No Federer, no Nadal, no Djokovic but plenty at stake in Davis Cup

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France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga signs autographs during a training session ahead of the Davis Cup tennis match between France and the Netherlands at the Halle Olympique Stadium in Albertville on Wednesday. — AFP

PARIS — Just five days after the conclusion of the Australian Open, Tennis shifts its attention to the Davis Cup this weekend. France are the defending champions and start their campaign at home to the Netherlands while the United States, the record 32-time champions, travel to Serbia.

AFP Sports looks at five key aspects of the first round ties, which take place from Friday to Sunday:

The sport's 'big five' are all missing from this week's first round. Australian Open champion Roger Federer and injured compatriot Stan Wawrinka, key men in Switzerland's 2014 title success, miss the trip to Kazakhstan.

Also nursing injuries are Novak Djokovic, who sits out Serbia's home tie with the US while Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray miss the clash between Spain and Britain.

However, world No. 3 Marin Cilic, the runner-up to Federer in Melbourne, leads Croatia's challenge at home to Canada. Cilic can equal Ivan Ljubicic's record for most Davis Cup match-wins by a Croatian player if he wins three rubbers this weekend. He has a 33-16 win-loss record in doubles and singles.

Hungary face 2017 runners-up Belgium looking to reach the World Group quarterfinals for the first time and record their best Davis Cup result. The Hungarians have won nine of their last 10 ties with successive promotions in 2014-15, rising from Europe/Africa Zone Group III to Group I by 2016, before winning promotion to the World Group last year.

Ben McLachlan was born in Queenstown, New Zealand but the 25-year-old switched his allegiance in 2017 due to his Japanese mother and is in the squad for the home tie against Italy. McLachlan made his debut in the World Group playoff victory against Brazil in September. With Japan missing the injured Kei Nishikori, McLachlan could have a crucial role having made the semifinals of the doubles at the Australian Open alongside Germany's Jan-Lennard Struff.

Nishikori-less Japan face Italian job in Davis Cup

Japan will be without talisman Nishikori when they host Italy this week. mWith Nishikori only just returning from a wrist injury that had sidelined him for five months, Japan's challenge in Morioka will be spearheaded by Yuichi Sugita, who won his first ATP tour singles title in Turkey last summer.

Former champions Italy, making their first visit to Japan, have named world No. 22 Fabio Fognini and 46th-ranked Paolo Lorenzi with Andreas Seppi, Thomas Fabbiano and Simone Bolelli also among Corrado Barazzutti's team.

Japan captain Satoshi Iwabuchi has called up world No. 100 Taro Daniel alongside the 41st-ranked Sugita in singles, with Go Soeda offering experience alongside Yasutaka Uchiyama and Kiwi-born Ben Mclachlan.

Italy were champions back in 1976 and have finished runners-up on six occasions. The Italians won both of their two previous meetings, in Genoa back in 1930 and Milan in 1932. More recently, they lost to Belgium in last year's quarterfinals.

Defending champions France host the Netherlands at Albertville boasting a 10-0 record in the tournament over their European rivals since their first meeting 93 years ago. Last year, France equaled Great Britain in third place on the list for most Davis Cup titles after winning the title for the 10th time, beating Belgium 3-2 in the final in Lille.

World No. 5 Alexander Zverev will face rookie Alex de Minaur first up in Germany's Davis Cup tie against Australia on Friday in Brisbane, with Jan-Lennard Struff opening against Nick Kyrgios.

De Minaur was rewarded with a place in the Australian team after making the semifinals at the Brisbane International last month and the final in Sydney before going out in the first round of the Australian Open.

Hewitt confirmed the 18-year-old would make his debut against Germany's Zverev in the opening singles match at Pat Rafter Arena in Brisbane. "The caliber of player he has beaten this summer has been pretty impressive," Hewitt said of de Minaur. "He's obviously got a big task in the first match but he's got nothing to lose."

The dangerous Zverev reached the third round of the opening Grand Slam of the year last month before falling to tournament surprise package Chung Hyeon. The maturing Kyrgios — Australia's No.1 — then faces Struff, who was knocked out of the Australian Open by eventual champion Roger Federer.

Hewitt resisted the urge to play himself in the doubles despite training with the team this week after his run to the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park with Sam Groth. He opted for Matthew Ebden to partner doubles specialist John Peers against Germany's Peter Gojowczyk and Tim Puetz on Saturday before Sunday's reverse singles rubbers. — AFP


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