France captain Yannick Noah has played down the absence of Japan’s world No. 5 Kei Nishikori and called for total focus from his players ahead of their Davis Cup World Group first-round tie starting Friday.
Nishikori said at last month’s Australian Open that he had opted out of the Davis Cup because of his packed tour schedule. He is set to play in clay-court competitions in South America this month.
That leaves Yoshihito Nishioka as Japan’s highest-ranked player in the squad at No. 85.
“Obviously to play Japan without their No. 1 player is a better situation for us for sure,” Noah said at Ariake Colosseum on Wednesday.
“But on the other hand, you always want to keep the team focused. We have had in the history of the Davis Cup a lot of situations where you have your supposed best team underachieving, so basically my work is to make sure my team is focused and ready to play whoever we are going to play.”
For various reasons, a number of top players including Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray will not take part in Davis Cup action, and former French Open champion Noah himself did not pick his two best players this time.
Noah left ninth-ranked Gael Monfils out of his squad, while 14th-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was granted leave for family reasons.
Lucas Pouille, who was initially not included in France’s squad, is the team’s top-ranked player participating at No. 17, followed by 18th-ranked Richard Gasquet.
“Nowadays, a lot of players are reluctant to play the Davis Cup but we are lucky enough in France to have a history where the Davis Cup is still very important for all the players and we want to try to keep it this way,” said Noah.
“Even though Kei doesn’t play we also have some players, some of our good players, who are not playing. At the end of the day it is going to be a beautiful tie between France and Japan. It’s always a good opportunity for countries to meet.”
Gasquet warned that Nishioka must not be underestimated. Taro Daniel (114), Yuichi Sugita (117) and Yasutaka Uchiyama (230) make up the rest of the Japanese squad.
“I have never played against Nishioka but I have heard that he is an up-and-coming player,” said Gasquet. “The top 100 is full of players with overflowing talent and so there is no room for complacency. I have the greatest respect for Nishioka.”
Nishioka admitted he was already feeling the pressure to fill the void left by Nishikori.
“This will be the first time for me to be in the Davis Cup team without Nishikori so naturally I feel nervous and am under pressure,” said Nishioka.
“It’s not like I have been in this situation before and in addition to that, (most of) France’s players are higher ranked.
“Whoever I play, the French players are all more experienced than I am so it is going to be very tough,” he added. “But I did OK at the Brisbane International and Australian Open and played higher-ranked players so I feel prepared.
“We have home advantage and I just want to give it my best over the three days and as a challenger show determination not to lose.”
Japan coach Minoru Ueda insisted he was not angry or disappointed at Nishikori for making himself unavailable and viewed it as a chance for the others to rise to the occasion.
“The offer was right there until the end for Nishikori but the tour schedule is tight for him and I understand that. He has contributed to the team so I am not disappointed. He has my backing, and that will not change,” said Ueda.
“Obviously it’s a big deal he’s not with us but what is even bigger is this chance — the chance for the younger players to accomplish something. I look at that as a positive.”
Japan swept Ukraine in a playoff to keep its place in the World Group but it is 0-3 in all-time head-to-heads against France.
The draw for the best-of-five series is Thursday.
Before the team press conferences, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) and the Japan Tennis Association (JTA) jointly announced a memorandum of understanding on two projects — the French Open junior wildcard in Japan, and a joint training program of French and Japanese junior players at FFT facilities, which will also be available for use by Japan’s senior national team.
It is the JTA’s first bilateral agreement with a foreign counterpart.
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