Czechs hold aces against Japan in Davis Cup quarter-final
Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells on March 8, 2014 - by Stephen Dunn
Japanese number one Kei Nishikori withdrew with a groin injury he picked up in Miami last week before Go Soeda, notoriously brittle under pressure, came down with a fever on the eve of the tie, dealing Japan a double-whammy.
Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil, who has lost Jan Hajek to a knee injury, diplomatically played down talk of a whitewash in Tokyo.
"Who plays who is not important," he said on Thursday. "We must concentrate on our game and get three points for Sunday. In Davis Cup, rankings are not important. Japan will still have a strong team."
But Czech player Lukas Rosol did not mince his words, stating simply: "We think we will have the three points on Sunday."
A semi-final against either Germany or France in September awaits the winners.
Nishikori, the world number 18, who beat Roger Federer in Miami, led Japan past an injury-hit Canada in February to reach their first Davis Cup quarter-final since the 16-nation world format was established in 1981.
Their hopes fast evaporating before a ball has been hit in anger, Japan captain Minoru Ueda attempted to put a positive spin on a nightmare scenario.
"We've already had a number of setbacks," he said. "Losing Kei hurts our chances. But everyone has to pitch in and show what they're made of."
Barring an extraordinary set of circumstances, the Czechs should win their eleventh tie on the bounce, having won the trophy for the past two years.
World number five Berdych opted out of the trip, calling for the Davis Cup to be played "at least" every two years, like golf's Ryder Cup, to make the competition "more attractive" in an increasingly packed tennis calendar.
Radek Stepanek, who has won the deciding rubber for the Czechs in the past two finals -- against Spain and Serbia -- will lead the team against Japan in Berdych's absence.
Stepanek was a toddler when Ivan Lendl propelled the Czech Republic to the title in 1980 and offers a different perspective from his team-mate.
"Ever since I was a kid I wanted to hold the Davis Cup trophy," said the 35-year-old. "When I saw pictures from 1980 and heard the stories about how big it was for our country, I wanted to win it badly."
With Stepanek and Rosol, both ranked in the 40s, lining up in Tokyo, Japan realistically lack the firepower to avoid a heavy defeat in the tie, contested in a best-of-five rubbers format over three days.
The home side have been forced to call up untried 21-year-old Taro Daniel, ranked 190th in the world. Stepanek will face Tatsuma Ito in Friday's opening singles,with Rosol set to give Daniel a baptism of fire in the second match.
Stepanek and Jiri Vesely play Ito and Yasutaka Uchiyama in Saturday's doubles. The reverse singles take place on Sunday.