For club and country. The old adage usually reserved for international soccer applies just as much to the world of tennis, as every year players halt their college and professional seasons to take part in the largest multinational sporting event in the world: Davis Cup, the “World Cup of Tennis.”
For Florida State’s Aziz Dougaz and Alex Knaff, it has been a chance to represent their countries on a national stage while playing the sport they love.
Knaff, a 6-foot-5 freshman, has represented his home country of Luxembourg since 2015 and compiled an overall record of 4-4. With a clean 3-0 record in doubles play, Knaff has shown he has what it takes to compete on that stage, but none of his results were bigger than his doubles match on Sunday against Macedonia.
After defeating Liechtenstein 3-0 on Friday, Luxembourg advanced to the Group III playoff, where it battled Macedonia for the right to be promoted to Group II, where Dougaz’s native country of Tunisia currently plays.
Against Macedonia, the two teams split the singles points, forcing a deciding doubles match.
Knaff, paired with Luxembourgish professional Ugo Nastasi, rose to the occasion and won the doubles point in three sets to clinch the victory and ensure that his country would play in Group II next season.
Knaff (center) won two matches to lead the national team of Luxembourg into Group II of Davis Cup.
“It was pretty stressful, I was really nervous before the match,” Knaff said. “I had never played with Nastasi before, so we didn’t know what to expect. I went into that match and I just told myself to just give everything- to go for my shots, knowing that if I missed it would be okay, knowing that I gave everything.”
In the weekend competition, Luxembourg was without Gilles Muller, one of the top players on the professional tennis tour, allowing Knaff to step into the lineup in a crucial spot and take advantage on the world stage against a favored Liechtenstein squad.
“Our goal this year was to get back up to Group II,” Knaff said. “For a country like Luxembourg, the goal is not to be in the World Group (the top group in Davis Cup) because it’s kind of impossible. I think our goal is to stay in Group II. (We accomplished that) without our best player, Gilles Mueller, who is top 30 in the world.”
Davis Cup is unique in that it is one of two major team tennis competitions in the world, along with ITA-governed college tennis in the United States. That gives collegiate players like Knaff and Dougaz rare insight into the dynamic of playing for a team, including the added pressure of playing in a clinching match to deliver the ultimate goal of winning and advancing.
“It helped a little bit,” Knaff said. “I kind of learned from my mistakes and used that in the match, so that definitely helped.”
Knaff, who holds a 6-2 record so far in his young Florida State career, will draw from his experiences at the Davis Cup as he continues to blossom on the court for the Seminoles.
Dougaz, a sophomore from La Marsa, Tunisia who now plays at the top of the lineup for the Noles, once again represented his native country following an impressive showing in a 3-2 loss to top-seeded Sweden in February.
This time, the Tunisian team took on Cyprus in the Group II playoff with the loser facing relegation, the opposite situation from the one Knaff and Luxembourg encountered.
Dougaz faced the No. 2 player in the ITA rankings, Petros Chrysochos of Wake Forest, and while his teammates clinched the 4-1 victory before the match was played, Dougaz showed well in defeat 6-4, 7-6(2).
“It was a great win for the team,” Dougaz said. “It was important for us to stay in Group II and to bounce back from our loss against Sweden, which was tough because I think we should have won that one and played for the Group I promotion.
Dougaz (far left) poses with the rest of the Tunisian national team.
“We all had a great attitude, the whole team was committed and super motivated to play the tie. I am really happy with the result and I think everyone is happy back home.”
Making his country proud has become a habit for Dougaz, who, like Knaff, has represented Tunisia since 2015 and earned five total wins in Davis Cup play.
Joining Dougaz on the Tunisian team is another top-ranked ITA player in Skander Mansouri, who plays with Chrysochos at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons are currently the top-ranked team in both the ITA and USTA college tennis polls.
One more thing: Florida State plays Wake Forest in Winston-Salem on Friday.
“It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to playing them and competing against them this time,” Dougaz said of playing against Mansouri this weekend.
Despite the quick turnaround, playing against his countryman does not diminish the feats they accomplished together in international play.
“I think it was a great experience, it was a great learning experience for me and good motivation for me to work harder and play for a Group I promotion next year because we have a great team,” Dougaz said. “I think we should play for Group I next year, which is a goal (of the team).”
While at different points in their college careers, both Dougaz and Knaff return to the United States with plenty of experience to draw on as the Seminoles look to close out ACC play and further their case for an NCAA Tournament bid.
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