Say what you will about Davis Cup. Complain about the strung-out four-week format, descry the alternate-host rule, pooh-pooh the frequent absence of the top players, and whine about the best-of-five-set matches.
It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Davis Cup remains the most dramatic, unpredictable, vibrant, and galvanizing event in tennis. Patriotism and pageantry have something, but not everything, to do with this.
Davis Cup is the closest tennis comes to pure theater even if, at times, it bears a closer resemblance to an action movie in which lots of stuff blows up than Shakespeare. In the end, each tie is a five-act play comprised of four singles matches and a doubles in between. Today, we witnessed acts one and two.
In Tokyo . . . neither Japan nor the Czech Republic has its top player available. Japan’s Kei Nishikori, ranked No. 18, is sidelined with a groin injury, and none of his teammates are ranked inside the Top 100. The Czechs are without No. 5 Tomas Berdych, but still hope to become the first team since World Group play began to win the Cup three years running. They have two players ranked in the 40s, Lukas Rosol and Radek Stepanek.
Stepanek wins the first rubber (match) of the tie, in a tough four-set struggle with Tatsuma Ito. Stepanek may be a beat-up 35-year-old notorious for his gamesmanship, but guys who take perverse pleasure out of ruining the day for a foreign crowd often flourish far from home as anti-heroes in Davis Cup.
No matter how you cut it, the Czechs—and Stepanek in particular—have big-time Davis Cup mojo.
In Geneva, Switzerland . . . Tokyo’s Ariaki Coliseum has gone dark long before world No. 3 Stan Wawrinka takes the court before a fired-up, crimson-and-white crowd—and then can’t find that court with his big forehand or roundhouse backhand. The crowd looks on, stunned as Wawrinka loses two sets to Kazakhstan’s Andrey Golubev.
Although Golubev, ranked No. 64, plays under the Kazakh banner, he’s really a Russian—as are two of the remaining three players on the squad, led by (No. 56) Mikhail Kukushkin. Another player on the team is from Ukraine. When Kazakhstan needs tennis players, it just goes shopping in neighboring countries, most notably Russia, and—presto!—instant Davis and Fed Cup credibility.
Whatever his national identity, or his personal feelings about the matter, Golubev is whaling on the ball. Wawrinka, the winner of the only Grand Slam played so far in 2014, is having trouble moving his feet, and his groundstrokes are flying all over the place. But he sucks it up, after shattering one of his Yonex racquets, and wins the third set. He seems to be finding some stability.
Somehow, I don’t think that the presence of Roger Federer, who will play next and almost surely win, is much consolation for Wawrinka. There’s nothing quite like Davis Cup pressure to make you wish there were a woodchuck hole to disappear into on the court.
Wawrinka wins the third set but loses the fourth-set tiebreaker and therefore the match. He’s the first—but he won’t be the last—on this day to be reminded that when it comes to Davis Cup, there is no woodchuck hole.
In Nancy, France . . . Arnaud Clement must be asking himself, “What was I thinking?” as Germany’s Tobias Kamke is drilling winners left and right against Julien Benneteau. Clement went rogue on the eve of this tie and declared No. 50 Benneteau his number two man, behind Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, rather than Gael Monfils. Benneteau enjoyed a good run on the U.S. hard courts (he made the quarterfinals at Indian Wells), but with fully eight Frenchmen ahead of him in the rankings, this surprise has to be considered a gamble.
Kamke, No. 96 and Germany’s number one player thanks to the utter disarray and in-fighting in the German camp, is an interesting guy. He stands just 5’10”, and he’s a lean, energetic whirlwind on the court. Benneteau, by contrast, is a somewhat heavy-footed, deliberate 32-year-old. Kamke blasts away, daring Benneteau to keep up with the dizzying pace, and the Frenchman can’t do it. Arnaud’s gamble backfires as Kamke demolishes Benneteau in straight sets.
People tend to forget that what might pass for calculated risk under other circumstances can easily appear suicidal in Davis Cup. The pressure is unique and there’s no telling how most players will react to it. Also, with just four singles rubbers in play, any line-up change can have massive repercussions. Kamke leaves Clement with a lot of explaining to do.
In Naples, Italy . . . Fabio Fognini is a hothead. A turbulent, volatile, emotional player—just the sort who can either unravel in a Davis Cup tie, or perhaps find his inner hero. For a spell in his tussle with theoretically over-matched James Ward of Great Britain, ranked No. 161, it’s uncertain which it will be.
The men split sets on a damp and soggy clay court in Naples, and everyone but the fiercest Italian partisan is wondering if Fognini can keep it together. He serves for the third set at 5-4, blows a set point with a backhand error, but goes on to win it with a forehand volley winner. Running to his chair, Fognini throws savage upper cuts with both arms, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
Meanwhile, Ward gives away too much of what he is feeling; he looks like a whipped dog and Fognini goes on to win the next set 6-1 to close it out.
In Tokyo . . . "I knew I had more experience," Rosol says after his 6-2 in-the-fifth win over Davis Cup rookie Taro Daniel. "I had to play harder and take some chances to succeed in the final set."
Rafael Nadal fans in particular will ruefully attest that Rosol wasn’t just regurgitating the obligatory themes of a gracious winner. You’ll remember that it was Rosol’s amazing, fearless, semi-scary ball striking that earned him that astonishing upset of Nadal in the second round at Wimbledon in 2012.
The day ends in Japan with the defending champs comfortably ahead, 2-0.
In Geneva . . . Roger Federer did what Roger Federer does. He put out the fire set by Wawrinka, logging a more-or-less routine straight-sets win over Kazakhstan’s Kukushkin. By nightfall in Switzerland, the teams are tied, 1-1.
In Naples . . . The heavy rains that delayed the start of this tie set the schedule so far back that it ensured that the match between British No. 1 Andy Murray and Andreas Seppi of Italy would be suspended due to darkness. The men will return to the court at 10:30 a.m. Saturday with Murray leading 6-4, 5-5. There is a caveat, though.
The rules stipulate that the doubles match must be played no more than two hours after the conclusion of the singles. Given that the British have only an infinitesimal chance to win if Murray doesn’t play in the doubles, the Scot is looking at playing as many as eight-plus sets tomorrow, and is likely to be a dead man walking by the end of this one.
At the end of the day, Italy leads 1-0. To be continued. . .
In Nancy . . . It was Davis Cup in a nutshell: Wild, improbable, electric, astonishing. Germany’s Peter Gojowczyk, a 24-year-old ranked No. 119, fighting cramps as well as French No. 1 Tsonga, prevailed in a riveting, high-quality five-setter, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 7-6 (8), 8-6.
Both men had match points before Tsonga drove a forehand into the net to end it. Tsonga hit 36 aces, two of them to save match points, and still lost. Gojowczyk didn’t break Tsonga’s serve until the final game of the match. There’s no explanation for this kind of stuff other than the fact that this is Davis Cup, an event that makes—and breaks—heroes. It happens all the time, but it doesn’t make this time any less special, or spectacular.
If you want to know the real value of Davis Cup, forget the tormented looks on the faces of the Wawrinkas and Tsongas and Benneteaus of this world; just look over their shoulders at the faces in the crowd, where you’ll find portraits of anguish, sheer joy, anxiety or, in some cases, smiles that can only be put down to one feeling: Amazement.
At the end of remarkable day in Nancy, a German squad that features three Davis Cup rookies leads mighty France—a team with Tsonga, Monfils, and even injured Richard Gasquet sitting on the bench—by two rubbers to none. If Germany can pull it off in the ensuing days, it will be one of the great Davis Cup upsets of all time.