Four thoughts on the Davis Cup semifinals, and a big question for 2019

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WATCH—Croatia clinches berth in Davis Cup final with five-set win in deciding fifth rubber:

Benoit Paire plays efficient, effective tennis with no blowups or meltdowns and beats a higher-ranked player in straight sets.

Marin Cilic is suddenly unable to hit more than two balls in a row in the court, and gives away a 6-1 lead in a tiebreaker.

Two players, 36-year-old Julien Benneteau and 40-year-old Mike Bryan, are called in as last-minute substitutes, and both go on to lead their doubles teams to victories.

Borna Coric suffers a complete mid-match breakdown, squanders a 5-1 third-set lead and loses the subsequent tiebreaker 13-11, and then comes back to play virtually nerve-free tennis for two sets to clinch a tie for his country.

In what world could any—let alone all—of these these strange developments occur over the course of a single weekend? That would be Davis Cup, of course. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand or more times: this competition always delivers.

It delivered again this weekend, as France beat Spain (3-0 in live rubbers; 3-2 overall), and Croatia edged the U.S. (3-2 in live rubbers), to set up a final between the same two nations that contested the World Cup last month. This was also the next-to-last weekend for Davis Cup in its current form, which made the two ties bittersweet for many tennis fans. Even as the competition as we know it is ending, we were reminded again of everything we loved about it.

Here are four thoughts on the Davis Cup weekend that was, and one important question it raises for its future.

*****

Noah’s Ark

How much difference can a Davis Cup captain really make? He watches his players for a week, and decides who looks good. After that, the only thing he can do is clap from his sideline chair, right?

Don’t tell that to French captain Yannick Noah. His recent results are proof of how much difference an inspirational leader can make. First, in 2016, Noah took the French women to the Fed Cup final for the first time in 11 years. Then, in 2017, he led the French men to their first Davis Cup title in 16 years. Now he has the Davis Cup team back in the final. Way back in 1991, in an unforgettably emotional weekend, Noah also led France to an upset win over a U.S. team that included Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Even as a spectator, you can see what makes Noah a unique captain. First, there’s his stature in the sport; he’s a Grand Slam champ and still may be the most famous tennis player in France; his presence alone on the sideline makes the event seem more important. Then there’s the way he reacts to each point. Unlike most captains, who try to keep a veneer of cool, Noah lets everyone know what he thinking and feeling—the good and the bad, the pleased and the annoyed. Noah gives emotional support to his players, but he also lets them know when he thinks they could have done better. No one wants to let a coach like that down, and a French team that went for nearly two decades without a Cup suddenly has a very good chance to win two straight.

*****

The Paire Effect

Once upon a time, I called it the Safin Effect, or the Nalbandian Effect. Marat Safin and David Nalbandian were two tremendously talented players who weren’t wired to make the most of their talents when they were playing tour matches. It was easy, when they were playing only for themselves, to check out mentally, to throw a temper tantrum, to move onto the next tournament.

It wasn’t a coincidence that both the Russian and the Argentine were close-to-unbeatable in Davis Cup. In those matches, if they allowed themselves to be head cases, they would be letting their country down—or, more specifically and importantly, they’d be letting their teammates down. Voilà, just like that, they weren’t head cases anymore.

Still, I had never thought Benoit Paire was a good candidate for the Safin Effect. Despite his obvious shot-making skills, Paire seemed too hotheaded and hair-trigger to suddenly reign everything in, even for Davis Cup. It seems that others involved with the French team may have thought the same thing; before this weekend, Paire had never been tapped for Cup duty. Now he has, and now he’s 1-0, after a straight-set win over a player, Pablo Carreño Busta, who is ranked 33 spots ahead of him. Yes, Paire double-faulted nine times in the first set. And yes, he was edgy in the early going. But as far as I saw, Paire didn’t smash multiple racquets or dip into his deep well of outlandish shots. Instead, he got better as he went.

Will the Paire Effect outlive his Davis Cup weekend? Don’t count on it. Safin and Nalbandian usually went back to their erratic ways once they were on their own again.

*****

WATCH—Sam Querrey upsets Marin Cilic to force a fifth rubber:

What Lies Beneath

If Davis Cup has a way of turning head cases into super-achievers, it also has a way of revealing the turmoil that can lurk under even the most placid surface. At first glance, Cilic and Coric are similarly calm Croatians. They don’t do anything flashy, they mostly get on with the business at hand, and their level of play doesn’t vary wildly.

Except, apparently, when they try to clinch a spot in a Davis Cup final. On Sunday, Cilic and Coric took turns building seemingly insurmountable leads and looking unstoppable, only to stop themselves dead in their tracks. Cilic won the first set and led 6-1 in the second-set tiebreaker against Sam Querrey. After squandering those five set points, Cilic never recovered; by the end, he could barely hit even the most routine ground stroke over the net. The same thing happened to Coric midway through his match with Frances Tiafoe. Coric won the second set 6-1, and led 5-1 in the third, when he stopped hitting the ball in. An hour later, Coric had lost the set in an epically nervy—i.e., exciting—tiebreaker, 13-11.

While the pressure of Davis Cup brought Coric’s anxieties to the surface, its best-of-five-set format gave him a second chance to calm them back down. After the third set, he relaxed and played nearly flawless, nerveless tennis to beat Tiafoe in five. It was the second time in three years that Coric has eliminated the U.S. in a fifth rubber. This one, coming after his mid-match collapse, was even more impressive than the last.

*****

Getting Your Close-Up, Ready or Not

Here’s another of Davis Cup’s many uniquely charming, and terrifying, aspects: a player, any player, can find himself face to face with the biggest moment of his career, with virtually no warning. That’s what happened to Tiafoe this weekend.

On Friday, he made his Davis Cup debut after Jack Sock and John Isner, the starting singles players for the U.S., had to pull out. When he lost to Cilic in straight sets to put the U.S. down 0-2, Tiafoe probably thought his weekend was over. Not so fast: On Sunday afternoon, he was called back to the court, this time with the tie at 2-2 and a trip to the Davis Cup final—at home, against France—on the line.

Tiafoe acquitted himself as well as could be expected against an older, higher-ranked opponent. The American won the first set, and he stayed calm enough to give himself a chance to come back from 1-5 down in the third. The problem was, during the time when Coric was missing everything, Tiafoe got into the habit of simply putting the ball back into the court, because that’s all he needed to do. When Coric stopped missing, Tiafoe couldn’t adjust and take the points into his hands. Instead, it was Coric who attacked his way to a win.

*****

TenniStory: Davis Cup Changes

The Question for 2019

In the debate over the new Davis Cup format, which will be in place starting in February, we’ve heard about a lot of much-loved aspects of the Cup that will be lost. At the top of that list is the passion engendered by home-and-away ties. And there’s no doubt that’s a big problem. For the new Cup—the Piqué Cup—to succeed, it will need to replicate the energy of home matches at a neutral site. Otherwise, it will feel like just another tournament in a calendar already stuffed with them.

But watching this weekend, I came to think that the success or failure of the new Cup will begin not with the fans, but with the players. Watching Dominic Thiem, leap high in the air after clinching for Austria. Watching Benneteau and Nicolas Mahut embrace after clinching for France. Watching Lleyton Hewitt and Mike Bryan come out of Cup retirement to win in doubles again. Watching Querrey play one of the matches of his career to beat Cilic. Watching all of the emotions ebb and flow between Coric and Tiafoe in the decider. After watching all of that, I thought that the thing that matters most for the future of the Cup is that the players feel the same way about the new format as they feel about the old format.

Will they consider Davis Cup as important and career-defining as they do now? Will they feel the same emotional connection to a one-week event that they do to a four-weekend event? Will they prioritize it? It’s possible—the Olympics are a single week held every four years, and the players have embraced that.

If the passion from the players for the new Cup is there, the fans eventually will be, too.

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