09/11/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 09/11/2019 06:38
Davis Cup tennis is renowned for its camaraderie, but seldom are the bonds as strong between the captain of a host nation and a player on the visiting side as that shared by Jarkko Nieminen and Jurgen Melzer.
It is over 20 years since the Finnish captain and Austrian veteran first faced off in the boys' singles draw at The Championships 1999. Melzer won the battle of the left-handers that day, and while Nieminen would go on to claim a 5-1 head-to-head record in their professional careers, the Finn fell in five sets when the nations last faced off in Davis Cup competition back in 2003.
'I've been trying to beat him my whole life,' Melzer joked ahead of the Europe/Africa Group I tie in Espoo, north of Helsinki. 'And we've managed to stay friends, so that's okay. We're the same age and came through juniors together, so it's going to be nice to see him.'
While Melzer is looking forward to the reunion with his old rival, he knows how different things might have been had Austria clinched victory against Chile in the Davis Cup by Rakuten Qualifiers back in February.
Despite playing without Austrian No.1 Dominic Thiem, forced out of the tie through illness, Melzer and Oliver Marach had put the hosts into a 2-1 lead with victory in the doubles at the start of the second day. But a 6-4 3-6 7-6(2) defeat for Dennis Novak at the hands of Nicolas Jarry levelled the tie, before Cristian Garin sealed a famous win for the South Americans.
As Chile prepare for the Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals in Madrid in November, Melzer and company must reset and target two tie victories to reach the 2020 edition, starting with a win in Finland - not that it will be easy, should a virus picked up in the USA once again deny them the talents of the world No.5.
'We were one tiebreak away from going to Madrid,' Melzer conceded. 'Back then, Dominic got sick just a week before and couldn't play. But he's committed to playing Davis Cup and wants to get us to the Finals in 2020.
It depends a little bit on how Dominic recovers. We still hope he plays - if he does, we are highly favourites for that weekend, but if he does not that probably puts us back to 50-50 in the tie. We need this match. If we don't win this one we can't be in the Finals next year, so we will put everything on the line to succeed.'
Such sentiment is shared by the Finns, who are relishing the chance to play in front of a home crowd, according to Henri Kontinen.
'Playing Davis Cup for your country at home, it's something we don't get to do very much - very rarely, actually, so it'll be a lot of fun,' said the 29-year-old. 'We have a great group of guys in our team, the same core as last year. It'll be fun, and I'm looking forward to it.'
Like Melzer, Kontinen also appreciates the potentially pitoval role Thiem is expected to play in Espoo, but would gladly see him recover in time to be a factor this weekend.
'Obviously he's a great player, the top player in the world for their team,' Kontinen said. 'He's a big piece, of course, but they have a lot of great players other than him. No matter if he plays or not, it's a tough team to beat. In a way, maybe it's not great for us if he comes, but on the other hand it's great for tennis, and the Finnish people will be excited to see him there.'
For Melzer, who made his Davis Cup debut in 1999 against Sweden, his 20 years of service to the Austrian team, taking in over 75 matches and 30 ties, rank among the proudest moments of his tennis career.
'It has always been an honour to wear that tracksuit, and I have always raised my hand when anyone asked, 'Do you want to represent your country?'' the 38-year-old said. 'I was raised like that, that it I an honour to play for your country, to fight for your country.
'And they are special wins - for me, nothing makes me more happy than winning a deciding match in Davis Cup. That's why I always played. It was always a passion of mine to play those weeks.'
And that pre-tie bonhomie extends beyond Melzer and Nieminen, with Kontinen admitting he is friendly with many of the members of the Austrian team - until he steps onto the court on Friday, at least.
'There's a lot of good guys on that team - I'm friendly with pretty much all of those guys, but when it's game time I won't be thinking about them.'