Davis Cup finals spots at stake despite virus pressure
Twelve countries will this weekend eye the finals of the Davis Cup, the venerable 120-year-old team competition suddenly confronted with the global spread of a very modern deadly virus.
Defending champions Spain, 2019 runners-up Canada, semi-finalists Great Britain and Russia, as well as wild cards France and Serbia, are already assured of their spots in the Madrid finals in November.
However, the anticipation over the 12 qualifying ties on Friday and Saturday has been replaced by deepening concern over the coronavirus which has killed over 3,000 people in more than 60 countries.
As a result, the tie between Japan and Ecuador in Miki will be played behind closed doors. Italy's clash at home to South Korea in Cagliari will also be off-limits to spectators.
One tie has already fallen victim with China forfeiting their World Group play-off in Romania.
Former world number four Kei Nishikori, who hasn't hit a ball in anger since the US Open after undergoing elbow surgery, leads Japanese hopes.
The 30-year-old last played Davis Cup in 2016 but as well as hoping to take Japan to the finals, Nishikori is aware that the tie is a key selection stepping stone for the Tokyo Olympics.
India travel to 2005 and 2018 champions Croatia with 46-year-old doubles stalwart Leander Paes in the line-up as his final season as a pro winds down.
Paes made his Davis Cup debut 30 years ago and boasts a career competition record of 92 wins and 35 losses.
He holds the overall Davis Cup record for most doubles match-wins, recording his 44th victory during the zonal victory against Pakistan last year.
"There are still so many things to win," said Paes ahead of the trip to Zagreb.
The United States, champions on a record 32 times, are also set for an emotional two days in Honolulu against Uzbekistan.
Twins Bob and Mike Bryan will play their last Davis Cup tie having already said they will retire for good after the US Open.
Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul and Reilly Opelka are all ranked in the top 60 in singles for the US. Uzbekistan doesn't have one player even in the top 150.
Elsewhere, there will be guaranteed cross-border fireworks in Bogota in the all-South American clay court clash between Colombia and 2016 champions Argentina.
Bratislava sees Slovakia host three-time champions Czech Republic in a first-time meeting for the two neighbours.
Australia, champions on 28 occasions, welcome Brazil to Adelaide but are without Nick Kyrgios and Alex de Minaur, their two top singles players.
John Millman, who lost an agonising five-set clash to Roger Federer at the Australian Open this year, leads the home challenge.
Davis Cup qualifiers on Friday and Saturday:
Croatia v India
Hungary v Belgium
Colombia v Argentina
USA v Uzbekistan
Australia v Brazil
Italy v South Korea
Germany v Belarus
Kazakhstan v Netherlands
Slovakia v Czech Republic
Austria v Uruguay
Japan v Ecuador
Sweden v Chile
© 2020 AFP