Why Davis Cup Matters

Tuesday, February 14, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

The first-round World Group Davis Cup clash between the USA and Switzerland is long past, even if various linguists, mind readers, self-appointed therapists and Rogerphobes and Federphiles continue to parse the percious few comments Federer made about the performance put in by the Swiss singles players.

Did Federer say, and even if he said it, did he really mean, that Stan Wawrinka played like dog poop in the opening rubber of the tie the U.S. would win 5-0? 

But many of the rest of us have moved on. We can appreciate how, despite the lack of competitive drama, this tie is a wonderful case-study in why Davis Cup is not just a great event but a unique and radically different one from conventional tournament tennis. Here are the main elements that demonstrated why Davis Cup is so enthralling, why Davis Cup matters.

Mystique Whether or not you're a fan of international team competitions in which the name on the back of your jersey is not yours, or Nike's, but that of your homeland, the difference is real and palpable. All you need to do is watch the crowd at a Davis Cup tie and a typical tournament (the men are dozing behind their aviator shades, the women are flipping their hair with one hand while texting with the other).

Those enthusiastic like-minded, exuberantly patriotic fans create pressure, and the funny thing about it is that while a green rookie playing on foreign soil can be severely rattled by that partisan atmosphere (Pete Sampras, who was crushed in both singles in his Davis Cup debut, admits he felt like a "deer in the headlights"), in the long term the pressure  — as well as the potential inspiration — is much more intense for the host players (you can consult with Stan Wawrinka on this one).

Although it isn't often put so bluntly, the basic question a Davis Cup tie asks of a player on the host team is: Are you man enough to get this done for all these thousands of people who are pulling for you?

That question simply is not asked at a tournament, even a Grand Slam, at least not until the intense focus of the last few rounds. And even then it's implied in a personal way, rather than demanded in a public way. Let's be honest about this: Who really cares all that much about your personal struggle, if the only real beneficiary is you? Tennis is an intensely personal sport; the vaguely national stakes in Davis Cup add a layer of public demand that can be truly unnerving.

Organization   At the start of Federer v. Isner in Fribourg, the commentators were wondering how Isner could possibly employ his power game and find adequate defenses (read, "mobility") to upend the Swiss No. 1. By the fourth set, those same voices were calling for Swiss federation to fire whichever functionary came up with the bright idea of hosting the tie on slow red clay and then laying down one that played like a dusty, grazed-off pasture.

Given Federer's status, I have to believe he was aware and supportive of the choice of surface. You have to wonder, though, why did the Swiss feel like they had to put the Americans on a surface the Swiss thought would handicap them, instead of choosing one on which their best player is most deadly? Somebody did not do his homework. Somebody didn't pick up the phone and make some calls. More than one somebody probably just didn't care enough to call, "time out!"

"It was just an unfortunate weekend, with many different circumstances leading to our defeat,"  Federer commented. He graciously and accurately added, "First and foremost I think the Americans played really well. . ."

Chemistry   The U.S. not only played well, the squad led by captain Jim Courier showed great resolve, confidence, and discipline. Long before the logistical error of the choice-of-ground was obvious, the Americans convinced themselves, with some basis in reality, that the slow and uneven clay would work to their advantage. Were the team any less determined, they could easily have given up hope and prepared all their excuses for having been bushwhacked on a lousy court that isn't really friendly to the American style, blah, blah, blah.

In this matter, the Courier captaincy was critical. Federer said at various times that he likes Davis Cup just fine, and told DavisCup.com that he really enjoys ". . .just being with the boys." The set up (Luthi is also a part-time coach/adviser to Federer) certainly is cozy. But it makes you wonder if Federer doesn't take the whole thing a little too lightly. Perhaps the great singles champion Federer is a little tone deaf when it comes to real beauty of team sports  — that being the degree to which chemistry and great leadership can make any team being greater than the sum of its parts.

Courier, meanwhile, demonstrated that a captain can have an out-sized influence on Davis Cup, much like a captain or head coach in any other team sport (see my Captain Crunch-Time post of yesterday for details). Courier and team USA really demonstrated how radically different the Davis Cup challenge is from that of tournament tennis.

Stan Wawrinka, who set the tone for the tie with a painful first-rubber loss to Mardy Fish, did not even show up at the Forum Fribourg on the third day of the tie. Luthi said Wawrinka remained back at the team hotel because he was "tired."

Okay, the guy had a rough couple of days. You have to feel for him, and you also have to feel for Federer. But their word and actions say a lot about their attitude toward the competition. There is more to Davis Cup than playing five matches and then tallying up who won more of them. Those who profess indifference to Davis Cup can claim to be in good company, but I still think theirs is a less colorful, textured tennis experience.

Immediacy The challenge of tournament tennis is unique, mainly because of the nature of the single-elimination beast. Every draw is like a carnival ride, and you don't know what scary prop is going to jump out at your from round to round. But chances are good that if you're a top player you'll be able to work yourself into the journey, at least once you get through that nerve-wracking first round. 

In Davis Cup, the demand on you is immediately high and crucial and there's no mystery about the work that lies ahead. As much as it may hurt to lose in the first round of a Grand Slam event, there are going to be 64 other guys who share your fate that day (or over those first two days) and whatever else happens — even if your name is Federer — you will not be the story for more than a day or two. You can slip out of town under cover of night and nobody will notice.

These days, at least a dozen of the nations in the 16-team World Group have at least one outstanding, dangerous player: Milos Raonic in Canada, Tomas Berdych in the Czech Republic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for France and so forth. And you will have to play him — if, assuming you're one of those No. 1 men, you can get by the fired up No. 2 you meet in your first rubber. Did I mention that these days, a lot of nations also have a pretty decent No. 2?

In Davis Cup, you know exactly what your job will be, and you have to get it done — usually right away. In the big picture, this is a great field-leveler. It helps explain why so many ATP Tour journeymen find a way to come up big. In Davis Cup, the journeyman gets a rare opportunity to be someone other than his usual self, the guy who loses in the second or third round at a tournament to a high seed — or some guy ranked No. 56 in the world. He gets the chance to step into the spotlight and he's given three or four hours to show his stuff, all that stuff that can be so maddeningly difficult to pull up week-after-week, round-by-round in tournament play.

Do it twice, and you're a national hero. Do it twice at a tournament and then lose to Benjamin Becker and who cares?

Doubles — The integration of doubles into Davis Cup is by no means a necessity in any sense other than that it has always been a part of the format. It's a tradition. But in an age where doubles is often a sideshow, now reduced to best-of-two with a 10-point tie breaker in lieu of a third set, it's a real pleasure to savor the absolutely critical role doubles can play in Davis Cup. As long as there's a Davis Cup, doubles will remain alive and vital.

Courier's decision to recruit Mardy Fish for the doubles was a bold and somewhat risky tactic (in the original draw, Mike Bryan was to partner young Ryan Harrison, who was playing in just his second Davis Cup tie). Had the U.S. lost — and this was the Olympic gold medal doubles team the Americans were up against in Federer and Wawrinka — Fish would have been scheduled to meet Federer in a fourth-rubber battle between a pair of heavy-legged 30-year olds. All bets would have been off for Day 3.

But Courier had his foot on the neck of the Swiss, and he decided to press even harder. It paid off, and the wise strategy helped make this more than a great Davis Cup win for the USA. It was also a great advertisement for the nature of the competition itself.

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