Dead Wrong

Tuesday, February 04, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

“It felt more like a defeat. I could understand the crowd's reaction, but I was surprised it was that bad. It was a very difficult situation because they (the players) were all injured and there was nothing I could do. It's truly not what we wanted.”—Carsten Arriens, German Davis Cup captain, following the cancellation of a dead rubber in Germany’s first-round win over Spain.

You don’t have to be part of the industry to figure out the First Commandment of Show Business: Give the people what they came to see. Barring unforseen disaster, you don’t give them something different from what they thought they were paying for. You don’t expect them to “understand” when it unexpectedly becomes more convenient for you to withhold something you promised. (It’s tempting, of course—after all, they already paid for the ticket.)

Germany broke that rule last Sunday, and the result was that a noteworthy triumph worth celebrating from Hamburg to Munich became, to use Arriens’ word, something with the taint of “defeat.” It was unfair to the fans. It even was unfair to the players who engineered the win over Spain, but who were also short-sighted enough to think they could ignore that First Commandment.

It happened like this: Powered by Philipp Kohlschreiber’s shockingly easy first-rubber win over Roberto Bautista Agut, who won fewer games than his name has letters, Germany overran traditional Davis Cup powerhouse Spain and clinched the tie in a three-match sweep. 

The Germans were so intoxicated by the result that most of them declined to play one of the two dead rubbers that constituted the entire Sunday program. The good soldier was a likeable guy whose game has been on an upswing lately, Daniel Brands. Meanwhile, Kohlschreiber, Florian Mayer, and even smell-the-roses veteran Tommy Haas (who played only doubles) all begged off playing on the final day.

It’s bad enough that a sweep always makes the last day of play redundant. It’s definitely a flaw in the format, but altering it, perhaps to something resembling the Fed Cup’s two-day scheme, is a cure worse than the ailment. The bottom line is that the three-day Davis Cup format, with the doubles-only Saturday wedged between four singles battles, is terrific. It also creates surprising flexibility in tie strategy and management.

The fault here lies squarely on the shoulders of the players. These men make a lot of money. They have to be accountable. They would be the first to howl if they were at the other side of the ticket window. They know the First Commandment as well as anyone does.

When Arriens informed the crowd that the first of the two dead rubbers (theoretically, Kohlschreiber vs. Feliciano Lopez) was canceled and that Brands would battle Agut in the only match of the day, he was showered with boos. The lingering resentment spoiled the day, and cast a pall over an otherwise great win.

Arriens later told the press that Kohlschreiber, who had played singles as well as the doubles, was very tired and had a sore arm. (In fairness, I imagine that Lopez also bucked the idea of having to play.) He added that Haas’ fitness had been questionable all week—yet he played and helped win the doubles. He said nothing about Mayer, who had beaten Lopez in a long five-setter in the second rubber but had Saturday off.

Sorry, but it’s impossible to believe that the three Germans were unable to play, and easy to accept that they just didn’t want to. 

The ITF must do something about this recurring situation. The United States also didn’t play a final, dead rubber after its loss to Great Britain in San Diego, nor did Argentina and Italy once their tie was settled. But those were different. Those ties were still undecided on the final day, and a competitive best-of-five set match with survival on the line is usually worth the price of admission.

Interestingly, the two other teams that swept over the weekend (France and Switzerland) both played both their dead rubbers. The French even used one of their stars, Gael Monfils. That was a home tie for the French, and an opportunity for Monfils and Julien Benneteau to strut their stuff for the fans. And why not?

Team Germany’s actions were disappointing. Surely there are ways to solve the “sweep problem,” the most obvious of which would be to flat-out offer a refund or trade-in on tickets. But there are other ways. Put on something, anything. Fly Rafael Nadal in to demonstrate feats of strength, or bring in Roger Federer to give a PowerPoint presentation on his new racquet. Roll out the top juniors and have them play doubles with a couple of the stars. 

Better yet, convince the players on the winning team that playing a three-quarter pace, best-of-three set match under absolutely no pressure just isn’t that big an ask.

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