It was the first round of all dangers: Switzerland was defending its title in Davis Cup by BNP Paribas without Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka. Against Belgium, the risk of seeing the titleholder losing in the play offs was real. A rare situation but not unprecedented as it happened eight times since the abolition of the Challenge Round in 1972. And from Nadal's Spain to McEnroe's United States, we saw some great surprises...
Spain 2005: The armada wasn't yet invincible
The 2004 edition of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas saw the rise of Rafael Nadal, decisive against France in the semi-finals and against the US in final. But the beginning of the 2005 season in Slovakia was played without the best Spanish players in the ATP rankings, Carlos Moya was injured, and Tommy Robredo had just fallen out with his federation. On a fusing indoor carpet, Nadal, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez, backbone of the future 'Armada' titled in 2008, 2009 and 2011, were still a little young and were caught by Dominik Hrbaty, Karol Beck and Michal Mertinak, who then went to the final of the event. Nadal had to use his saviour suit against Italy (three decisive points for a 4-1 success). With the integration of David Ferrer to the group, a team was born...
Australia 2004: Entering a long tunnel
Lleyton Hewitt and Mark Philippoussis in singles, Todd Woodbridge and Wayne Arthurs in doubles: Australia was looking good on fast surfaces in the 90s. But the Swedes were broad-shouldered and benefited from Philippoussis' poor form, in downward phase after the previous season, to surprise their guests in Adelaide: Thomas Enqvist and Jonas Björkman easily defeated the former Wimbledon finalist, while Björkman and Joachim Johansson beat Arthurs and Woodbridge after a long suspense, 7/5 in the fifth set. And so a glorious cycle ended: Australia remained on four finals in five years. It hasn't played any since.
Spain 2001: After the fiesta, the hangover
At Last! Great tennis country, home of Santana, Gimeno, Orantes and Bruguera, Spain was desperately waiting for a first title in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. Juan Carlos Ferrero offered it to his country at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona in the autumn of 2000. But the young hero and his elders Alex Corretja and Albert Costa struggled to set off again after this historic success. In the wake of a disappointing Australian Open, the Iberians stumbled over the extremely fast carpet installed by the Dutch in Eindhoven: Raemon Sluiter managed the feat of his career by defeating Ferrero in five sets, Sjeng Schalken only needed three to dominate Carlos Moya, before reoffending in doubles with Paul Haarhuis at the expense of Corretja and Juan Balcells. We verified four years later, the lesson was long to learn for the Spanish side…
Sweden 1999: The end of the Golden Age
If Sweden has deserted the winners of the Grand Slam since the decline of Stefan Edberg, its density allowed it to continue reaping victories in Davis Cup by BNP Paribas thanks to Larsson, Björkman, Enqvist, Gustafsson and other Kulti... Champions in 1994, 1997 and 1998, no one expected to see them stumble in the first round of the 1999 edition, against a Slovakian team relying only on Dominik Hrbaty and Karol Kucera. Except that two players can be enough for a feat: Kucera won his singles matches against the two Thomas, Johansson and Enqvist, while Hrbaty won another against Enqvist, taking Sweden in play offs. The campaign then turned into a nightmare, as the Swedes lost to the general surprise against Stefan Koubek and Markus Hipfl's Austria. Obscure 70th player in the World, it only took him three sets to defeat the two Magnus Norman and Gustafsson. Sweden fell in second division. And if it came back to the elite in 2001, the Silver Bowl has only been a pipe dream since.
France 1997: From the Capitol to the Tarpeian rock
Is there a worse draw than Australia on home soil, so on grass, in the late 90s? Such was the obstacle faced by France, two months after its feat in Malmö against Sweden. The actors of this memorable final were all there. But against them, there was a player who was to change stature in 1997, Patrick Rafter, and a doubles taking more and more its ease in the great history book of tennis, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge. All this made two points for Australia. Woodforde only had to make a 'perf' in singles against Arnaud Boetsch and France was pushed to the play offs. They were played in Belgium. Nothing insurmountable on paper, but a hornet's nest on the court after Cedric Pioline's back injury. The French number one had to abandon against Johan Van Herck on the Friday, before leaving his place to Lionel Roux for the decisive fifth game. Novice in the competition, Roux lost against Christophe Van Garsse. Two years before Sweden, France became the first defending champion to fall in second division.
USA 1993: After the ‘dream team’, the rude awakening
Where Australia was the troublemaker once again: in 1992, the US won the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas with a 'dream team' made of Agassi, Courier, Sampras and McEnroe. But in the first round the 1993 edition, none of these champions was in the plane to Kooyong! Grass specialists, Wally Masur, Tood Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde took advantage of this opportunity against David Wheaton, Brad Gilbert, Jim Grabb and Richey Reneberg: the victory was secured from the Saturday evening, 3-0. Agassi came back to save the day in the play offs where the Americans took it all out on the Bahamas (5-0).
USA 1983: McEnroe on inhospitable land
Actually yes: there was worse than a trip to Australian's grass. Argentina on clay: this was what awaited the American defending champions in the first round of the 1983 edition. The team looked great, led by John McEnroe, his sidekick Peter Fleming in doubles and the solid Gene Mayer as the singles' number two. But against them, were Guillermo Vilas and Jose Luis Clerc, respectively finalist and semi-finalist of the last French Open. When Clerc allowed his team to break away 2-0 on the Friday after defeating McEnroe in five sets, the hardest part was done: 'Mac' and Fleming certainly defeated the Argentine duo in doubles the following day but it was still in five sets. On the Sunday, McEnroe was tired, but Guillermo Vilas wasn't, and the latter inflicted him the heaviest setback of his career in Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, 6/4 6/0 6/1. Curiously, Americans had a little scare against Ireland in the play offs but were able to count on McEnroe to bring the three points home.
Sweden 1976: Just one person missing…
With the aura of his blond angel Björn Borg, Sweden won its first Davis Cup in 1975. But the one who was about to become the best player in the world had other ambitions back in 1976 and decided to skip the competition. The punishment was immediate: Ove Bengtson, Kjell Johansson and Rolf Norberg didn't weigh heavily enough against the future winners of the competition, Adriano Panatta's Italian team. Four years after the end of the Challenge Round, Sweden endured many defeats and left the elite. At the mercy of its unique champion, the country would then be hung on his decisions to honour or not, the tournament by teams. Roger Federer didn't invent anything.