With the US Open over, the tennis season is drawing to a close and the favourites for the Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals 2021 title have already revealed some of their weapons. We take a look.
The experience of Bautista and Carreño, the youth of Alcaraz and Davidovich
Spain have the difficult task of defending the title, but their chances remain solid despite news in August that Rafael Nadal is to miss the rest of the season.
Carlos Alcaraz, just 18, proved that he is ready to share Spain’s ambition with an exceptional run to the quarter-final at the US Open, beating No.26 seed Cameron Norrie and then No.3 seed and Roland-Garros finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Roberto Bautista remains among the best in the world, as is evident from his top-20 ranking. Pablo Carreño consolidated his position in the team with a bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games that included a win over Daniil Medvedev in the quarter-finals.
And watch out for another young Spanish talent: Alejandro Davidovich, who at 22 years old made it through to the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros this year.
Who can beat Medvedev?
Who, indeed, can beat Daniil Medvedev? Not even the world No.1 it seems as we saw when the Russian beat Novak Djokovic to take the US Open title in September, denying the Serb his calendar Grand Slam.
In 2019, despite Medvedev’s absence, the Russians performed beyond expectations, with Andrey Rublev and Karen Khachanov taking the team to the semi-final.
If all three make it to the final in 2021, their title chances are good. They are surely the strongest team at the moment. Khachanov came away from Tokyo 2020 as Olympic silver medallist and Rublev has established himself in the top 5 including a run to the Australian Open quarter-final, where he lost to Medvedev.
And to all this, they've added a new weapon: Aslan Karatsev, who at 28 is playing his best tennis. He made his first Grand Slam semi-final at the Australian Open in 2021.
Djokovic's Serbia face a challenge
World No.1 and winner this year of the Australian Open, Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic narrowly missed out on a calendar Grand Slam when he lost to Medvedev in the final of the US Open. Even so, the Serb is always a title contender wherever he goes, but is that enough to make Serbia a Davis Cup favourite?
Dusan Lajovic and Filip Krajinovic are both in the world top 40, with Nikola Cacic the only player from Serbia with a doubles ranking in the top 100. They face a difficult challenge in the group stage where they must battle Germany and Austria for a place in the quarter-finals. How far will they be able to go? Nole's role, at all levels, will undoubtedly be decisive.
Berrettini confirms Italy’s potential
Alongside their new captain, Filippo Volandri, the Italians have the impressive tennis (and presence) of top-10 player Matteo Berrettini, who so far this year has included a win at Queen’s, a final appearance at Wimbledon and a place in the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros and the US Open.
Italy could, of course, rely on the experience and leadership of veteran Fabio Fognini, but don’t miss the rise of the 20-year-old Jannik Sinner who's already inside the top 15, and his young compatriots Lorenzo Sonego, Lorenzo Mutetti and Ginaluca Mager.
Playing in Turin in the group stage could even give the team a bit of an edge, but the feeling is that on any court or in any venue they are fearsome.
Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime battle it out for Canada, doubles potential for the USA
The North Americans on both sides of the border are accomplished fast-court players, as results in the second half of the season have shown.
The Canadian team, finalists in 2019, could prove quite the headache for captain Frank Dancevic. Denis Shapovalov made an impressive run to the semi-final at Wimbledon in July, and in September, Felix Auger-Aliassime made the semi-final of the US Open, losing to eventual winner Medvedev. With such talent, so close in ranking, who will be Canada’s No.1?
The indefatigable Milos Raonic remains in the world top 40 and Vasek Pospisil, such an important part of Canada’s Davis Cup Finals run in 2019, joins his compatriots in the top 100. Canada will, once again, have a team that will be hard to beat.
The Americans have only one of their rising stars, Reilly Opelka, currently inside the top 20, and may not look like obvious title contenders on paper. However, the men’s doubles pairing of Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey made the US Open semi-finals and there are no fewer than 15 players inside the top 100 for captain Mardy Fish to choose from. One thing is always certain: the threat they pose whenever they suit up as gladiators in defence of their nation.
Great Britain - strong in singles, strong in doubles
Think British tennis, think Andy Murray, but the team that made it to the Davis Cup semi-finals in 2019 is so much more than the former world No.1.
Andy’s brother Jamie, and Neal Skupski, are still at the top of their game as doubles specialists, and are joined by Joe Salisbury, who took the title in the men’s doubles at the US Open with partner Rajeev Ram of the USA.
In singles, both Dan Evans and Cameron Norrie are at career high rankings inside the top 30. Both did well at Queen’s with Evans reaching the quarter-finals, while Norrie made an impressive run to the final where he faced eventual winner Berrettini. And don’t forget Kyle Edmund, who has been out for most of the season, but if fit will be a welcome addition to the team.
Germany are a threat, Australia have the motivation
It’s worth keeping an eye on Germany and Australia. Alexander Zverev could be Germany's driving force if he decides to play in the Finals. But even without him, Jan-Lennard Struff and Philipp Kohlschreiber can lead the charge, not forgetting doubles players Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies.
Australia, with Alex de Minaur and Nick Kyrgios, are also clear contenders to get out of the group stage - something they failed to do in 2019 and are determined to put right. But the team is more than the two of them. They have six players in the world top 100, including John Millman, who at 32 also brings experience. De Minaur remains their undisputed No.1, and watch out for Kyrgios: he has played little this season, but is always dangerous.
France, a whole arsenal
With 11 in the top 100, the French players continue to give captain Sébastien Grosjean plenty of talent to choose from. The tireless Gael Monfils remains their No.1, the only one of the 11 in the world top 20. Ugo Humbert, 22, is leading a new generation and made the Olympic quarter-finals in Tokyo. And in doubles they still have a more than solid pairing capable of taking on any challenge: Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert were recently crowned champions at Roland-Garros.
Croatia – a doubles dream?
Croatia took the gold and silver medals in an extraordinary men’s doubles final at Tokyo 2020, with Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic edging past compatriots Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig. Add that to Mektic and Pavic’s win at Wimbledon and the Croatian team is starting to look strong.
In singles, former world No.3 Cilic, this year’s winner in Stuttgart, is joined in the top 100 by Borna Coric, who made the semi-finals in Rotterdam this year.