Respectively opposed to Canada, Belgium and Israel, the Spanish, Serbian and French favourites will have to be careful: since the introduction of the World Group in 1981, the first round of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas has always had its share of surprises. The proof in ten easy steps...
Paraguay against France in 1985
In the presence of the dictator Alfredo Stroessner and in an overheated room, the favourites Henri Leconte and Yannick Noah fell into an ambush in Asunción. In the stands, the 3000 Paraguayan fans created a tremendous pressure while the matches were played on a vitrified floor that pushed the boundaries of legality. Because of the heat and lack of air conditioning, the matches couldn't start until late-afternoon to finish in the middle of the night. Led 0-2 after the first day, France pulled back the deficit thanks to the doubles and Noah, before Victor Pecci gave the victory to his clan in 4 sets against a frightened Henri Leconte: “We came off of the court covering ourselves with our racquets so as not to get slaughtered.”
Mexico against West Germany in 1986
Runners-up of the previous edition (2-3 against Sweden), the West Germany Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Team arrived in Mexico to compete in the first round with a legitimate sense of superiority. It could even have felt like a home rubber for them as the matches were taking played in a venue called the "German Club". But if Boris Becker won his two matches in singles, he lost in the doubles with Andreas Maurer and saw his compatriot Michael Westphal cede victory to the Mexicans, first against Francisco Maciel and then against Leonardo Lavalle during the deciding match. Becker quickly dried his tears by winning that year his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon.
Italy against Sweden in 1990
Thunderbolt in Sardinia! Defeated by Italy, the Swedish team crashed out of the competition in the first round for the first time since 1971. The team had been on a tremendous series of seven consecutive finals and had won three titles in 1984, 1985 and 1987. The Italian feat was made possible thanks to one man in particular, Paolo Cane, winning the doubles with Diego Nargiso and taking both his singles matches against Jonas Svensson and the decisive five-setter against Mats Wilander.
Brazil against Germany in 1992
On Rio's clay, the modest Jaime Oncins was the hero of the first round played against reunified Germany. Boris Becker did his job during the opening match, but Brazil was then to turn the match around, Oncins grabbing singles victories against Steeb and Zoecke, with the "old" Cassio Motta, paired up with Fernando Roese, triumphing in the doubles.
South Africa against Australia in 1995
The year 1995 marked the return of South Africa to the international sporting stage, most notably with the Springbok victory in the Rugby World Cup., but also thanks to the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team, which made it to the quarter-finals after a victory in the first round against the favourites, Australia, winners of the event two years before. Unbeatable in the doubles with his friend Todd Woodbridge, Mark Woodforde didn’t make any impression in his two singles matches, while Patrick Rafter was also forced to submit to Wayne Ferreira, who played regal tennis throughout the entire weekend.
Zimbabwe against Australia in 1998
On their debut in the World Group, the Zimbabwean team struck a great blow by eliminating Australia at home, on grass. This performance was exclusively the work of siblings Byron and Wayne Black, who made great performances in singles and teamed up in the doubles. Two victories for Byron and one for Wayne allowed them to seal their victory and to forget their defeat in the doubles match. Vexed, the Australian team was to take its revenge on this very same opponent the following year. Today, the Black brothers are retired and Zimbabwe has dipped into the African third division...
Slovakia against Sweden in 1999
Defending champions Sweden were pitted against newcomers Slovakia for the second consecutive year. As the previous year, Karol Kucera and Dominik Hrbaty made a perfect start, with two victories before losing Saturday’s doubles, in a game that they were close to winning. The defeat proved to be inconsequential as, the next day, Karol Kucera beat Thomas Enqvist in front of a dumbfounded Swedish crowd.
Holland against Spain in 2001
Two months after he sealed a first Davis Cup by BNP Paribas title for Spain against Australia, Juan-Carlos Ferrero fell in the first match against the modest Raemon Sluiter. Cheered on by a raucous crowd in Eindhoven, Sjeng Schalken then brushed aside Carlos Moya in straight sets, before delivering the decisive third point in the doubles the following day, alongside his friend Paul Haarhuis, against Alex Corretja and Juan-Manuel Balcells. The defending champions defeated in two days and only three games, something never seen before!
Belarus against Russia in 2004
For its debut at the top table, the Belarussian team was facing its Russian neighbour. Because of the historical legacy between the two nations, the underdogs could be forgiven a certain inferiority complex. In Minsk, the Belarusian capital, the local team, was down 1-2 at the start of the third day and yet would manage to turn the tie around with Max Mirnyi seeing off Igor Andreev, and Vladimir Voltchkov then dispatching Mikhail Youzhny. Belarus would even manage another upset that year, knocking out Argentina, before bowing out in the semi-final against the United States.
Kazakhstan against Czech Republic in 2011
The performance of Kazakhstan upon its arrival in the World Group is further proof that tennis has been looking more and more eastward in recent years, with emerging nations full of talent. Played in Ostrava, this first round turned was decided on the Sunday with a second victory of the weekend for Andrey Golubev, followed by a decisive fifth game in which Mikhail Kukushkin bested the local-boy Jan Hajek. The Czech Republic had fallen in recent years but knows how to learn from its mistakes: last November they won their first trophy since the breakup of Czechoslovakia by overcoming Spain 3-2 in the final.
By Régis Delanoë