As the Carlos Alcaraz era begins for Spain, the reigning champions will have their work cut out to beat the Russian Tennis Federation in Group A
When the draw for the 2021 Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals was released, there was one Group Stage match that stood out above all others, between reigning champions Spain and a Russian Tennis Federation side boasting four top-30 players.
Ecuador make up the rest of Group A and the South Americans, in a competition famous for upsets, will do their best to spoil the party. But with only one team guaranteed to progress to the knockout stage, Sunday’s clash between the two powerhouses looks set to be pivotal. Something will have to give.
There’s one big difference for Spain compared to 2019: Rafael Nadal is not here. The 20-time Grand Slam champion, who went undefeated in singles and doubles two years ago, his energy powering the team and the fans inside the stadium in equal measure, is irreplaceable. Captain Sergi Bruguera knows this and he’s not dwelling on his absence.
“It’s true that we had a big advantage”, Bruguera said on Tuesday. “If you have Nadal in your team you go straight to being the favourite because he is the best player in the history of the Davis Cup. He’s not here, we cannot think about this. We continue to have a very strong team. Four players were there in 2019 when we won so they are prepared for this, and now we have a new younger star who is bringing a lot of things to the team.”
Bruguera was referring, of course, to Carlos Alcaraz. The 18-year-old sensation has made waves this season, reaching the quarter-finals of the US Open and beating Top 10 players Stefanos Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini. While he may be 12 years younger than everyone else on the team, Bruguera says Alcaraz has already settled in well on his debut appearance with the Davis Cup squad.
“The relationship [between the players] is very good. Carlos is an unbelievably nice guy, he’s very humble, I have to congratulate his parents for the job they have done for him as a person. And he’s adjusting very well. He’s happy. The veterans are very good friends already and Carlos is like fresh air in the team. It’s nice.”
With Pablo Carreno Busta and Roberto Bautista Agut backing up Alcaraz, the Spanish team has a nice blend. But will it be enough to topple the Russians?
While Daniil Medvedev has not yet joined the team in Madrid following his exploits at the ATP Finals, when he arrives he will be fortifying a team that contains established top-10 star Andrey Rublev, Olympic silver medallist Karen Khachanov, and 2021 Australian Open semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev.
Medvedev called Karatsev “Russia’s secret weapon” earlier in the year, but with that cat now well and truly out of the bag, Russian Tennis Federation captain Shamil Tarpischev knows Karatsev could be the difference-maker.
“Two years ago we played the Davis Cup with this new format. So the preparation is going well and the matches will show the result of our preparation. Aslan [Karatsev] was on the Davis Cup team in 2016 but during the last years he’s got to the same level as the other members of the team. So I hope he will play well.”
While Group A features a battle between two of the favourites for the title, it also sees two of the longest serving captains go head to head.
Tarpischev first captained the Russian Tennis Federation in 1974 and has been on the bench for a total of 94 ties. Raul Viver, meanwhile, has been Ecuador captain since 1994. Speaking on Tuesday, Viver reflected on his time as captain and promised that Ecuador is not just in Madrid to make up the numbers.
"I never thought that there would be so many years, but these 28 years have passed very quickly”, he said. “As a team we came to Europe almost three weeks ago to start building team spirit and preparing in the best way possible. The days here have been going smoothly and my players like the speed of the court. We know it’s a tough group but the idea is to go out and try to fight and win and in Davis Cup there have already been surprises before.”