The matches will be played in a closed arena for fear of protests against Israel

Switzerland will miss Roger Federer against U.S.

STOCKHOLM: Sweden hosts a Davis Cup tennis series this week in an empty stadium for the second time in its history — again for political reasons.

The Swedes face Israel in Malmo in the first round of the World Group, and authorities decided to play the best-of-five series from Friday through Sunday in a closed arena because they fear demonstrations and protests against Israel.

Thousands of people who want to stop the match are expected to gather for a demonstration on Saturday.

Organisers said it would be a peaceful protest against Israel’s three-week offensive against the Gaza Strip, but police are taking no chances and have called up 1,000 officers to keep protesters from the stadium.

The other time Sweden was forced to play with no fans was in 1975, two years after a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet against the elected Chilean Government of Salvador Allende. Sweden played Chile in Bastad that time.

Crowd support

Top-ranked Rafael Nadal should have plenty of crowd support when he leads defending champion Spain against Serbia in Benidorm. Record 32-time champion United States faces a Switzerland team that will be without Roger Federer in Birmingham, Alabama.

Also in the first round, it’s Argentina vs. the Netherlands in Buenos Aires; Czech Republic vs. France in Ostrava; Croatia vs. Chile in Porec; Romania vs. Russia in Sibiu; and Germany vs. Austria in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

In Malmo, the decision to play without fans sparked criticism from tennis officials in both Sweden and Israel, as well as the International Tennis Federation (ITC).

On the court, 2002 Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson is likely to return from injury and play for Sweden despite not being on the original nomination list. “If he doesn’t get re-injured, he’ll play on Friday,” assistant coach Joakim Nystrom said on Wednesday.

Andy Ram, one of the players embroiled in an international controversy last month over entry into the United Arab Emirates, is in the line-up for Israel.

Nadal, who withdrew from the Dubai Open because of a right leg injury, is ready to face Serbia.

“Everybody’s perfect,” Spain captain Albert Costa said on Wednesday. “Nadal’s 100 per cent. Everybody on the team is 100 per cent healthy.”

Spain, which beat Argentina in last year’s final for its third Davis Cup title in eight years, elected to play the series on clay at the Terra Mitica Amusement Park, where a specially constructed 14,000-capacity outdoor court was undergoing finishing touches.

Nadal will be joined by David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez and Tommy Robredo. Serbia is led by third-ranked Novak Djokovic.

“Rafa knows (Djokovic) is a great player,” Costa said. “Djokovic will do all he can, I have no doubt. Nadal can also lose sometimes, too.”

Usual team

The Americans will face Switzerland with its usual team of Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mike and Bob Bryan, but the visitor will be missing 13-time Grand Slam champion Federer, who is out with a bad back. — AP

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