Feast of Nations

by: Peter Bodo | November 14, 2013

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One of the biggest stories in tennis over the past few decades has been the globalization of the game. And one of the great drivers of that expansion, as well as one of its prime beneficiaries, has been the Davis Cup. This year’s Davis Cup final, where Serbia will host the Czech Republic this weekend in Belgrade, is vivid proof and symbol for this process.

Between 1937 and 1972, a span of 35 years, no nation but the United States or Australia claimed the trophy. But in the past 10 years, those two stalwarts could do no better than one championship each. As for Fed Cup, which was launched in 1963, only one squad other than the USA or Australia—South Africa—won the event in its first dozen years of existence. But since 2002, five different nations have won the competition, and not one of them claims English as the mother tongue.

Is there a greater testament to the explosive—and comprehensive—growth of the game? True, nations other than the two dominant tennis powers have produced outstanding players; think Ilie Nastase of Romania, Bjorn Borg of Sweden, Gottfried von Cramm of Germany. But with a few outstanding exceptions—including the Four Musketeers of France in the Roaring Twenties, and the British teams featuring Fred Perry in the 1930s—those icons labored as de facto one-man teams, and only a few of them succeeded in winning the big prize.

It’s also true that the Challenge Round format, in which the winner each year sat out the following year’s competition while everyone else slugged it out for the right to meet them in the final round, heavily favored the title holders. But the controlling reality was that there just weren’t enough quality players despite the wealth of participating nations (this year, that number has swelled to 130) to really give the ITF’s crown jewel sufficient credibility in the arena of global sports. It might have been a fencing or bocce tournament.

That shortcoming has been mitigated, and it has led to what might probably is a golden era for Davis and Fed Cup. The global popularity of the game attests to that, as does the heightened media coverage. And so does the extent to which the elite players now take part in the competition. As it turns out, the call of country remains a powerful motivator in sports.

The championship tie that begins tomorrow is the fruit of these trends while also representing the ongoing evolution of Davis Cup. For it pits the Czech Republic, a nation that has always punched above its weight class in the sport, against Serbia, a rising power apparently following in its opponents’ footsteps.

The Czech Republic is not just the defending champion (it has won the Davis Cup twice), but a tennis power that continues to flourish despite the traumatic break-up of the larger nation once known as Czechoslovakia. The partition of that nation has more or less halved the talent available to the Czechs, yet here they are, hoping to become the first nation other than Spain in 2009 to successfully defend the title since Sweden did it in 1998.

The Czechs have a distinguished history in tennis, although that narrative was built mostly on the backs of individuals who rarely had adequate support when it came to the prestigious team competition. The first great Czech player was the late Jaroslav Drobny, who played his first tie in 1946 but fled to Egypt four years later to escape the Communist regime that came to power following World War II. 

Drobny won three Grand Slam singles titles (two French Open, one Wimbledon) and an Olympic medal in…ice hockey. During his brief stint as a Davis Cup star in his homeland, Drobny accumulated a terrific 24-4 singles record (37-6 including doubles), but without support could do no better than carry Czechoslovakia to one single semifinal. 

Ivan Lendl would eclipse Drobny as the greatest player produced by the Czech Republic. He won eight Grand Slam singles titles and was ranked No. 1 for the better part of five years. But despite being one of the greatest players of all time, Lendl led the Czechs to just one Davis Cup title in eight years of competition, in 1980. He had help that year from Tomas Smid (career-high ranking: No. 11), and they defeated a strong Italian side anchored by one-time French Open champion Adriano Panatta.

Lendl, a de facto minion of the Czech federation while he developed his game, was barely 18 when first played Davis Cup in 1978, which helps explain why his record is surprisingly patchy: 22-15 overall; 18-11 in singles. During his peak years, Lendl had already taken up residence in his adopted United States and no longer represented his homeland.

(By the way, this “expat factor” had a powerful effect on Davis Cup during the Cold War years, but it no longer matters. The French Davis Cup players happily represent their nation while living in Switzerland to avoid onerous taxes.)

While the Czechs didn’t win another title for 32 years, they produced a steady stream of very good if not great players—among them, Jan Kodes (like Drobny, a three-time Grand Slam singles champ and five-time singles finalist), Miloslav Mecir (a two-time Grand Slam finalist and Olympic games gold medalist in singles), Pavel Slozil, Smid, and a passel of Top 50-grade singles players.

It would be remiss not to mention the Czech women as well. They won the Fed Cup seven times (that’s third best, behind the United States and Australia) and produced a parade of champions led by a woman on the short list for Greatest Player of All Time, Martina Navratilova. 

The other Czech Grand Slam champions include Hana Mandlikova (eight time singles Grand Slam finalist, four times champion), Jana Novotna (a former Wimbledon champion) and, most recently, Petra Kvitova. That’s in addition to Top 10 performers like Helena Sukova and Nicole Vaidisova, and a host of Top 25 players.

Yet nobody really speaks of the Czechs in the hushed tones reserved for Russia, France, and even Spain. You want to compare the Russians’ success in Grand Slam events to that of Czech players?

One interesting aspect of this tie is that the Serbs appear to be on track to at least try to emulate their east European neighbors to the south (Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is just 557 miles northwest of Belgrade). Like the Czechs, the sovereign state of Serbia also was created by the break-up of an old republic, the former Yugoslavia. That country included Croatia, whose talent once did the heavy lifting for Yugoslavia. Serbia itself contributed but a handful of world-class players to the Yugoslav effort. 

But with Novak Djokovic in the lead, the Serbs are developing a solid stock of players. Interestingly, Serbia has also jump-started a tradition in the women’s game, thanks mainly to that active pair of former No. 1s, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic.

The Serbs certainly hope to build a dynasty that might one day stand comparison with that of the Czech Republic. They’re off to a good start. After all, for all their talent, the Czechs have won the Davis Cup just twice. In this increasingly important competition, a win this weekend by Serbia would leave the nations tied with two apiece on the honor roll.

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