Aussies primed for World Group return
With the Australia v Poland tie less than two days away, Pat Rafter believes his team is as primed as it can be to reclaim its place within the Davis Cup World Group.
An indoor clay court. A 5000-strong, passionate home crowd. A fourth consecutive away tie for Australia, a nation suffering narrow defeats in its last five World Group Play-off ties.
None of those factors appear to bode well for the visitors in this weekend’s World Group Play-off tie against Poland in Warsaw, but Australian Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter sees it differently.
“This is a tremendous challenge for our team. We are away playing on clay against a world class team, but we are definitely up for it,” he said.
“We don’t see it as a burden, we see it as a great honour to be following a great successful era of Australian tennis. So for us, when I played, when these boys are playing, we are well aware of the importance that we’ve left behind, and we’re just trying our best, to do our best, for the future.”
That great successful era Rafter refers to was the time when Australia was a Davis Cup powerhouse, a nation that won tennis’s most prestigious team competition 28 times, a haul second only to that of the United States. Even in the era when Rafter represented the green-and-gold during the 1990s and early 2000s, Australia claimed victory in 1999 and 2003.
But more recently, Davis Cup glory has been hard to come by.
The ever-increasing depth of global tennis competition has much to do with this. Several nations which were not even independent countries as recently as 25 years ago, such as Serbia, Croatia and the Czech Republic, have claimed the trophy since Australia’s last triumph in 2003.
In 2007 it was Serbia who relegated Australia from the elite 16-nation World Group for the first time in 11 years, with a 4-1 victory at Belgrade Arena sending Australia into the competition’s Asia/Oceania zonal group.
And despite their valiant attempts, the Aussies have not yet been able to re-scale the mountain. Agonisingly close 3-2 defeats to Chile (2008), Belgium (2010), Switzerland (2011) and Germany last year have kept the Australians in zonal territory.
But finally, their fortunes appear to be starting to turn.
It began with Australia’s defeat of Uzbekistan on an indoor clay court in Namangan in April to arrive at this point, not dissimilar circumstances to this weekend’s tie in Warsaw.
Rafter saw that win as hugely significant. “I was really heartened by how we performed as a team in very difficult conditions in Uzbekistan,” he said during a press conference this week.
“This [tie against Poland] will be even more difficult because of the quality of our opponent and will need another team performance rather than relying on the outstanding efforts of one individual or another.”
The staging of a Davis Cup tie on indoor clay in Europe would once have been considered an anathema to any Australian squad, having honed its game on sun-kissed grass courts. Yet the popular characterisation of Aussies as relentlessly serve-and-volleying fast-courters has ceased to be accurate. With Sam Stosur’s continued success at the French Open, Lleyton Hewitt’s consistent productivity on the surface and a litany of clay courts popping up around tennis clubs and training centres in Australia, Aussies no longer shy away from clay as they once may have.
And as Rafter noted, the staging of a tie on grass may have even suited the Polish team better; their leading singles players Jerzy Janowicz – in doubt for the tie – and Lukasz Kubot faced off in the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year, with Janowicz advancing to the semis.
Having to quickly readjust to European clay following the North American hardcourt season hasn’t fazed Hewitt in the slightest. “It’s not that hard really, especially with my game style,” Hewitt explained.
“My ball striking has always been fantastic, it’s one of my strongest things, so I think every time I change surfaces I hop on the court straight away and I’m finding the middle of the racquet.”
Rafter pointed to Hewitt’s performance at the US Open, where the 32-year-old reached the fourth round and came within a whisker of the quarterfinals, as a source of inspiration for the Australian team. “Lleyton’s resurgence at the US Open has buoyed us all, not just because of his results but because of the trademark fight he showed,” Rafter said.
“We know he will bring that level of competitiveness to Davis Cup.”
Also providing a boost for the team are the players at the opposite end of the age spectrum. Rafter noted that Bernard Tomic’s attitude had been the best he’d seen in the lead-up to a Davis Cup tie, while 18-year-old Nick Kyrgios has impressed the team with his work ethic and attitude on the training court, despite not being selected in the final four-man squad to battle Poland.
With the tie less than two days away, Rafter believes his team is as primed as it can be to reclaim its place within the Davis Cup World Group.
“We will not be underestimating [Poland]. We’ll have to play our best tennis to win this tie. It’s going to be very, very tough,” he said.
“I am really looking forward to it. The opportunity is there. We have worked hard for this. Now it is up to us to take it.”