London - Novak Djokovic is back for the Davis Cup, making Serbia the favourite.
After leading Serbia to the 2013 final, Djokovic took last year off and watched Roger Federer pair with Stan Wawrinka to capture the only major tennis trophy to elude him.
Federer and Wawrinka are skipping the Davis Cup this year, almost certainly costing Switzerland any chance of beating Belgium in Liege in the first round, and leaving Djokovic to bring the star power this week.
The top-ranked Djokovic wasted little time returning home from the Dubai Championships, where he lost to Federer in Saturday's final. As soon as he arrived in Kraljevo, in a mountain valley about 200 kilometres south of Belgrade, he practiced with long-time teammate Nenad Zimonjic.
On Wednesday, the venue doors were opened to the public, and 3,000 streamed in, leaving no seats for an estimated 1,500 more people outside.
The hyper interest is not only in Djokovic, but also because the match starting Friday is against Croatia. It will be their second meeting since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. In 2010, Djokovic led Serbia to a quarterfinal victory in Split in what he called a "tough atmosphere," en route to its first and only title.
"I expect an interesting match," Djokovic said. "The Serbian and Croatian rivalry is special."
Serbia will also feature Viktor Troicki, who clinched the win in the 2010 final. Shortly after a Davis Cup quarterfinal win over the United States in April 2013, Troicki gave a urine test at the Monte Carlo Masters but refused a blood test, and was suspended for a year. When the former top-12 player returned to the tour, his ranking was 842. It's back to 41.
Croatia missed Mario Ancic and Ivo Karlovic in 2010, and is depleted again. Not available is injured U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, leaving the team to be led by 18-year-old Borna Coric, who beat Rafael Nadal in October and Andy Murray last week in Dubai.
Murray leads Britain against the United States in Glasgow, on an indoor hard court, hoping to emulate the win in San Diego a year ago. On that occasion, the key was James Ward beating Sam Querrey. Murray should win both of his singles again, and Ward will be counted on against Donald Young, who won their only previous match on grass last year.
There are two more rematches from 2014: Germany vs. France, and Canada vs. Japan.
Germany looked like beating France in the quarterfinals last year for the first time since 1938, but France came back from 2-0 down for the fourth time in its history. Germany has added Philipp Kohlschreiber, while France won't have Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Frankfurt.
Japan extended its record against Canada to 6-0 last year in Tokyo, but shouldn't find it so easy in Vancouver. Japan still has fourth-ranked Kei Nishikori, but Canada has been bolstered by No. 6 Milos Raonic in what appears to be an even matchup.
The Czech Republic will host Australia for the first time since becoming an independent nation, but the visitors have a chance to ruin the party in Ostrava.
The Czechs don't have Tomas Berdych or Radek Stepanek, the stalwarts who led them to the title in 2012 and 2013, and the 2014 semi-finals. Australia, which hasn't passed the first round in nine years, features Bernard Tomic and the retiring Lleyton Hewitt.
Argentina and Brazil meet for the first time in the World Group, with advantage Argentina. The match is in Buenos Aires, and Argentina hasn't lost to Brazil in 40 years. Brazil knocked out Spain in the playoffs last year, and has a world-class doubles team in Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares.
Italy, with four players in the top 80, takes an impressive team for the first time to Astana, where Kazakhstan can't be underestimated. The Kazakhs beat Austria and Belgium at home in the last two years, and will be confident of making the quarterfinals for the third straight year.
Belgium will also back itself to celebrate a first win over Switzerland since 1999. Michael Lammer was the only surviving member of the champion Swiss team to win a point last year, in doubles.