In the Davis Cup, defending champions get no preferential treatment and must begin competing from the 1/8 final, just like any other team. Russia's first round will take place in La Serena, a Chilean administrative center about 300 miles north of the capital, Santiago.
The Chileans have not won any trophies in their history, save the 2004 Athens Olympics when Fernando Gonzalez teamed up with Nicolas Massu to win the nation's first ever Olympic gold medal in any sport, and Massu won the singles title, which is nonetheless not a very significant achievement from the professionals' point of view.
Russians are rated higher, with six people - versus two for Chile - in the top hundred. Even though Chile have not lost at home for a decade, the Silver Cup (popularly known in Russia as "the Silver Salad Bowl") defenders would have lost little sleep over the prospect of facing the Chileans - except for three buts that may turn the tables in favor of the hosts. And all these are big buts indeed.
First, the Russians will be at a disadvantage because of the weather and surface - very important factors in modern tennis, which might have played a key role in last year's Moscow finals when Marat Safin, even previously consulted which surface he would prefer, had difficulty adapting to the carpet. Chile, quite expectedly, chose their favorite: very slow clay, a surface on which, Russians have said, "the ball seems to be motionless." Heat, humidity, and day-night temperature differences (up to 45?F at La Serena) also count in the hosts' favor.
The second but is called Fernando Gonzalez, the ATP number five-ranked player who made it to the finals at a very contentious Australian Open earlier this year.
Thirdly and most importantly, Russians have lost their Big Three - Nikolai Davydenko, Dmitry Tursunov and probably Mikhail Yuzhny - for this year's Cup, relying only on Marat Safin and a bunch of younger hopefuls such as provisional number two Igor Andreyev and little-known Teimuraz Gabashvili. And this is a but we should enlarge on.
For years, high-class tennis professionals - and being high-class now means hard-playing and equally high-earning - just look at Davydenko with his $2,026,845 stated income last year - have perceived the Davis Cup as... well, not exactly an amateur tournament, but a battle for prestige, rather than for money.
This year, Davydenko, the world's longtime number three, has his own prestige at stake, keenly climbing up the table (only one position, though, as Federer remains beyond competition; let's be realistic for a change). So, he arranged long ago with Russian coach Shamil Tarpishchev to be free from the Davis Cup this year. Mikhail Yuzhny, who has played with injuries for several years, is also enjoying a break, and Dmitry Tursunov has come from the Australian Open with great impressions of Gonzalez's play - and a bad arm.
As bookmakers are already putting Russia's chances at no higher than 30/70 to 40/60, there is only one man we can really pin our hopes on - someone who has made tennis as popular in Russia as football and ice hockey (and, ironically, far more successful). Shamil Tarpishchev has been Russia's captain since 1974, at first supporting the most successful Soviet player of all time, Alexander Metreveli, the only Russian to reach a Wimbledon final. Having been fired several times, he was always invited back again, each times earning more and more respect, credibility and authority in Russian and international sports, not only as tennis captain but also as a member of the International Olympic Committee.
A tennis team captain is not the same as a manager in football. The captain's job, more psychological than technical, though equally critical for success, is to create a team out of a group of high-ranking professionals, each of whom wants - and is in a good position - to be the leader. So far, Tarpishchev has been doing this with great success, and is likely to repeat it - even though this time dealing with excessive leadership is clearly not on his to-do list, which nonetheless seems longer than ever.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinion of the editorial board.