Games begin off court in Bratislava The week leading up to a Davis Cup tie often contains its own contests and intrigues ahead of the real business at the weekend, as the teams try to gain the upper hand before a ball is struck.
This is nearly always true of the Final, as nations sense the ultimate goal is within their grasp. Right on cue, the Slovak Republic and Croatia started the phoney war today – the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final is in some senses already underway.
Not that you would have known this from outside the Sibamac Arena. This intimate stadium nestles in a quiet district in Bratislava, surrounded by residential buildings and the imposing Tehelne Pole soccer stadium, home to one of the Slovak Republic’s leading teams, Slovan Bratislava.
Step inside though, and it is immediately apparent that something special is going on, with paint being applied liberally, commentary booths being built, and a whole host of other preparations to ensure that this Final is a successful event. The difference in scale from last year’s Final, held in the massive Estadio Olimpico, is striking – and an indication of the uniqueness of the Davis Cup as a competition.
Try telling these two nations that a smaller Final is somehow less important though. For both, this tennis match is about putting their young nations on the map, asserting a national identity on the world stage. Often, players practise in whatever clothes are at hand during a Davis Cup week, saving their team uniforms for the weekend. It was noticeable that even today, Monday, both teams were already proudly displaying their team colours.
The Slovaks appeared before the press today, resplendent in the national ice hockey tops that have become a trademark of their quest to win the Davis Cup. Meanwhile just a few metres away in the arena itself, the Croatian team was hard at work on the court, Ivan Ljubicic wearing his specially-designed Croatian shirt, produced specially for this Final; and a certain Goran Ivanisevic was hitting with ‘Croatia’ emblazoned across his back. It was as if he had never retired.
Ah yes - retirement – the other theme of the day. Ivanisevic himself was out practising for hours, first with Mario Ancic, then in the afternoon with Ljubicic. Surely he won’t play in one of the singles rubbers?
That was probably the very question the Croats were hoping to plant in the Slovaks’ mind, but the hosts had similar ideas. All of the Slovak team agreed at the press conference that the semi-retired Karol Kucera, who has said he will fully retire after the Final, is playing so well in pratice that he is a viable alternative to Karol Beck as the second singles player, behind Dominik Hrbaty.There was even talk that Kucera defeated Hrbaty in a recent practice match.
“I can’t dream of a better ending to my career than playing in the Davis Cup Final,” said the 31 year-old Kucera, currently ranked No. 295.
“I’m trying to do my best not just to make up the numbers – hopefully my form will mean I could be used for singles as well.”
For his part Karol Beck talked of his knee and elbow injuries (he retired from both of his last two matches on the tour, at AMS Madrid and St Petersburg in October), and said that although they were improving, he would see how they were in practice today.
Claiming that the opposition is nearly certain to win and therefore has all the pressure on its shoulders is now a familiar psychological tactic in any sport, but Hrbaty presented convincing evidence to back his version today – the poll on the Daviscup.com homepage.
“I feel no pressure, Croatia are the favourites. I saw on the Davis Cup website that 80% of people think that Croatia is going to win.
“We are often a dark horse in Davis Cup, hopefully we can do it again.”