American youngsters in a tough position
Davis Cup crowds can be intimidating, inhospitable, inhumane, you name it. Sam Querrey and John Isner, joining the experienced Bryan brothers, will discover that when the U.S. faces Serbia on the dreaded red clay at Belgrade Arena this weekend.
More than 20,000 fans are expected to show up each day, and they fully expect Serbia to win its first world group series in tennis's top team competition (for how much longer?).
"It's probably going to be the most hostile atmosphere we've ever played in," Mike Bryan told reporters this week.
Why not throw Querrey and Isner into the deep end?
But there's reason to suggest Patrick McEnroe and his troops have a chance against world No. 2 Novak Djokovic & Co.
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Djokovic benefited from a depleted field to earn a title in Dubai this past week, as he didn't have to face Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro or Andy Murray. In fact, he didn't face any top-10 players.
Even so, Djokovic continues to make life hard for himself. He came close to losing each match from the second round onward in the United Arab Emirates. He's still not the confident, convincing Djokovic of late 2007 or early 2008, and his serve remains a worry. He also made it sound as though repeating in Dubai was monumental.
The Serbian No. 3, Janko Tipsarevic, ousted Murray in Dubai, but Murray apparently was banged up and experimenting with his game. Tipsarevic is highly inconsistent. Viktor Troicki ended up filling the second singles slot, and he's erratic, too. Clay is far from his best surface.
The Bryans should win the doubles match, and don't underestimate Querrey. The laid-back Californian, who's ranked 22nd in the world, reached the quarterfinals of the Monte Carlo Masters two years ago (losing to Djokovic) and played Nadal tough on clay in his Davis Cup debut in Spain later in 2008. That was a pretty intimidating crowd.
Anything from the debutant Isner, who is ranked a career-high 20th, would be a bonus. He's won one clay-court match in Europe, but he fell to journeyman Simon Greul on dirt in Acapulco last week.
Prediction: Serbia 3-2.
A look at the other ties:
Switzerland versus Spain at Logrono, Spain; clay, indoors
We all know the Davis Cup is highly unpredictable, but let's be honest: No Federer means no chance for the Swiss, and Marco Chiudinelli knows it.
"It's sort of going to be a mission impossible," said the Swiss No. 3 and last year's comeback player of the year.
Even with the clay-court king (Rafa), the hottest player on the tour (Juan Carlos Ferrero) and world No. 12 (Fernando Verdasco) all out injured, the two-time defending champs still bring the bulldog David Ferrer, sleeping giant Nicolas Almagro and steady Tommy Robredo.
The last time Spain lost at home was in 1999, when a Guga-inspired Brazil prevailed 3-2 in Lerida.
Prediction: Spain 4-1
Germany versus France at Toulon, France; hard, indoors
For a nation that loves the Davis Cup as much as France, a title is long overdue. Nine years overdue, to be exact. Heck, Les Bleus haven't even reached the semis since 2004.
But France should coast in Toulon. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is off to a good start in 2010 despite a wrist injury, while Gael Monfils always plays well at home. Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra, the two other squad members, won the doubles crown in Marseille last month. The Germans lack a good backup to the talented Philipp Kohlschreiber.
No Richard Gasquet, you say? The complex, tormented and controversial Frenchman is an alternate, and he made news by skipping the news conference in which the French team was unveiled.
Prediction: France 4-1
Israel versus Chile at Coquimbo, Chile; clay, outdoors
The series is a go despite last week's devastating 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile that killed more than 700 people. Coquimbo lies roughly 500 miles north of the quake's epicenter in central Chile, and the venue hasn't been affected.
However, the affair starts Saturday thanks to players and officials arriving late.
If the hosts, led by the oft-electrifying Fernando Gonzalez, can focus on tennis -- and that's understandably a big if -- last year's surprise semifinalists, anchored by the pint-sized Dudi Sela, will have little chance.
"It's uncomfortable to play when people have problems," Gonzalez told his Web site. "If we can win against Israel, we can give a little happiness to our people."
Chile has lost one home tie in the past 14 years, to Russia in 2007.
Prediction: Chile 4-1
Czech Republic versus Belgium at Bree, Belgium; clay, indoors
The Czechs are a two-man team and a pretty good one. Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek are versatile. Berdych, a big underachiever on the tour, seems to lift his game in this competition (6-1 in 2009 before the final).
"It's 60-40 for the Czechs," Malisse told reporters, perhaps flattering the hosts. "If I can beat Stepanek [on Friday], my teammates can do very well also."
Prediction: Czech Republic 4-1
Argentina versus Sweden at Stockholm; hard, indoors
Fans, yes, fans, will actually be in the stands in Sweden this time. What's missing is the three biggest Argentine threats. For now.
U.S. Open champion del Potro, David Nalbandian (who probably enjoys Davis Cup more than tour events) and the tenacious Juan Monaco were all supposed to miss out because of injuries. Nalbandian, though, apparently has recovered from a bum leg and is en route to Stockholm, and he should see action this weekend.
Problem is, by the time Nalbandian is ready, Argentina could be down 2-0, given that huge-serving Joachim Johansson replaced grinder Andreas Vinciguerra in singles for the hosts. Robin Soderling is unlikely to lose in singles.
Prediction: Sweden 3-2
India versus Russia at Moscow; hard, indoors
India, back in the world group for the first time since 1998, caught a break when Russian No. 1 Nikolay Davydenko became another big-name casualty this weekend when he pulled out because of an ailing wrist.
Captain Shamil Tarpischev, who seems destined never to retire, called on Igor Andreev to replace Davydenko. Andreev has bounced back from his slump at the end of 2009, recently performing well during the Latin-American clay-court swing. Mikhail Youzhny, who's lovely to watch, made consecutive finals in Rotterdam and Dubai and is back where he belongs in the rankings (No. 13).
For India, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi put aside their differences to play doubles 20 years after the evergreen Paes made his Davis Cup debut. The duo has won 22 straight in Davis Cup, so there's one point.
Prediction: Russia 4-1
Ecuador versus Croatia at Varazdin, Croatia; hard, indoors
Nicolas Lapentti shelved retirement plans after leading Ecuador to the world group for the first time since 2001. And like in 2001 (in Australia, on grass), the Ecuadoreans got a rough draw.
If a singles match goes five sets, don't discount Lapentti, though. He's 13-4, one of best Davis Cup records around.
Prediction: Croatia 4-1
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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