On the surface, it looks like everything went as planned in the Davis Cup semifinals this weekend. In Prague, the two-man team from the Czech Republic swept an injury-battered Argentina. In Belgrade, the Serbs had a tougher time with a tenacious Canadian squad, but ultimately made it through unharmed. Both times the winner was the home team, as well as the heavily favored team. And the results set up a logical final: The Serbs, champs in 2010, will host the Czechs, champs in 2012, from Nov. 15–17.
Below the surface, of course, there was a lot more going on than you see reflected in the final score lines. There always is in Davis Cup. But while much of it was exciting and at times unpredictable, none of it was exactly a surprise, either. And that’s a good thing. The Cup has a way of delivering the same set of dramatic scenarios, all of which are unique to tennis, no matter what countries are playing. Here are five Davis Cup truths that came true again over semifinal weekend:
1. The Best Get Better
The quickest way to see the difference between Davis Cup and the regular tour is to watch how Novak Djokovic plays when he’s out there for his country. Or, I should say, watch the way he acts. In tour matches, Nole is often on edge, berating himself, throwing his hands in the air, looking to his team for help: He needs to let off his nervous energy before he can settle down and show off his best tennis. In Davis Cup, it’s as if Djokovic knows he doesn’t have time for psychological issues. He can’t waste energy letting off steam. He understands that complaining to his coach won’t get him anywhere. He simply has to win; not for himself, but for the thousands of people in the building who are counting on him.
Djokovic won six sets with little trouble this weekend, upping his Davis Cup singles record to 24-7. He has had his bad moments in the competition, but mostly he’s a more streamlined version of himself when he's wearing a Serbia uniform. (Ditto for Rafael Nadal, who won two love sets in his singles match on Friday to improve his career record for Spain to 21-1). This weekend, it wasn’t just Djokovic’s body language that was especially purposeful; even his strokes were more compact and uncluttered. And that had nothing to do with the fact that the Serbian DC captain was sitting next to him on changeovers.
Which makes me wonder what the sport would be like if it were always a team game. We’d likely see less vulnerability and personality from the players, but we might see more of their best, or at least most rational, play. As for Djokovic, his Davis Cup game is a paradox: Playing for others makes him more self-reliant.
2. The Unknowns Become Known
No, this isn’t an aphorism stolen from Donald Rumsfeld. It’s a reference to the supporting cast that inevitably has a huge role in deciding Davis Cup ties. This weekend that (relative) unknown was Canada’s Vasek Pospisil. The 23-year-old, who had a breakout run to the semis in Montreal in August, lost all six sets of his singles matches in Belgrade, but he still came off as something of a winner for the weekend. Pospisil, with partner Daniel Nestor, helped Canada earn the doubles point on Saturday, and while he was unable to take a set from Janko Tipsarevic in the deciding rubber, he showed heart in coming all the way back from 2-6 in the third-set tiebreaker against the much more experienced Serb. Pospisil showed heart, as well as body: He finished the match by tumbling to the clay while hitting a volley on match point. After watching Tipsarevic’s final winner in agony, he was helped off the court. Pospisil showed us a little of what he was made of on Sunday.
3. The Unproven Prove Themselves
Davis Cup has often been a springboard to greatness. In 1975, the year before he began his run of five straight Wimbledon titles, Bjorn Borg led Sweden to its first Davis Cup. In ’78, John McEnroe helped bring the Cup back to the States; the next year he won his first major, at the U.S. Open. In 2004, an 18-year-old Nadal was a key player in Spain’s title; six months later, he won his first French Open. And we all know what happened to Djokovic after he won the Cup with Serbia in 2010. It seems that Davis Cup helps these young players silence any lingering doubts they may have about their abilities. The more straightforward psychology of winning for other people gives them the confidence to win for themselves.
Is Milos Raonic next? On Friday, Canada’s No. 1 pulled out what might have been his gutsiest win, 10-8 in the fifth set, after saving a match point, over Tipsarevic. Now Davis Cup is not always a sign of brilliance to come: Tomas Berdych led the Czechs to the title in 2012, but he didn’t do anything comparable on tour in 2013. Plus, Raonic went out without much of a fight against Djokovic on Sunday. But like Pospisil, Raonic showed grit this weekend, grit that his methodical game has often been lacking, grit that he might not have even realized he had.
4. The Understudies Take the Stage
Has there ever been a weirder two-man gang than Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek? Last year, the Berd and the Worm, two jokers who tend to get under other players’ skin, became the first duo to win the Cup by themselves since Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic made Croatia the ultimate team of destiny in 2005.
Like the Croats, Berdych and Stepanek have never won a major and likely never will. Yet in Davis Cup, they currently reign supreme. More than anything else, they’ve shown that commitment counts. They’ve been there for virtually every tie for the better part of a decade, playing all three days. Each year until 2012, they went home a loser, but kept coming back for more, knowing that anything can happen in Davis Cup, that two guys can create a miracle. They don’t play doubles together on the tour, but they’re 15-3 when they do it in Davis Cup.
In this era of men’s tennis, very few—far less than one percent—have had a chance to taste glory at the highest level. In this case, Davis Cup has offered it to two more.
5. If You Play It, Fans Will Come
Far. They’ll come very far for Davis Cup. Just ask the Argentines who filled a big section of seats in Prague, and the Canadians who did the same thing in Belgrade. At times it was hard to tell who was the home team. You had to feel for the Argies, who traveled all that way to see a depleted, Delpo-less team get swept.
But that’s the thing—it was their depleted team. We hear a lot about how the home-and-away concept is integral to the excitement of Davis Cup, and it is. But I wonder if the fans that are willing to travel for the event now would also make a neutral site just as raucous. Either way, nowhere else in tennis do players get to play for so many others, and nowhere else do we get to be on the team with them in quite the same way. It shows in how we react to it.
Davis Cup is an alternative, intensified tennis universe. Four times a year doesn’t seem too often to pay it a visit.