It was too much for David Ferrer to believe. After five sets and 291 minutes, he had ended his dramatic, imperfect battle against Philipp Kohlschreiber with a line-clipping backhand pass winner. Or had he? Ferrer took a few uncertain steps forward as Kohlschreiber looked at the mark. When the German turned toward the net in resignation, Ferrer fell to the court in celebration. This weekend in Valencia had been a winner all around, and it was only fitting that it ended with one more from the hometown hero.
After five rubbers and two classic matches, Spain had beaten Germany 3-2 to advance to the Davis Cup semifinals. Over the tie’s three days, Valencia’s 159-year-old bullring had echoed with innumerable “Olé!”s; with the chants, songs, hand claps, and foot stamps of a capacity crowd of 12,000; with the sometimes-happy, sometimes-woozy horn blows of a marching band; with the constant exhortations of the world’s No. 1 player, Rafael Nadal, from the sidelines.
But along with all of that tension and pageantry had echoed a question: Would this be the last voyage of the Armada in Spain? Was it the final bullfight on home soil?
This was the first weekend of ties since the ITF announced its controversial proposal to revamp—or, as some would have it, decimate—Davis Cup. If that plan is approved (it will be voted on this summer), starting in 2019 the 118-year-old competition will be condensed into a single week, and held at a single, neutral location, at the end of the season. Matches will go from best-of-five sets to best-of-three, and ties will go from best-of-five rubbers to best-of-three. For the moment, even the name seems to have changed, from the Davis Cup to the “World Cup of Tennis.” Apparently, the way to improve tennis is to make it more like soccer.
Match point from Nadal's win over Zverev in the Davis Cup quarterfinals:
For anyone who hates—or, as in my case, is leery of—this plan, the Spain-Germany quarterfinal offered multiple counterpoints to it.
The packed Plaza de Toros, resplendent in Spanish red and yellow, showed again how crucial the home-and-away format is to the event’s atmosphere. By definition, Davis Cup is the one competition in tennis that isn’t supposed to be neutral.
The five-setter between Ferrer and Kohlschreiber, and the five-set doubles rubber on Saturday, showed again how much drama can build over the course of a lengthy match, and how many twists, turns, and tremendous pieces of shotmaking can be packed into five sets.
The performance of Tim Puetz of Germany in the doubles match showed again that Davis Cup is about more than stars. The 30-year-old, who has never been ranked higher than No. 163 in singles, went unbroken through five sets, and survived a titanic game to hold at 3-4 in the fifth, seemingly with his second serve alone. During this current age of dominance on the ATP tour, Davis Cup has been the one place where the unsung, out-of-nowhere hero has had a chance to rise to the occasion and take over the world stage for a day. This time it was Puetz who earned his 15 minutes of fame, and nearly put Germany into the semifinals.
You might say that Nadal’s presence, as player and cheerleader, showed that the ITF is right to try to get the game’s biggest stars into the competition at all costs—that’s what reducing the commitment to a single week is all about. And by going viral, Rafa’s alternating expressions of joy and doom injected a celebrity element into the weekend that it wouldn’t otherwise have had. Yet on court, Nadal’s much-anticipated meeting with Alexander Zverev—a rare DC face-off between Top 10 players—was a one-sided dud. It was Ferrer-Kohlschreiber and the doubles, neither of which featured any global celebs, that made this tie what it was.
(You might also say that Nadal’s presence in Valencia is proof that Davis Cup does draw top players in its current format. Each of the Big 4, and virtually every No. 1 player of the last 40 years, owns at least one Cup title.)
Match point from Pouille's win over Fognini in the Davis Cup quarterfinals:
Not every tie is like Spain-Germany, of course. Not every session is sold out, not every tie goes down to the wire, and not every city has an arena as beautiful and historic as this bullring. If the ITF does go ahead and approve its proposal, the energy we saw in Valencia would seem to offer an argument that the single-week, season-ending version of the Cup should be held at a site that’s accessible to fans from nations where tennis is most popular. At the moment, the idea is to hold the event in Asia, but for now the passion and the players reside in Europe.
Will we see tennis in an arena like this again, in front of an “olé”-ing crowd in Spain? In the semifinals, the Spanish team will head to France, and if they make the final, they’ll surely be relegated to an indoor stadium. But whatever happens in the future, the Last Bullfight will go down as one of the highlight weekends of the 2018 season.
In the doubles on Saturday, Feliciano Lopez, Marc Lopez, Jan-Lennard Struff, and Puetz showed off tennis in all of its seemingly infinite diversity. They reminded us of shots—lobs, volleys, angles, poaches, cat-and-mouse rallies—that we rarely see elsewhere anymore.
On Sunday, the 36-year-old Ferrer and the 34-year-old Kohlschreiber fought like the slowly-declining but still-proud veterans that they are. Faced, suddenly, with the biggest moment of their long careers, they missed as many shots as they made, and gave away as many leads as they built. But neither went away; there was too much on the line. Kohlschreiber was two points from victory, but Ferrer, with the home crowd behind him, had an ounce more willpower and belief at the end. This grand sporting weekend closed with an appropriately sporting gesture: After the last point, Ferrer got off the clay and found Kohlschreiber for a consoling embrace. Nothing showcases all of tennis, from its variety of players to its variety of shots to its variety of emotions, like Davis Cup.
The ITF isn’t wrong to want to make improvements, but if it wants to change Davis Cup—this Davis Cup—it’s going to need to come up with something really, really good.
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