Serbia and the Czech Republic will play for the Davis Cup title this weekend in Belgrade, where Novak Djokovic will try to lead his country to victory over the defending champions despite the absence of two mainstays.
Serbia, the 2010 winner, won't have its second- and third-ranked players, Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki, when the final begins Friday on an indoor hard court at Belgrade Arena. Tipsarevic is suffering from a heel injury, while Troicki is serving a doping suspension. That only increases the pressure on Djokovic, who will be expected to win his two singles matches and possibly play doubles, too.
"It's been a very long season for me and I'm exhausted in every way," Djokovic said Monday after winning the ATP World Tour Finals. "But God knows if we are going to have as a country another opportunity, another generation like this, to win a Davis Cup title at home. We have very tough opponents, defending champions, but the Davis Cup is the only team competition in our sport that brings the best possible energy and will power in me."
With Tipsarevic and Troicki unavailable (unless Tipsarevic is inserted to play a potential decisive singles rubber Sunday), Serbia will turn to 23-year-old Dusan Lajovic for the second singles slot behind Djokovic. Lajovic, who is ranked No. 117, has never played a live rubber for his country. He is 0-4 in ATP main-draw matches this year, spending most of the season on the Challenger circuit.
Djokovic will open play Friday against No. 44 Radek Stepanek, who has lost seven consecutive matches to the Serb dating to 2007. Lajovic will follow against No. 7 Tomas Berdych, who is 3-0 in Davis Cup singles this year. Berdych is 25-12 in Davis Cup singles overall for the Czech Republic, which won last year's competition behind Berdych and Stepanek. In Sunday's reverse singles, Berdych draws Djokovic, who leads the head-to-head 14-2, and Stepanek is scheduled to face Lajovic.
Fresh off defending his title at the ATP season finale, Djokovic enters the competition on a 22-match winning streak. But he can't win this title by himself; Serbia will need to pick up one more point even if Djokovic prevails in his two singles matches, and given that Lajovic will be an underdog against Berdych and Stepanek, Saturday's doubles match could decide the title.
The Serbs have nominated Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjic, who played one of the most exciting matches of the year in defeating Bob and Mike Bryan 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 5-7, 4-6, 15-13 in Davis Cup in April. The Czechs have nominated Jan Hajek and Lukas Rosol. But both countries could end up fielding different teams.
It'd be surprising if Czech captain Vladimir Safarik didn't ultimately go with Berdych and Stepanek for doubles. Berdych is 18-1 in Davis Cup doubles, including eight consecutive victories when partnering with Stepanek. One of those victories came against Bozoljac and Zimonjic in the 2012 quarterfinals, and another came against Djokovic and Zimonjic in the 2010 semifinals.
Serbia could make a late switch, too, as it's no secret that captain Bogdan Obradovic might choose Djokovic over Bozoljac.
“We know that Novak is playing the best tennis in the world so he is the one that is capable of winning three matches in this tie,” Obradovic said. “We have discussed playing him in the doubles if he is mentally and physically ready to play that. When you have him on the court, the Czech team will have huge pressure.” Prediction: Serbia. Behind a boisterous home crowd, Djokovic will lift Serbia to a narrow victory.