Expect U.S. squad to roll

Captain Patrick McEnroe is led by stalwarts Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryans. AP Photo/Dave Martin

A new place on the calendar for the opening round of the Davis Cup was supposed to ensure the top players would be competing. Well, for one reason or another, half the world's top 10 won't be in action this weekend, led by a certain multi-Grand Slam winner from Switzerland. The good news is Rafael Nadal is back, and of course, drama is never far away at the sport's most prestigious team event. Here is a preview of the eight matchups.

Switzerland vs. United States in Birmingham, Ala.; hard, indoors

With Roger Federer no longer an obstacle, this seemed to be the perfect time for U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe to alter his team, perhaps inserting Mardy Fish or Sam Querrey as Andy Roddick's No. 2.

Fish won the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships on Sunday in Florida, two weeks after reaching the SAP final in San Jose, Calif. Querrey continues to make progress, having reached a final and two quarterfinals so far in 2009. Both excelled for McEnroe as the U.S. bravely fell to Spain on the road in 2008's semifinals.

But McEnroe is staying true to James Blake, who was too burnt out to compete in last year's semifinals in Iberia.

Pushing 30, Blake outdid Fish and Querrey by landing in the fourth round of the Australian Open, and yes, he still is the U.S. No. 2.

"The fact that James got to the round of 16 at the Australian, we look at it and say, 'Oh, well, it wasn't a great tournament for him,"' McEnroe said in a conference call. "Where if Mardy or Sam did that, we would look at it a bit differently. I think that's sort of something you have to remind yourself of. James has still consistently been right around top 10 in the world for a number of years."

Even on cruise control, Roddick, Blake, and twins Mike and Bob Bryan (who have something to prove after slipping to second in the 2008 doubles standings) should win comfortably in the Deep South.

Stanislas Wawrinka, only three spots lower than Blake at 16th, has tailed off the past eight months; realistic contenders for Switzerland's second singles slot include world No. 143 Stephane Bohli and Marco Chiudinelli. Blame a serious knee injury for Chiudinelli's ranking of 341st, although the 27-year-old has never reached the top 100.

"We're the outsiders, but we're comfortable in this situation," Swiss captain Severin Luthi told reporters.

He'll be more comfortable if Federer surfaces for the world group playoffs.

Prediction: U.S. in three

Serbia vs. Spain in Benidorm, clay, outdoors

Spain is the defending champ, playing at home, and Nadal gets to strut his stuff on clay, where the undisputed world No. 1 is impregnable.

What chance does Serbia have?

Thinking glass half-full, Novak Djokovic enters the weekend on a high after winning Saturday in Dubai and knocking off Spain's David Ferrer in the finale.

Djokovic handed Nadal arguably his toughest encounter at the 2008 French Open, waking up in the third set of their semifinal to force a tiebreaker. And who knows -- Nadal could be rusty or far from 100 percent (a right leg injury kept the 22-year-old away from Dubai).

"I expect a lot actually from Novak," said Stefan Ortega, a coach at the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona. "He's the type of player when you don't count so much on him, he's free. He's not playing at home, he's not playing on his favorite surface, he is playing against a big team, so I think he'll raise his level. I think it will be very important, the first set of every match for him."

Thinking glass half-empty, Djokovic won't fancy playing a potential three five-setters in as many days, and Serbia's singles No. 2 is the flaky Janko Tipsarevic. Ferrer must feel better after a revival in Dubai and testing Djokovic.

Prediction: Spain in four

France vs. Czech Republic, Ostrava, carpet, indoors

France's modern-day musketeers take center stage in what could be the most exciting and high-quality first-round series.

Gilles Simon rests snugly in the top 10; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, enjoying the most success for a Frenchman in 2009, stands 11th; and Richard Gasquet hovers around the top 25. It comes as little surprise that French captain Guy Forget chose the trio. Having originally bypassed Michael Llodra, Forget chose him to play doubles after dropping Gael Monfils from the team.

Simon has never played in the Davis Cup, a competition much loved -- and sought -- by the French, and Tsonga has participated in one match. Gasquet, not really a guy to whom you turn when the chips are down, is a mediocre 5-5.

"They have to get used to the pressure," said Arnaud Boetsch, who became France's Davis Cup hero in 1996 when he won the final's decisive fifth match in Sweden. "Davis Cup is a new step for them. I think it's a good decision for Guy to say, 'OK, let's do it now. You have to be part of the team, you have to handle this pressure for your country, and if you succeed, you're going to be a better player.'''

The hosts possess red-hot Radek Stepanek, who is prolific on fast surfaces, and the Czech version of Gasquet, Tomas Berdych. The latter, though, is 7-2 in his past nine matches at home.

"Stepanek is playing unbelievable these days," Boetsch said.

Prediction: France in five

Israel vs. Sweden, Malmo, carpet, indoors

For the second time in a month, tennis and politics make for an unpleasant cocktail.

This otherwise low-key series made headlines worldwide when local government officials ordered the affair to be played with no fans at the 4,000-seat Baltic Hall, drawing the ire of the ITF and tennis brass in Sweden and Israel.

The officials said they couldn't guarantee safety for spectators, and as many as 12,000 people are expected to rally Saturday in Malmo, protesting Israel's actions in Gaza.

Israeli doubles specialist Andy Ram called the decision to play behind closed doors "stupid," with Swede Magnus Norman, a former world No. 2, not liking it either.

"It's bad for Sweden," Norman said. "It's a big blow for Swedish tennis, which is already struggling, and of course, it's sad for both competing teams. Sports and politics are two separate things. The local politicians in Malmo had no right whatsoever to make this decision."

On court, the lone singles competitor in the top 150 is Israel's Dudi Sela, following the injury withdrawal of Norman's pupil, Swedish No. 1 Robin Soderling.

Swedish captain Mats Wilander benefits from the services of 2002 Australian Open champ Thomas Johansson, who originally was excluded due to a foot ailment.

Prediction: Israel in five

Netherlands vs. Argentina, Buenos Aires, clay, outdoors

Argentina's hangover from an unexpected loss in December's home final still lingers.

Domestic No. 1 Juan Martin del Potro ruled himself out of the matchup, with whispers suggesting he failed to mesh with crusty former top dog David Nalbandian.

Nalbandian bailed this week, citing a virus, leaving low-profile captain Tito Vazquez with a minor headache in his first series in charge.

"This is an emergency," Vazquez said at a news conference.

However, Argentina's contingent, which includes Juan Monaco, Juan Ignacio Chela and Martin Vassallo Arguello, should be good enough, given that they haven't lost a clay-court series at home in 11 years.

The Netherlands' biggest threat, Robin Haase, remains sidelined with a knee injury, so world No. 188 Jesse Huta Galung leads the visitors.

At least they've had ample practice in Argentina.

"If the guys aren't ready now, they'll never be ready," Dutch captain Jan Siemerink told reporters.

Prediction: Argentina in three

Russia vs. Romania, Sibiu, carpet, indoors

Now that Marat Safin intends to bid adieu at November's Paris Masters, thoughts turn to what the combustible, charismatic two-time Grand Slam winner plans on doing upon completion of his playing days.

Russia's future Davis Cup captain, perhaps? Assuming the ever-present Shamil Tarpischev quits one day.

"I can imagine a captain just breaking stuff and smashing things as he's sitting on the bench," Safin's teammate Dmitry Tursunov told the Davis Cup Web site. "I think it would be pretty funny. If Shamil is off the bench by that time, maybe he'll fill his spot."

Safin, Tursunov and company are heavily favored against a depleted Romania team. With the retirement of Andrei Pavel -- now the country's captain -- Victor Hanescu remains the sole formidable player.

Russia has reached the semifinals every year since 2005.

Prediction: Russia in four

Chile vs. Croatia, Porec, hard, indoors

Marin Cilic, a man on the move, was a junior when Croatia won its lone Davis Cup title, in 2005. He watched the drama unfold in Bratislava -- Croatia triumphed 3-2 over the Slovak Republic following Mario Ancic's victory in the fifth match -- from his television.

"I didn't feel that emotion and celebration with the team, so I'm hoping I'm going to feel it in my career at least once," Cilic told the Davis Cup Web site.

If he keeps improving, there's a good chance that could happen. The 20-year-old owns two titles in 2009. He's joined on the team by Ancic and ace king Ivo Karlovic.

Chile suffered a major blow when longtime domestic No. 1 Fernando Gonzalez withdrew because of a troublesome sciatic nerve, but it's not like the team had much chance even with him. Since the 16-nation world group was formed in 1981, Chile has never won a road series in the world group or world group playoffs.

Prediction: Croatia in three

Austria vs. Germany, Garmisch, hard, indoors

Poor Germany. With so many neighbors -- nine to be exact -- rivals abound.

Germany narrowly upended Austria, a huge underdog, at soccer's European Championships last year, and this one could be close, too. Austria hopes to overturn a 4-0 deficit in head-to-heads.

Germany's squad includes Philipp Kohlschreiber and Nicolas Kiefer, and the visitors again will rely mainly on left-handed veterans Jurgen Melzer and Stefan Koubek.

All four can be breathtaking -- and overwhelmingly erratic.

Kiefer hasn't played since hurting his ankle the first week of January, so German captain Patrik Kuhnen opted for the predictable, hard-working Rainer Schuettler to accompany Kohlschreiber in singles. The 32-year-old is Germany's highest-ranked singles entrant at 31st, stemming from last year's semifinal sprint at Wimbledon.

Both teams aren't too shabby in doubles.

Prediction: Germany in five

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.