LILLE, France (Reuters) - France and Croatia, who contested football's World Cup final this year, will start as favourites this weekend to set up the men's tennis equivalent in the Davis Cup.
With Rafael Nadal injured, France's semi-final task against Spain in Lille has taken on a very different hue with Yannick Noah's champions now favourites to be only the second team to reach back-to-back finals since the challenge round was abolished in 1972.
Meanwhile, in Zadar, where the Marin Cilic-inspired Croats face the United States in the other last-four contest which also starts on Friday, there will be plenty of scrutiny of umpire Carlos Ramos.
He has come into this passionate tie straight from the U.S. Open where his officiating of Serena Williams in the women's final on Saturday caused an international furore.
In the last Davis Cup under its traditional format, the inspirational Noah, seeking a fourth title as captain, said on Thursday it was his dream to defend the crown even if the fan in him would have loved to have seen Nadal play.
Naturally, the recurrence of the world No. 1's knee injury at the U.S. Open has weakened the Spanish cause on the indoor hardcourt of Lille's imposing Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
Yet visiting captain Sergi Bruguera is adamant that he has full confidence in Pablo Carreno Busta and Roberto Bautista Agut in Friday's singles.
Much may depend on the long-anticipated debut of the maverick Benoit Paire, chosen ahead of the experienced Richard Gasquet to take on Carreno Busta, the world No. 21 who is ranked 33 places higher than the eccentric Frenchman.
Paire, who has a penchant for hot-headed racket-smashing, admitted that, previously, he had not been ready "mentally" to play for the French team.
"In my head, sometimes I could become crazy and the team couldn't be confident to call me into the team. But now I feel good, I feel fresh and confident," the 29-year-old said.
Noah was comfortable with his gamble, though, explaining how well Paire had been preparing.
"As long as he doesn't break a racket on my face, I'll keep him," he laughed. "He does have a tendency to break rackets on the court but he'll have to try because he's only got five for the weekend!"
In the other semi-final on Zadar's outdoor clay, Cilic and Borna Coric are strongly fancied to lead Croatia to the final for the second time in three years, with an eye on improving on their 2016 defeat by Argentina.
The visitors are without John Isner, back home awaiting the birth of his child, and Jack Sock, a late injury withdrawal, leaving U.S. No.3 Steve Johnson to tackle Coric in Friday’s opener.
World No. 6 Cilic will face one of the game's rising talents in 20-year-old Frances Tiafoe, who reckoned he was "pretty excited" to debut against a man who has compiled a magnificent singles record over 12 years of Davis Cup combat.
The Croatians, with home advantage and slow clay, believe they can win their fifth successive tie against the Americans with the doubles clash between home pair Mate Pavic and Ivan Dodig and Americans Ryan Harrison and Mike Bryan -- all four grand slam doubles winners -- potentially looking pivotal.
Experienced Portuguese umpire Ramos has jumped straight back into the hot seat after being at the centre of a storm in Flushing Meadows where Williams accused him of sexism after she was docked a game for three code violations.
A phlegmatic character, though, Ramos said this week he was fine and he has been given a public vote of support from the International Tennis Federation for his officiating.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)