expectant compatriots.   So far superior are the Swiss singles players on clay, however, that they could afford to burn understudies Chiudinelli and Lammer on the doubles while relying on winning three of four singles rubbers.  (Thus far, however, they have slotted Federer and Wawrinka into that rubber as well.)  Paired with Ryan Harrison rather than former partner Isner, Mike Bryan should spare the visitors from a shutout before they drift down to the playoff round once more.  In a minor footnote, Harrison should benefit from the experience of playing a visiting Davis Cup tie as his maturation process continues.  SUI in 4

Czech Republic vs. Italy:  Surely seething to avenge their first-round loss last year, the former Davis Cup finalists probably can expect only one or two more seasons from their reliable duo of Berdych and Stepanek.  A two-man team with remarkable success in doubles together, they will host a clay-loving quartet of Italians on fast indoor courts where their superior serves and aggressive tactics should make spaghetti out of Starace et al.  After extending Nadal to four tight sets in an Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych won the Montpellier title last week and has played more consistently impressive tennis over the last few months thane he generally does.   Not to be outdone by his countryman, Stepanek won the Australian Open doubles crown with Leander Paes in a commendable late-career highlight.  Boosted by their individual momentum, they should prove once again that divergent playing styles and divergent personalities can fuse in explosively effective fashion.  Like the Swiss, the Czechs probably can afford to concede the doubles and rest their stars for the singles.  CZE in 4

Serbia vs. Sweden:  Neither of their nation’s #1s, Djokovic and Soderling, will play a role in this starless Belgrade weekend.  So sanguine was Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic about his team’s chances that he encouraged the five-time major champion to focus upon preparing for the majors and Olympics.  All the same, two top-25 singles threats in Tipsarevic and Troicki add to doubles veteran Zimonjic in comprising a balanced squad that always shines most under Serbian skies (or roofs, in this case).  Across the net stands no Swede in the top 250 of the ATP singles rankings, although Robin Lindstedt should duel intriguingly with Zimonjic in the doubles rubber.  But otherwise we expect minimal suspense from the greatest mismatch of the weekend.  SRB in 3

Japan vs. Croatia:  A mismatch in height alone, this tie offers a second straight weekend of tennis in the Bourbon Beans Dome.  Partnering Kimiko Date-Krumm in mixed doubles at the Australian Open, Nishikori will aim to emulate that legend’s success in Fed Cup against another Balkans team.  Unexpectedly reaching the singles quarterfinals in Melbourne, the Japanese #1 should relish the rare opportunity to play before his home fans—at least more than the opportunity to blunt Karlovic’s serving power.  The doubles looks even more uncertain than the singles rubbers, although perhaps the Croat’s towering serve will prove decisive by earning ample free points.  In the first meeting between these nations, the straightforward power and forward movement of the visitors will contrast with the steady baseline resilience of the home squad.  While the indoor hard court would seem to tilt towards Croatia, Nishikori and his compatriots will not surrender without a fierce struggle.  CRO in 5

Germany vs. Argentina:  Rebounding from a valiant but doomed effort against a Nadal-led Spain in last year’s final, the perennial bridesmaids of Davis Cup begin yet another Sisyphean quest towards its elusive summit.  Curiously without their flagship Del Potro, a key factor in their semifinal victory over Serbia in 2011, Argentina will rely one more time upon Cup stalwart Nalbandian against a German team lacking its most dangerous player in Kohlschreiber.  Considering the characteristics of Mayer, Petzschner, and Haas, one must query the host country’s decision to put Monaco and Chela on their favored red clay.  Fast-court players who prefer short points, the Germans would seem at a disadvantage against the Argentine clay specialists.  Also notable is the age of the participants, of whom the youngest (Monaco) will turn 28 next month.  Under the rigors of the best-of-five format on a slow court, fatigue and injury may play a role for some of these veterans.  As with Japan vs. Croatia, either team could win any of the rubbers.  But only one of these players, Nalbandian has compiled a history of Davis Cup heroics, and he should lift his nation again in a tie that looks less formidable than it did when the draw first appeared.   ARG in 5

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates at match point after defeating Gael Monfils of France during day three of the Davis Cup Tennis Final at the Begrade Arena on December 5, 2010 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Serbia at Sweden:  Initially awaited as a clash between top-five superstars Djokovic and Soderling, this tie developed into a mismatch when Djokovic reaffirmed his Davis Cup commitment while Soderling withdrew.  Considering the Swede’s recent slump, however, the outcome probably would not have changed even if the route had grown more arduous.  As the tie currently stands, the home nation will field no players inside the top 250, so the world #1 and his understudy Troicki should cruise through a pair of comfortable wins on the opening day, barring illness or injury.  After conquering Tsonga and Nadal at Wimbledon, Djokovic should find Eleskovic and Ryderstedt unimposing foes indeed.  The mismatch becomes less severe in doubles, where Sweden might possess a slight advantage in the Olympic silver medalists Aspelin and Lindstedt against the aging Zimonjic and Tipsarevic or some other partner less skilled in doubles than in singles.  Should the home squad survive until Sunday, though, it merely will postpone the inevitable until Djokovic delivers a ringing coup de grace in the reverse singles.

Serbia 3-1

Kazakhstan at Argentina:  Contesting their first World Group tie earlier this year, the visitors remain undefeated in World Group with a stirring upset over 2010 semifinalist Czech Republic.  Crucial to that achievement were the exploits of Andrey Golubev, the team flagship who has posted an 11-1 record in Davis Cup singles including a victory over Berdych.  Outside that weekend, though, the Kazakh #1 has won only two of 20 matches in 2011 and has lost 14 straight encounters since Indian Wells.  At his least effective on clay, he leads his compatriots into not only their weakest surface but a notoriously hostile crowd atmosphere.  Without longtime Davis Cup genie Nalbandian, Argentina still has assembled a team with excellent clay skills, highlighted by former Roland Garros semifinalist Del Potro.  Steadily marching back into relevance, the Tower of Tandil has the weapons to overpower the Kazakhs from the baseline with ease.  But he continues to display psychological frailty at untimely moments, while his shaky loss to Lopez in the 2008 final suggests that national team competition exposes his weaknesses rather than showcasing his strengths.  Beyond Del Potro, the home squad also can rely upon grinding dirt devil Juan Monaco, a veteran unlikely to fold under Davis Cup pressure and likely to outlast the volatile Kazakhs.

Argentina 3-0

Spain at USA:  After copious weeping and gnashing of teeth, the 2008-09 Cup champions trudge reluctantly to a surface where their captain clearly does not fancy their chances.  Costa’s sour carping situates his team in a potentially perilous position, situated too close to fatalistic negativity on the emotional spectrum before the first ace descends.  Eyeing the relentless serving barrage of Fish and Roddick, the visitors may find Nadal’s absence decisive by robbing them of two near-certain victories.  On the other hand, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Lopez should bring considerable optimism to his clash with Roddick, whom he convincingly conquered in the third round at the All England Club.  In a potentially decisive fifth rubber, the American will have an opportunity to soothe the sting of that defeat before his compatriots, whose presence typically inspires his finest tennis.  Before that intriguing rematch, Costa may consider shuffling his lineups to pit Verdasco rather than Ferrer against Roddick on Friday and Fish on Sunday.  Despite the lefty’s 2011 woes, he defeated Roddick on an identical surface in the San Jose final last year and reached the final there again this season.  In contrast, Ferrer displayed uncharacteristically poor body language during his loss to Fish in Miami, while his puny serve will permit him to collect fewer free points on the fast court than will his countryman.  But the American supremacy in doubles with the Bryans may become the decisive factor in this tie.  Confident that the reigning Wimbledon champions can deliver Saturday’s third rubber, the home team knows that they need only split the four singles matches.  With two top-10 veterans on a surface tailored to their strengths, that objective seems well within range, but one cannot discount the ability of the Spaniards to elevate each other as a team to feats that they could not accomplish individually.  Even without Nadal, plenty of intrigue should unfold.

USA 3-1

France at Germany:  Although all of the probably French singles players perch higher in the rankings than all of their German counterparts, this tie could evolve into a more dramatic encounter than statistic would suggest.  With inspired runs to the Halle final last month, both Kohlschreiber and Petzschner demonstrated the emotional boost that they receive from playing at home, whereas les bleus have proven famously fallible under adversity.  Perhaps that national trait has faded lately, however, with a sparkling second-week runs by Gasquet at Roland Garros and Wimbledon accompanying Monfils’ triumph over Ferrer at the former Slam and Tsonga’s fierce comeback against Federer at the latter.  Organized around maximizing singles players, the French squad includes only Llodra among its players earmarked for the doubles, while the hosts enjoy a regular doubles squad in Petzschner and Kas.  At the top of this squad looms the enigmatic Florian Mayer, whom few would consider equal to his top-20 ranking after witnessing his unremarkable shot-making abilities.  More often than one would expect, Davis Cup trains the spotlight on the least heralded star, so one senses that Mayer may play a decisive role before the weekend concludes.  French captain Guy Forget faces a series of intriguing decisions over whether to showcase Monfils, Gasquet, or Tsonga, and against which opponent.  Armed with far more raw talent than the home squad, the visitors should suffer just enough wayward moments to furrow Forget’s brow before relying on their superior depth to advance.

France 3-2

Rafael Nadal - Spain v Czech Republic - Davis Cup World Group Final - Day Two

Embarrassment of riches (BEL vs. ESP): Spearheaded by a reinvigorated Rafa, the Spanish team has marshaled no fewer than three top-10 players against a Belgian team with only one member (Malisse) in the top 100.  So potent is Spain’s firepower, in fact, that world #9 Verdasco initially planned to participate only in doubles before Ferrer’s neck cramp forced captain Alberto Costa to redesign his lineup.  While Nadal will profit from a virtual practice match against Bemelmans, the other Spanish lefty can rediscover his hard-court rhythm after consecutive losses to Raonic when he confronts Malisse in the opening rubber.  That match should prove the most competitive of a brutally one-sided tie, certain to deploy the Davis Cup’s new prohibition against dead fifth rubbers.

Weekend without superstars (SRB vs. IND):  Sensibly sparing his energies with the two mini-majors on the horizon, former Indian Wells and Miami champion Djokovic joined Indian Express Bhupathi and Paes on the sidelines as Serbia opens its title defense.  Stripped of its most notable participants, this tie nevertheless will feature a glimpse of rising Indian star Somdeev Devvarman, a Hewitt-esque player gradually inching further into main draws.  But the home squad should thoroughly control proceedings under the aegis of 2010 Davis Cup Final hero Troicki, Delray Beach finalist Tipsarevic, and aging doubles legend Zimonjic.  Just three months after winning their first title in this competition, Serbia should sweep comfortably and schedule a fascinating second-round meeting with Soderling’s Sweden or Tarpischev’s Russia.  On that occasion, they will need their superstar again.

Clinic on clay (ARG vs. ROM): Across from the Grouchy Gaucho stands the Romanian Spit-Fire in a clash of notably ill-tempered personalities.  An enigma in individual competition, Nalbandian has delivered  several memorable performances while compiling a 20-5 record in Davis Cup singles rubbers (16-2 on clay), but Hanescu could thrive on a surface where he has an 11-3 Davis Cup record.  Beyond the two #1s, the 31st-ranked Chela, the 33rd-ranked Monaco, and even Eduardo Schwank trump any member of the visiting squad in clay-court talent, so the surface and the thunderous Buenos Aires crowd should play a decisive role in this tie.   The plot could thicken if the tie reaches Saturday at 1-1, allowing Romanian doubles specialist Horia Tecau to showcase his craft in a potentially pivotal rubber against an Argentine team comprised entirely of singles stars.  In order for the visitors to prevail, though, Hanescu almost surely must win three rubbers, a task probably too tall for the weak-willed, heavy-legged #59 in surroundings as hostile as the Parque Roca.

Serves against the surface (CHI vs. USA):  We might have favored Chile to spring this upset had its marquee player Fernando Gonzalez played a role.  Instead, that inveterate ball-bruiser will join the legions of passionate Chilean fans in an attempt to propel four players outside the top 100 past Roddick, Isner, and the world’s top doubles team.  On any surface other than clay, this matchup would look no less intimidating than Belgium vs. Spain.  Even on clay, the serves of Roddick and Isner will garner many more free points than the the crumbling, 31-year-old Massu and the punchless Capdeville, famously feckless in Davis Cup.  Gallantly battling Djokovic on clay in Davis Cup last year, Isner projects surprising power from his inside-out forehand on this surface, while Roddick always brings an extra jolt of adrenaline and focus to national team competition.  First-time captain Jim Courier should enjoy a debut that will set up a far more imposing home encounter with Spain a week after Wimbledon.

Spotlight on the supporting actors (CRO vs. GER):  With Karlovic drifting towards retirement, Croatia hopes that Zagreb champion Ivan Dodig can slip smoothly into the role of #2 behind Cilic, edging back towards relevance after a final in Marseille.  But Germany bolsters the mercurial Kohlschreiber by bringing an even more promising #2 to this weekend’s collision, which looks destined to enter Sunday undecided.  A two-time semifinalist already this season, Florian Mayer has defeated Del Potro and Davydenko this year while quelling rising Lithuanian Berankis.  Perhaps more importantly, he ended Cilic’s Zagreb defense in February with a startlingly routine victory.  In addition to the Zagreb title, Dodig distinguished himself by winning the only set that Djokovic lost at the Australian Open, and the long-time journeyman has won at least one match at every tournament that he has played this year.  If he duels with Mayer in a decisive fifth rubber, scintillating Davis Cup drama could ensue.

Tomas Berdych - 2011 Australian Open - Day 5

Veterans and novices (CZE vs. KAZ):  While Davis Cup stalwart Stepanek may have Czeched out on this weekend’s action, but Berdych still towers over not only his teammates but their Kazakh opponents.  Squandering a 2-1 lead against Serbia in last year’s semifinals, the Czech Republic contested the Davis Cup final in 2009 and will benefit from a vast advantage in experience over a nation elevated to the World Group for the first time.  In the doubles, Berdych may partner doubles specialist Dlouhy in a Saturday rubber where the home squad should trump the singles-only visitors.  But captain Jaroslav Navratil may decide to reserve his ace for a fourth rubber against Golubev, who nearly defeated Tomas in Washington last summer.  The Kazakh #1 has started 2011 in miserable form, however, dropping four straight matches to start the season and earning his only victory in five tournaments courtesy of a Baghdatis retirement.  Unless he can reverse that momentum  immediately, Kazakhstan won’t play again until September.

One against many (SWE vs. RUS, AUS vs. FRA):  Eyeing his overmatched prey with relish, Soderling should feast upon a Russian team bereft of Davydenko, Youzhny, or any player in the top 75.  The Swede charges into the weekend with three titles in his last four tournaments and 17 victories in his 18 matches this season.  Although legendary strategist Shamil Tarpischev lacks a superstar to counterbalance the world #4, he has marshaled four veterans who have ample expertise in both singles and doubles, thus providing him with a variety of options to manipulate in his characteristically unpredictable style.  Almost certainly doomed in Soderling’s two singles rubbers, Russia conceivably could win the other three.  Behind Soderling stand only the doubles specialists  Aspelin and Lindstedt as well as the quasi-retired Joachim Johansson, summoned for probably perfunctory singles duty.  Johansson has won only one Davis Cup match in his career and none since 2005, while he has played only three total matches since the start of 2010.  At the core of the weekend thus lies the doubles rubber.  A combined 3-9 in Davis Cup doubles, the scheduled duo of Kunitsyn and Tursunov did win their only Cup collaboration against the formidable Argentine pairing of Canas and Nalbandian on Buenos Aires clay.  Curiously, their opponents also have underperformed in the Cup despite winning a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics.

A less striking version of the same storyline could unfold inside an Austrian aircraft hangar, where world #10 Jurgen Melzer seeks to soar above a French team crippled by injuries to its leading stars.  Among the questions surrounding the 2010 Davis Cup finalists is the tension between captain Guy Forget and singles #1 Gilles Simon, a dynamic absent in the avuncular Tarpischev’s squad.  Also, how will Llodra recover from the disappointment of losing the decisive rubber in last year’s final, and how will Jeremy Chardy respond to the pressure of his first meaningful match in Davis Cup, contested before a hostile crowd?  On the other hand, Melzer has looked vulnerable while accumulating a 5-3 record this year, and his supporting cast features no player more imposing than the 34-year-old, 206th-ranked Stefan Koubek.  (One might debate whether Koubek or Johansson will pose a more credible challenge.)  If the visitors can solve their internal differences, they can rely upon a sturdier doubles pairing in Benneteau and Llodra.  Outside that flamboyant duo, though, almost nothing looks certain in a tie that plausibly could come down to a bizarre final rubber between Koubek and Chardy or just as plausibly end in a resounding sweep—by either side.

***

We return in a few days to open our coverage of Indian Wells!

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