South Africa will be watching uneasily on the sidelines with a bye during this weekend’s Davis Cup programme – looking to learn who their opponents in a future Euro-Africa Group One relegation tie will be.
Because of what the ITF admit is a format sprinkled with a string of tortuous uncertainties, South Africa are confronted by an unpredictable road in the attempt to avoid relegation from Euro-Africa Group One of the Davis Cup following the deflating loss to Israel earlier in the competition.
This has been confirmed by an ITF spokesman, who explained a simpler system had not been possible because of the uncertainty as to how many countries would participate in the Euro-Africa Group One Davis Cup segment this year at the time the 2018 programme was finalised – because the number of teams was dependent on results in the World Group play-offs.
The net result is a maze of unknowns, with South Africa due to face Ukraine, Portugal, the Czech Republic – or a combination of two of these countries in ties in September and October – to remain in Euro-Africa Group One.
At this point, the likeliest outcome is that South Africa will face Ukraine in a sudden-death playoff at home in September, with further imponderables surrounding the make-up of the teams and results in a number of ties this weekend.
South Africa would face a difficult challenge against Ukraine should they select their strongest available line-up, which would include Alexandr Dolgopolov (ranked 47th in the world, but with a career-best ranking of 13th) and Sergiy Stakhovsky (ranked 117th in the world, but with a career-best ranking of 32nd).
However, like South Africa, who have found themselves in a Davis Cup predicament as a result of the seven-year non-availability of world No 8, Kevin Anderson, Ukraine also missed Dolgopolov, a notably gifted, but enigmatic strokemaker who is capable of extending anyone in the world on a good day, when the East Europeans were without their dominant No 1 player for the recent surprise defeat against Sweden.
A note of relief for South Africa’s Davis Cup prospects emerged this week in that 20-year-old Lloyd Harris, who has assumed the role of No 1 singles player in the absence of Anderson, has regained his winning touch with two Futures tournament successes in Portugal.
After earlier experiencing a string of poor results, following his elevation to an encouraging 199th world ranking midway through 2017, Harris’ ranking sank to a disturbing 340th. But he has now moved back up to 242nd.
So should South Africa ultimately square up against Ukraine, the outcome could depend on which of the two countries is able to select their strongest possible squad to avoid an ignominious drop to Euro-Africa Group Two.
But right now it is not that clear-cut.
It could well be Portugal or the Czech Republic instead whom South Africa will be facing to steer clear of the dreaded relegation axe.