Third Rock Tennis Cup

by: Peter Bodo | September 16, 2013

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The Davis Cup hit some kind of high-water mark last week, even if it was unaccompanied by a great deal of fanfare or  hype, the paucity of which is most notable—and baffling—here in the United States.

This September Davis Cup slot is arguably the best week of the competition. In addition to the two World Group semifinals, it features the critical World Group Playoffs, in which overachieving “unknowns”—think Ukraine, or Ecuador—get a crack at making the big time, although there’s usually a down-on-its-luck tennis power or even superpower—think Spain, or Australia—standing in the way, desperate to avoid the humiliation of relegation.

So desperate, in fact, that the likes of world No. 2 Rafael Nadal and No. 3 Andy Murray both rambled right from the U.S. Open to their respective Davis Cup battlefields (Madrid’s Caja Magica and Umag, Croatia, respectively). Meanwhile, top-ranked Novak Djokovic made sure he left New York and returned to Belgrade in time to lead his Serbian team in a critical semifinal against Canada.

This Davis Cup week was a particularly onerous assignment for Nadal and Djokovic, given that they had fought over the U.S. Open singles title less than four full days before they would play Davis Cup on a drastically different surface (clay), halfway around the world from New York. On Monday night, while Nadal was exchanging thunderbolts with Djokovic, the Spanish and Serbian Davis Cup players were assembling in Europe.

The toughest assignment of the weekend fell to Djokovic, who had to slash his way through well-rested No. 11 Milos Raonic and No. 41 Vasek Pospisil of Canada to keep Serbia’s hopes alive. He won both those matches but still had to sit as Janko Tipsarevic was obliged to win the fifth, decisive rubber against a surprisingly game young team of maple leafs.

“I felt like I was dealing with anguish and pain,” Raonic said after Janko Tipsarevic won a third-set tiebreaker to secure Serbia’s spot in the final. The pain was in the ankle he rolled on Friday. The anguish was a classic Davis Cup mental reaction.

It tells you something that three of the Big Four accepted the Davis Cup call last week (Murray promptly declared that if healthy, he’ll play every World Group tie in 2014), and it was puzzling that the most celebrated if presently least menacing member of that elite quartet let the opportunity pass. Roger Federer left Switzerland’s fate in the World Group Playoffs in the hands of Stanislas Wawrinka, his able fellow countryman who actually outlasted him in New York.

While you could pooh-pooh the threat Ecuador posed to Switzerland—Ecuador’s highest ranked singles player was No. 295 Julio-Cesar Campozano—the tie was held in Federer’s nation, and let’s be honest here: Wouldn’t two wins against just about anyone these days be a welcome change for the struggling all-time Grand Slam champion? 

Don’t think the Swiss—and Wawrinka—aren’t getting grand ideas now that Wawrinka has crashed the Top 10 again. As Wawrinka told the Davis Cup website, “My dream is that Roger would text me and say, ‘Go and win this tie and next year I’ll be a part of the team.’”

Never mind. The important thing is that this great demonstration of respect for Davis Cup is welcome by those of us (like myself) who love the competition. And it ought to give a polite nudge to those fans who feel only tepid interest—or worse—in the event. 

Personally, I like to think I’m as patriotic as the next guy—perhaps even moreso, and not just because I have a flag decal on my truck window and the genuine article fluttering on the deck at my home. But I still think this drought in American men’s tennis may be the best thing to happen to Davis Cup in a long time, because it removes what has sometimes has been an impediment to the event—even if the opportunity to beat the big, bad USA frequently boosted interest in the competition on foreign shores. 

But back when the U.S. dominated tennis, the puzzling indifference shown toward Davis Cup by American newspaper editors (remember them?), television executives, and other taste-shapers took away from the allure of the event. While Davis Cup has been cherished in almost every other nation on the face of the earth, it was shamefully devalued for a long time in the very large eyes of a nation that historically dominated the event. Such apathy continues to this day.

Some of this resistance to Davis Cup might be overcome if only the event had what we could call a “bigger” name. Let’s face it, the fact that trophy and the eponymous competition are both named after a Boston Brahmin who thought up the idea while at Harvard doesn’t lend the Davis Cup a great deal of heft outside precincts like Greenwich, Conn. or Philadelphia’s Main Line. It’s a brand, but not one very easily promoted to John Q. Public.

This problem is compounded by the fact that there aren’t that many available options when you want to emphasize the international scope and global significance of this event. Try coming up with a good name avoiding the use of “World,” which pretty much belongs to baseball, soccer, and any other sport that has an international playoffs. 

Maybe “Third Rock Tennis Cup?” Or, “Intergalactic Tennis Championships”? And if someone outside our galaxy objects, tell them to send a team to take its best shot.

Anyway, the name is my only beef with Davis Cup. This will upset some of my friends in the ever-ardent Davis Cup reformer camp (are you out there, Cliff? Pat?), but why ruin a perfectly brilliant competition and format simply because it may not be ideally set-up for broadcast in primetime to that highly sought-after demographic group of young men and women between the ages of 18 and 35? Maybe Davis Cup can be great without becoming so big that only beer and pick-up truck sellers can afford the ad rates.

It tells you something about the real nature of the problem when you count heads in the reformer group and realize that almost all of them are coming at the “problem” from a background in American television, or have long considered television exposure in the U.S. to be the grail.

It’s funny, but even when the U.S. produced a generation of more-or-less fully vested Davis Cup performers like John McEnroe or Andy Roddick, its great wins seemed to go spiraling off into the Davis Cup Black Hole. In addition to everything else, this lack of interest was an insult to the competition, as well as the nations that would give their eye teeth for a taste of Davis Cup glory.

Thus, the unique combination of American proficiency and the general unresponsiveness of the American public to Davis Cup has usually amounted to domestic buzzkill. But now that the obstacle of U.S. domination in tennis has been rolled out of the road, Davis Cup is becoming more firmly entrenched in the global sporting imagination than ever before, and even the reformers are falling silent. You try selling ads for the final between Serbia and the Czech Republic at any time of day or night.

The Davis Cup seems to be in excellent shape, and maybe one day we here in the U.S. will appreciate it. I feel on pretty solid ground when I say, “If it was good enough for Djokovic, Nadal and Murray the week after the U.S. Open, it’s good enough for me.”

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