SA, Russia surprise at Davis Cup draw
Both South Africa and Russia came up with surprises when the draw for the critical Euro-Africa Group One relegation decider was made in Moscow on Thursday.
Russia preferred world number 512 Karen Khachanov over 145-ranked Andre Kuznetsov as their No 2 singles player for Friday's opening tennis match at the Olympic Stadium against South Africa's No 1 Dean O'Brien.
South Africa's captain John-Laffnie de Jager chose 1442-ranked Japie de Klerk as the No 2 to face Russian No 1 Alex Bogomolov jun. in Friday's second singles clash ahead of 569-ranked Tucker Vorster.
Mathematically the decisions would appear to be mind-boggling, but the 17-year-old Khachanov is considered a potential world top tenner.
Last week, he demonstrated his potential by beating former world No 8 Janko Tipsarevic to reach the quarterfinals of the ATP Kremlin Cup tournament, improving his world ranking by more than 300 places.
What swayed De Jager's decision to play De Klerk was his impressive form in practice and the fact that he recently reached the semifinals of the American College championships.
It will be the third and probably most important Davis Cup meeting between the two countries, with each having won one of the previous encounters.
The losers on this occasion will plummet down the Davis Cup ladder into the Euro-Africa Group Two segment in 2014.
"Funny things often happen in Davis Cup ties, with upsets not that unusual in the emotional climate, and we could come up with another such one," said De Jager.
"Either way, I am confident the players I have chosen will give their all and push the Russians to the best of their ability."
South Africa have played in Euro-Africa Group One since 2009. Before the looming showdown against Russia, they came within a whisker of regaining a place in the competition's elite World Group for the first time since 1998, before falling at the last hurdle in consecutive play-offs against India, Germany, Croatia, and Canada during the past four years.
Now South Africa face Russia as the underdogs, with seven top players all unavailable.
Without world 20-ranked Kevin Anderson and Fritz Wolmarans, perennial Davis Cup stalwart Rik de Voest, Nikala Scholz, Izak van der Merwe, Ruan Roelefse, and Jean Andersen, newcomers O'Brien and De Klerk will be making daunting Davis Cup debuts.
If South Africa do have an ace in their pack, it is the presence of Raven Klaasen who, at 43rd in the world, is the highest-ranked doubles player in the tie.
A further degree of comfort for South Africa is the fact that Russia's three leading players, a formidable trio in Mikhail Youzhny, 21st in the world, Dmitry Tursonov 39th, and Nikolay Davedenko, 49th, have also declared themselves unavailable.
However, led by the world's 80-ranked Bogomolov jun., Russia appear to have the resources to remain in the Euro-Africa Group One.