One of the most dynamic and eloquent arguments for why Davis Cup is not just a tradition, but a treasure, was delivered over the course of the past three days, as representatives of the global game produced the most memorable and compelling first round of World Group play in many years.
Among other things, it featured: The second longest official pro tennis match of all time, the Czech Republic’s seven-hour (and 60-second) doubles win at Switzerland, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 24-22; a maiden venture into the quarterfinal (second) round by Canada; and the end of a 15-year exile from that same stage by an old-guard power, Italy.
In addition, Brazil almost pulled off one of the greatest upsets in tennis history when it pushed a strong U.S. team to the brink of elimination; powerhouse Spain—a finalist last year and five-time champion in this new millennium—was eliminated; and Kazakhstan continued to punch above its weight with a heroic upset of Austria.
What more could you want?
But this litany doesn’t even acknowledge the squads that slashed their way into the quarterfinals with little or no drama. Serbia, France, and Argentina all over overpowered their opponents, only two of them in obligatory first-round mismatches: The Serbs crushed Belgium and the French hammered Israel. But Argentina, the greatest tennis nation never to win the Davis Cup, was up against a quality German team. The powder-blue-and-white rolled anyway, perhaps setting up its rabid fan base for yet another horrific disappointment.
Let’s take a quick look at the more competitive ties, starting with the one contested closest to home for American readers:
United States wins at home over Brazil, 3-2: Credit Brazil for mounting a comeback that almost resulted in glory—as well as one of the most painful losses ever endured by an American squad. Now maybe I’m hopelessly loyal (I must say, I can think of worse traits), but my gut reaction after Querrey’s fifth-rubber comeback win was that this near-catastrophe will serve as a great bonding agent and morale builder for Team USA.
This response has something to do with the fact that after a fairly successful dress rehearsal in 2010 (a competitive loss at Serbia, against a team led by Novak Djokovic) and a few unanticipated glitches (mainly, Querrey’s struggle with various injuries), we’re witnessing a true changing of the American guard. Andy Roddick, James Blake, and Mardy Fish are unlikely to ever wear USA jackets on the bench as players again, and captain Patrick McEnroe is gone, replaced by Jim Courier.
This team was handed into the care of John Isner (the ATP No. 16) and Querrey (No. 20), with the ever-reliable Bryan brothers, a pair of Davis Cup fanatics, there to ease the transition with an almost guaranteed doubles point. Ironically, it all began to unravel under the Bryans’ watch, with the U.S. heading 2-0 on a hard court in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Bryans lost to Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares (but note that Melo and Soares were 2-1 against the Bryans before this match), after which Isner once again lost a five-setter, this time to Brazil’s lead singles man, Thomaz Bellucci, in the critical fourth rubber (Isner is now 1-3 playing in that key slot). That left Querrey, who was winless in four career live rubbers, facing enormous pressure to save the tie for the U.S. He was lucky that his opponent, Thiago Alves, was a journeyman ranked No. 141. It wasn’t easy, but Querrey got the job done.
Somehow, I think that surviving this one will do more for the Americans than had the Bryans secured the predicted 3-0 sweep. Call me crazy.
Next up for United States: Serbia, at home.
Canada wins at home over Spain, 3-2 (3-1 in live rubbers): Another charm of Davis Cup is that it often produces unlikely or previously unheralded heroes—recently, with a nice assist from Spain. Remember Radek Stepanek, who won last year’s final for the Czech Republic by defeating Nicolas Almagro?
This time the hero was a 28-year-old walleye fisherman and 166th-ranked ATP journeyman Frank Dancevic of Canada, who took a lot of pressure off his better-known compatriot Milos Raonic and doubles genius Daniel Nestor when he put Canada up 2-0 with an upset of Marcel Granollers. Dancevic did it in brutally swift, unequivocal fashion, winning 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
It’s a good thing he did, too, because the excellent doubles team of Marc Lopez and Granollers kept mighty Spain’s hopes alive with a bitterly contested five-set win in the doubles. But Raonic shut Spain down, overpowering No. 82 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the fourth-rubber battle of the No. 1s, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
Next up for Canada: Italy, at home.
Italy wins at home over Croatia, 3-2: Italy showed excellent balance in this clash, clearly having understood that Croatian No. 1 Marin Cilic had an excellent chance to win both his of singles matches despite absorbing a loss at the Australian Open to its No. 1, Andreas Seppi.
Cilic did his job, avenging himself against Seppi after an opening-day rout of Paolo Lorenzi, but in doubles he and partner Ivan Dodig were unable to solve the team of Simon Bolelli and Fabio Fognini. The latter emerged as the hero of this tie when he was called upon to substitute for Lorenzi in the decisive fifth rubber.
Fognini lost the first set to Dodig in that critical final match, but pulled himself together and led Italy to a safe landing, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
Next up for Italy: Canada, on the road.
Kazakhstan wins at home over Austria, 3-1: The Kazakhs didn’t have a player ranked inside the Top 150, but once again established their Davis Cup bona fides with an upset of an Austrian squad led by No. 30 Jurgen Melzer.
The home side went up 2-0 on opening day with wins by Andrey Golubev (over Andreas Haider-Maurer) and No. 186 Evgeny Korolev (who upset Melzer). The Austrians managed to keep the tie alive with a doubles win, but in the battle of No. 1s, Golubev beat Melzer in straights.
The dispirited Austrians didn’t even want to play the fifth, dead rubber, while Golubev put his finger on the Kazakh’s habit of punching above their weight class in this competition.
“Davis Cup is not about the rankings, it’s just about playing for your country. In Astana (site of the tie) I had never lost singles. . . Well, I lost the doubles on Saturday, but I like to play here.”
Next up for Kazakhstan: Czech Republic, at home.
Czech Republic wins on the road over Switzerland, 3-2 (3-1 in live rubbers): All I can say is that I feel badly for poor Stanislas Wawrinka. After losing a heartbreaking five-setter at the Australian Open to top-seeded Novak Djokovic, the Swiss No. 1 (a stand-in for Roger Federer) was unable to bring his partner Marco Chiudinelli over the finish line in the now-historic seven-hour doubles match.
It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Wawrinka, but imagine what might have happened had Federer made himself available for this tie.
The hero of this day was Czech No. 1 Tomas Berdych, who won both his singles matches. Both he and Wawrinka had to bounce back from that doubles death march to play the fourth rubber, and Berdych proved the fitter, stronger man, clinching the tie for the Czechs, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (5). As a result, the Czechs will have more than two months to savor their 2012 victory in the tournament.
Next up for Czech Republic: Kazakhstan, on the road.