Commentary

Recent powerhouse Serbia looking to tame talented Russian squad

In the blink of an eye, Davis Cup competition is back. Can the U.S. avoid a letdown on dirt? How will Aussie Open champ Novak Djokovic respond? Ravi Ubha breaks down the eight first-round matchups.

Originally Published: February 7, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Quicker than you can say "calendar," the Davis Cup is back.

There are world-group debutants in Peru and Serbia, while Great Britain, Israel and South Korea return following a long absence. The U.S. begins its quest to land back-to-back titles for the first time since 1981-82, and Argentina, with seemingly an accommodating draw, chases a first trophy.

Here's a glance at each of the eight first-round matchups that start tomorrow.

U.S. vs. Austria in Vienna, clay, indoors
Another European venue, another dirt battle for the U.S. At least captain Patrick McEnroe and his devoted gang are used to it.

Roddick

For a record ninth straight time, McEnroe's team comprises Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan twins, Bob and Mike, in doubles. The trip to serene Vienna marks the fourth series on clay away from home during that span, with the U.S. holding a more than respectable 2-1 record so far.

Will this be the sojourn when Blake, on a high following his quarterfinal appearance in Melbourne, finally delivers on the road? He hasn't won a "live" Davis Cup singles match on clay and his last live victory on foreign soil came five years ago in Croatia.

Even if he falters against the probable singles duo of Stefan Koubek and Jurgen Melzer, the numbers don't look good for the hosts -- Roddick is a combined 10-0 against the veteran lefties, and the Bryan brothers have won eight straight, dropping a miserly two sets in the process.

"Austria is a class team, but the U.S. has to be the favorite,'' said Jeremy Bates, Great Britain's former captain who held a 27-24 record as a player. "I don't think it will be easy, though.''

Ubha's pick: U.S.

Serbia vs. Russia in Moscow, hard, indoors
Perhaps the most intriguing series sees tennis' new force against an established powerhouse seeking a third straight appearance in the final.

Djokovic

Novak Djokovic edged Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic in the hotly contested race to become Serbia's first Grand Slam singles champ. How the 20-year-old responds following an exhausting three weeks, as much mental as physical, remains to be seen.

The outcome of Serbia's hopes may well be riding on Djokovic solely. The ever-pondering Janko Tipsarevic relishes the big occasion, having knocked out Marat Safin and Fernando Gonzalez at the French Open and Wimbledon, respectively, in 2007, and stretching Roger Federer to five sets at the Australian Open. However, he has been afflicted by a stomach virus and won't be able to play. Captain Bogdan Obradovic selected the attacking Viktor Troicki -- who somewhat troubled Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open -- in Friday's second singles rubber to take Tipsarevic's place.

Nenad Zimonjic continues to impress in doubles, winning the mixed title Down Under with China's Tiantian Sun.

Tarpischev, the acclaimed Russian boss, picked Mikhail Youzhny and his one and a half handed backhand and 9-1 record this year, along with world No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko in singles.

Ubha's pick: Russia

Great Britain vs. Argentina in Buenos Aires, clay, outdoors
Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest soccer player of all time and a vociferous tennis fan to boot, scored the infamous "Hand of God'' goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. The man upstairs will surely have to intervene if Great Britain has any chance of pulling off one of the biggest upsets in sports history.

Nalbandian

Visiting captain John Lloyd will be without world No. 11 Andy Murray, who decided to skip the encounter to preserve his knees, and is instead likely to go with No. 188 Alex Bogdanovic and No. 235 Jamie Baker in singles. Lloyd, as expected, wasn't about to publicly criticize Murray, but that didn't stop his brother from issuing a few barbs.

"It was a shock to me, and I think for the team it's also very disappointing,'' said Jamie Murray, a doubles specialist and the more mild-mannered of the two. "It kind of affects the way I feel about him. I think from what I've heard he hasn't actually said that he was injured, it was more of a preventative thing. If he really wanted to push himself, he really could have come here to play.''

Juan Monaco (watch out for him at the French Open) had to withdraw due to an ankle injury, though Argentina still has ninth-ranked David Nalbandian, Agustin Calleri and Jose Acasuso (what happened to him last season?).

Argentina has won its last 10 home series, nine by 5-0.

Ubha's pick: Argentina

Sweden vs. Israel in Ramat Hasharon, hard, outdoors
Who knew an Israeli crowd could be so tough? In last week's Fed Cup tussle against Russia at the same site, spectators mocked Maria Sharapova's grunts and frazzled Anna Chakvetadze to such an extent that she later issued this backhander: "Tennis is not so big here, so many people don't know the rules.''

Bjorkman

Veterans Jonas Bjorkman and Thomas Johansson probably won't be bothered by anything that happens in the stands. The 35-year-old Bjorkman hasn't played this year -- he and wife Petra had their second child in January -- and Johansson is riding a three-match losing streak.

Swedish tennis has seen better days: Robin Soderling is still nursing a wrist injury and Joachim Johansson, once a top prospect, retired last week.

Israeli tennis, meanwhile, is on a high. Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram won the doubles title at the Australian Open and pint-sized Dudi Sela was the first Israeli man to finish a campaign inside the top 100 since 2001.

Israel was last featured in the world group in 1994.

"I think the score could be 5-0, 0-5 or 3-2,'' Swedish captain Mats Wilander said.

Ubha's pick: Sweden

France vs. Romania in Sibiu, hard, indoors
He has so many players to choose from, but French captain Guy Forget probably didn't have to deliberate much in picking Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Michael Llodra and Arnaud Clement.

Tsonga

Tsonga became a household name among tennis fans following his improbable foray to the Australian Open final, Gasquet is still the French No. 1 and Clement and Llodra were doubles finalists at the season's first major.

Tsonga will be making his Davis Cup debut.

"It won't be easy, because now the pressure is on him to perform,'' Bates said.

Romania, led by aging shot-maker Andrei Pavel, lost to France in 2007.

Ubha's pick: France

Spain vs. Peru in Lima, clay, outdoors
Nadal and David Ferrer are missing, but seemingly only another monstrous upset would have Peru toppling Spain.

Almagro

Spanish captain Emilio Sanchez still has four top-40 stalwarts around in Tommy Robredo, Fernando Verdasco, Nicolas Almagro and Feliciano Lopez.

Locals might be encouraged by these stats: Luis Horna, the longtime Peruvian No. 1, hasn't lost a Davis Cup singles match in four years, and Spain has been ousted in the first round in two of the previous three seasons. (Yes, we're stretching here.)

"Now they have less potential, but are still big favorites,'' said Peru captain Jaime Yzaga, who knows a thing or two about upsets, beating Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open in 1994.

Ubha's pick: Spain

South Korea vs. Germany in Braunschweig, clay, indoors
Philipp Kohlschreiber's pulsating win over Roddick at the Australian Open might not have been his biggest career scalp. Don't forget he beat Davydenko, on clay, in Moscow in last year's semifinals.

Kohlschreiber

Kohlschreiber and his German teammates, who don't include the oft-injured Tommy Haas, are heavily favored against South Korea, making its first world group appearance since 1987.

Hyung-Taik Lee, 32, enjoyed his best season as a pro last campaign, though his most noteworthy results occurred during the U.S. Open Series -- he logged just three top-tier clay wins. Who's No. 2 on the team? Woong-Sun-Jun, a 21-year-old who has yet to win an ATP match.

Ubha's pick: Germany

Belgium vs. Czech Republic in Ostrava, carpet, indoors
Will Tomas Berdych live up to his enormous potential? The signs aren't good, with a fourth-round loss to a susceptible-looking Federer at the Australian Open his most recent disappointment.

Berdych

The 22-year-old is expected to return to his winning ways against the Belgians, whose principal singles duo of Olivier Rochus and Kristof Vliegen slumped in 2007. Rochus is out in the singles, replaced by clay-savvy Steve Darcis.

Backing up Berdych is the colorful Radek Stepanek, who won the decisive singles match against Switzerland in September's world group playoff upon his return to Davis Cup duty. Playing in Ostrava, the birthplace of one of his idols, Ivan Lendl, might give him more motivation in case he needs it.

Ubha's pick: Czech Republic

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.