Until Wednesday, the first round of Davis Cup World Group play shaped up as a low-key spectacle. Andy Murray, the most junior member of tennis’ suddenly beleaguered Big Four, was the only member of the quartet who volunteered to do national service.
All that changed in the blink of an eye when Roger Federer, the most prolific of all Grand Slam champions, threw his hat into the ring. He announced that he will be joining newly crowned Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka (now No. 3 in the world rankings) on Team Switzerland.
Who knew that the smooth, diplomatic, straight-arrow Federer had such a wicked sense of humor?
Switzerland is visiting Serbia, the 2010 champion and last year’s runner-up to the Czech Republic, on an indoor hard court in Monica Seles’ home town of Novi Sad. Does anyone else get the feeling that, somewhere, smoke is pouring from the ears of Novak Djokovic?
You could hardly blame Djokovic, whose allegiance to Davis Cup thus far in his career has been unimpeachable. He decided to take a break this year, partly because the Serbs couldn’t muster an adequate supporting cast. Viktor Troicki, who was ranked inside the top 40 at the start of the year, is sitting out a suspension for violating the anti-doping regimen. Janko Tipsarevic, who was No. 10 as late as May of last year, has been plagued by injuries and mired in a rankings free-fall. Given that Marco Chiudinelli, the likely Swiss No. 2, is ranked No. 180, the Serbs were in with a fighting chance even in the event that Wawrinka wins both his singles rubbers.
Now it just looks like the Serbs are in for humiliation. What’s worse for Djokovic is that losing teams this weekend will be obliged to play -- and win -- later in the year in the Playoff Round to remain in the elite World Group for 2015. So though Federer and Wawrinka might be hogging the limelight in the September semifinals, Djokovic may find himself pressed into service in some far-flung outpost of the game just to keep Serbia up in the big league.
Federer’s decision to play automatically overshadowed the commitment made to this round by Murray. While No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Djokovic are cooling their heels, Murray is leading an overmatched British team against the U.S. in a tie at Petco Park in San Diego.
It’s a sign of changing times that the U.S.-Great Britain tie will be played on outdoor red clay, a surface on which No. 13 John Isner has had terrific Davis Cup results in the past. However, Isner pulled out of the competition Thursday with an injury. He will be replaced by Donald Young, who had a bit of an auspicious run in Australia. Although both Young and No. 49 Sam Querrey, now the United States' No. 1 singles player, could easily lose to Murray, the No. 2 singles for the Brits probably will be an overmatched No. 175, Jamie Ward. It’s times like these that make U.S. captains like Jim Courier and his predecessor, Patrick McEnroe, fall to their knees and thank the heavens for the doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan.
This year’s first round has some intriguing matchups: Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil of Canada challenging the Japanese team led (at home) by Kei Nishikori and a crafty Italian team featuring Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi ought to give host Argentina all it can handle. There probably will be some tense moments and intense competition this weekend in many nations, if not Serbia.