Early danger for Russians

PARIS: Russia's defence of the Davis Cup they won in dramatic fashion against France in December gets off to a tough start today with a tie on the Ostrava claycourts against a solid Czech Republic squad. 

The Russians will have to do without their hero in Paris, Marat Safin, who has not played since pulling out early in the Australian Open with an injured wrist. 

In his place the promising Mikhail Youzhny, who clinched the trophy after a come-from-behind win over Paul-Henri Mathieu in the deciding rubber, will link up with old warhorse Yevgeny Kafelnikov. 

The Czechs, meanwhile, will look to Davis Cup specialist Jiri Novak for some solidity while the up-and-coming Radek Stepanek, the conquerer of Gustavo Kuerten at Melbourne, could surprise. 

The Czech-Russian tie is just one of several contests making up the first round in this year’s World Group that are on a knife-edge. 

Despite losing their throne to the Russians the French are again top seeds, but they face a difficult trip to Bucharest where Andrei Pavel and Adrian Voinea await them for Romania. 

French number one Sebastien Grosjean said the loss to Russia had been a bitter blow but would be beneficial in the end. 

“You learn more when you lose,” said the 24-year-old Grosjean. “When you win everything is fine, but when you lose you have a lot of questions for you to improve your game.” 

With Mathieu and Arnaud Clement both out injured, the second singles slot goes to the hero of the final in Australia in 2001, Nicolas Escude. 

And in Australian Open doubles winners Fabrice Santoro and Michael Llodra, the French hold what could prove to be the trump card. 

The United States make a perilous journey to Croatia where back-from-injury Goran Ivanisevic has promised them a torrid time. 

With Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi now retired from Davis Cup play, captain Patrick McEnroe has plumped for a youthful approach, but he has been caught short by the withdrawal through injury of Andy Roddick. 

That leaves a choice between the untested Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent for the second singles slot alongside James Blake. 

McEnore tried to put a brave face on it. 

“A changing of the guard with our Davis Cup team is complete,” McEnroe said. 

“This is an opportunity for our guys to step up and it will make us a better team down the road. When Andy comes back, we will be stronger.” 

“We've got a tough match on our hands no matter what – if Goran plays or not,” McEnroe said. 

Argentina are being touted as good bets to reach the final this year, having come agonisingly close to defeating Russia in the semi-finals in Moscow last year. 

The South Americans are spearheaded by David Nalbandian, who has proved he is competitive on all surfaces including grass, backed by two of the best younger players in the world – Juan Ignacio Chela and Gaston Gaudio. 

But before they start dreaming of a first ever Davis Cup triumph they will have to dispose in Buenos Aires of Germany who are without Tommy Haas and Nicolas Kiefer, but who can include surprise Australian Open finalist Rainer Schuettler. 

Strength in depth will also be the rallying point of a Dutch side who have four potential singles players in Sjeng Schalken, Raemon Sluiter, Richard Krajicek and Paul Haarhuis against Switzerland at Arnhem. 

The Swiss will look to Roger Federer as the top-ranking player in the tie to give them both points from the singles. 

Both Sweden and Spain, regular challengers for Davis Cup honours in recent years, should be able to profit from home advantage to see off Brazil and Belgium. 

And in the only lopsided tie, Britain face what is surely a hopeless task against Australia in Sydney with neither Tim Henman nor Greg Rusedski available for duty. Australia on the other hand have world number one Lleyton Hewitt and Mark Philippoussis. – AFP 

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