2016 Davis Cup QF: USA vs Croatia

USACRO

Team USA is back in the Davis Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 2013. They will be seeking the country’s first semifinal since 2012. Croatia is in the quarters for the fourth time since 2009, bidding for their first semifinal since that same year.

Davis Cup Quarterfinal Preview
USA vs Croatia

It’s #10 versus #11 in the Davis Cup rankings as the U.S. hosts Croatia for this weekend’s Davis Cup quarterfinal in Portland, Oregon. The matches will take place on an outdoor hard court and marks the first time since 2009 that the two countries have met. Coincidentally, that is the last time that Croatia made the Davis Cup semifinals. They did so by beating the Americans 3-2 in the quarterfinal round. Marin Cilic will lead this version of the Croatian squad, having also participated in the 2009 defeat of Team USA. Cilic won two rubbers in that tie, including the clincher over James Blake. Those matches were played indoors on clay in Croatia.

This time around, Cilic is the elder statesman with Borna Coric serving as Robin to his Batman. The duo helped lead Croatia to a 3-2 win over 2015 Davis Cup finalist Belgium in the first round of World Group play. It was Coric who slammed the door shut in the 5th rubber with a straight sets win over Kimmer Coppejans. That came after David Goffin had evened the tie at 2-2 by beating Cilic in the fourth rubber. The doubles pairing for Croatia will differ slightly from last round. Ivan Dodig returns, but it is Marin Draganja drafted in this time over Franko Skugor. Dodig-Skugor won the doubles rubber against Belgium. Draganja will be taking part in just his fourth Davis Cup tie this weekend.

For Team USA, their own dynamic duo returns from the Americans’ first round win over Australia. John Isner and Jack Sock take singles duties this weekend with doubles stalwarts, Bob and Mike Bryan back in the fold as well. All four were members of the winning squad that defeated Australia 3-1. Isner was particularly impressive on grass against an Aussie side that had to turn to Sam Groth and Bernard Tomic in singles. Isner would beat Groth to open and then Tomic to clinch the tie in the fourth rubber. The Bryans pulled out a thrilling five set match against Lleyton Hewitt and John Peers, edging them in five sets after leading two sets to love.

This should be a thrilling encounter between these two sides. The singles match-ups look fantastic on paper and should be very competitive. Cilic holds a 5-0 advantage over Isner in their career meetings, but has never faced Sock. Coric has never faced Isner and was whipped in straight sets in his lone meeting against Sock at last year’s French Open 6-2, 6-1, 6-4.

That likely puts a ton of pressure on Cilic to produce this weekend as the lead for Croatia. Coric has had some difficulty keeping pace with big servers on quicker surfaces. The 19-year-old is 4-4 all-time in Davis Cup play with just two of those rubbers coming on hard courts. With the exception of his 2013 Davis Cup singles debut against Andy Murray, the young Croat has been competitive even in losses. Two of his four losses have come in five sets.

Day one of this tie is going to be massive and with the draw now out, it is also very intriguing. It will be Jack Sock in rubber number one against Marin Cilic and then Isner battling Coric. That puts the pressure squarely on the two top guys here in Isner and Cilic. Cilic really must win the opener if Croatia is going to have any shot to win. A loss by Cilic could trigger an avalanche effect that could legitimately see Croatia out after the first three rubbers.

Cilic stands at 18-8 in Davis Cup play, while Isner is only 10-9 in his singles career in DC action. it’s Sock and Coric who may be the X-factors in the end with both short on experience, but put into a big spot here. Sock is 2-1 in singles ties with Coric as previously mentioned at 4-4. The big difference maker could be the doubles rubber. The Bryans are 25-4 as a tandem during their illustrious careers in Davis Cup action. They will be eager to make amends for their last Davis Cup loss which came in this quarterfinal round in 2013 against Serbia. They dropped a 15-13 5th set to Ilija Bozoljac and Ninad Zimonjic. That put Serbia in the driver’s seat at 2-1 with Novak Djokovic beating Sam Querrey in the fourth rubber to clinch a 3-1 Serbian victory.

The Bryans figure to have a huge experience edge with Dodig and Draganja having just eleven combined Davis Cup rubbers between them. Dodig has been important the last two ties for Croatia though, helping win both doubles rubbers with Skugor. Draganha is no stranger to the pressure on this round though, having paired with Mate Pavic in the 2014 quarterfinals. They lost a tough five set match to Poland, but Croatia eventually won the tie. It’s not out of the question for Cilic potentially to be called into duty in his spot either. Cilic isn’t a regular doubles fixture, but he has slotted into that role in Davis Cup play on eleven ocassions. It’s likely that Crotian captain Zeljko Krajan would like to avoid that scenario if at all possible, knowing Cilic probably will need to account for two wins in singles.

Rubber #1: Jack Sock vs Marin Cilic
As for Friday’s two singles rubbers, let’s look at Sock versus Cilic. It’s a power-power match-up, but certainly the experience edge is firmly with Cilic. With neither having played the other, there will certainly be a feeling out period to start the best of five rubber. The tale of the tape shows two guys with big serves and big forehands here. Cilic harnesses both of those just a shade better than Sock. The Croat is winning 80 percent of his first serve points this season and 53 percent on second serve. Sock? 75 percent and 53 percent. Both at times have some issues getting their first serves in routinely, so the second serve could loom large over the course of the match. Neither offers a stellar return game, so service holds could be fast and furious early. Any breaks in this match figure to potentially be the turning point and lights out in a set.

It would be a massive get for the Americans if Sock wins this opener, but Cilic has the heavy experience edge. He 14-3 in singles rubbers on hard courts in his Davis Cup career. It would take something special from Sock or something especially poor from Cilic I think to see Croatia trailing after the opener. Sock can certainly put pressure on Cilic if he is able to maintain his serve and play aggressive and short points. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to see Sock come to net to mix up the pace of play from the expected baseline ball bashing. If he does enough of that with success, he could pull off the upset. Still, I’ll side with Cilic.
Prediction: Cilic wins in four sets

Rubber #2: John Isner vs Borna Coric
The second rubber should favor Isner. Coric doesn’t pack the big punch that the American will with his service games, although he can take heart that Isner doesn’t offer a ton with his return game. To emphasize that, Isner has won about ten perent of all of his return games this season. Cilic rates right around 21 percent, about the same as Sock. Coric is winning about 18 percent. So Isner is markedly lower and offers markedly less resistance on return. Still, the pressure should be on Coric to match Isner’s expected service holds. Coric is winning right around 70 percent of his first serve points with Isner winning a whopping 82 percent.

If the sets fall into the typical Isner pattern of a tiebreak, Coric is 10-9 this season in breakers. Isner is 22-17. Not a huge difference in winning percentage, but Isner is obviously the one more comfortable in that setting. This could fall to Isner in straights with some very tight sets or Coric could steal one in a tiebreak and make this an interesting and longer match. The lengthier the match gets, the more Coric might feel like his younger legs could steal this rubber. Coric will need some lapses in concentration for Isner and perhaps he can get that if Team USA needs this one to avoid an 0-2 hole. In the end though, Isner’s serve likely is too much here.
Prediction: Isner wins in straight sets

For the Americans, Isner will shoulder a heavy load this weekend. Despite his 0-5 mark against Cilic, Isner has been ultra competitive and very close to beating the 2014 U.S. Open champ on several occassions. Their last encounter was a five setter at Wimbledon in 2015 that ended 12-10 to Cilic. They also went extra in their first meeting at the Australian Open in 2011 with Cilic taking that 9-7 in the fifth. Overall, 11 of their 16 sets played have featured either a tiebreak or bonus tennis in a 5th set at two Grand Slams.

The fourth rubber in this tie that is scheduled to pit Isner against Cilic looks like it sets up to potentially be a clincher for the Americans and one that Cilic might have to save to send the tie to a decisive fifth rubber. A Sock-Coric match should still favor Team USA on this hard surface, but nerves could come into play and make things interesting.

Prediction
USA wins 3-1

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