It was too much for David Ferrer to believe. After five sets and nearly five hours, he had ended his highly dramatic, highly imperfect Davis Cup battle against Philipp Kohlschreiber with a line-clipping backhand pass winner. Or had he? After watching the shot land, Ferrer took a few uncertain steps forward as Kohlschreiber inspected the mark it had left. When the German turned toward the net with a look of resignation etched on his face, Ferrer was set free. He did the only thing he could do: Fall flat on his back, in celebration and fatigued relief.
How did a match between a 36-year-old, soon-to-be-retired Spaniard, and a 35-year-old German who has never finished a season ranked higher than No. 20, end up in our year-end Top 10 list? If it had taken place at a Grand Slam event, this contest would have been lucky to make it onto the smallest show court. Two decades ago, when tennis was still a young man’s game, it might have been mistaken for a senior match.
But Ferrer vs. Kohlschreiber wasn’t played at a major, or in the seniors, It was played in Davis Cup, and that made all the difference. More specifically, this match was the deciding fifth rubber in this year’s quarterfinal between Spain and Germany. It was also held inside one of the most picturesque settings of the 2018 season, the 159-year-old bullring in Valencia, Spain, which also happens to be Ferrer’s hometown.
Beyond all of that, this encounter took place during the final year of Davis Cup’s traditional home-and-away format, which will be discarded next season after 118 years. Ironically, over the course of its four hours and 51 minutes, Ferrer-Kohlschreiber would showcase everything that was already great about the competition that the ITF was determined to leave behind. Ferrer’s 7-6 (1), 3-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-5, in which each man finished with 185 points, will go down as the game’s last great bullfight.
The entire weekend was a showcase for a team competition that had once been the most prestigious in tennis. Over three days, Valencia’s Plaza de Toros, which was festooned in the red and yellow of the Spanish flag, echoed with innumerable “Olé!”s; with the chants, songs, hand claps, and foot stomps of a capacity crowd of 12,000; with the sometimes-happy, sometimes-woozy horn blows of a marching band; with the never-ending exhortations of the world’s No. 1 player at that time, Rafael Nadal.
On the tie’s opening day, Nadal and Germany’s Alexander Zverev had each won easily. The 21-year-old Zverev began the proceedings by making Ferrer, who would retire at the end of 2018, look every one of his 36 years in an easy straight-set win. Now, on Sunday, Ferrer had a chance at redemption.
Ferrer and Kohlschreiber fought like the slowly-declining but still-proud veterans they were. Faced, suddenly, with one of the most nerve-wracking moments of their long careers, they missed as many shots as they made, and gave away as many leads as they built—between them, the two finished with just 89 winners against 210 unforced errors. This match was about tenacity and courage under pressure, but it was also about the vulnerability under pressure. Survival, rather than brilliant shot-making, was the sole goal.
Whatever their frustrations, neither man crumbled, because you can’t crumble in Davis Cup. There are too many people who are counting on you. Kohlschreiber was two points from victory, but Ferrer, with the home crowd and its marching band bleating out its support, had an ounce more willpower and belief at the end. This grand sporting weekend closed with an appropriately sporting gesture: After the final point, Ferrer got off the clay and gave Kohlschreiber a consoling embrace.
Neither Ferrer nor Kohlschreiber will be remembered as a Grand Slam champion. Neither is what you would call a “big name” in the men’s game, at least not anymore. For hours, neither could find a way to put the other out of his misery. But together they made the most of their five hours on tennis’s center stage.
It’s a stage they wouldn’t have had a chance to take anywhere other than in Davis Cup. No event gave us as much of tennis—from its variety of players to its variety of emotions—the way the old, tried-and-true Davis Cup format did in the span of a weekend. If the ITF and its new investment partners want us to forget the last 118 years, they’re going to have to come up with something really good.
If we want to remember how the Cup once was, this match will be as good a place as any to start.