9/24/2007 4:31:00 AM
by Steve Flink
In this space back at the beginning of May, I wrote about the problem tennis has in making the Davis Cup as prominent as many would like it to be. Now, after following the multitude of Davis Cup contests over this past weekend-- watching on television and staying on top of the rest with frequent visits to the Davis Cup web site-- I believe the time has come to revisit an issue that must be resolved once and for all if we want to do justice to a great international team competition.
Consider what was happening all over the world from September 21-23. Most notably, the United States and Russia advanced to the final round, winning their World Group semifinals. Indoors on a fast carpet at Gothenburg, the host nation Sweden could not contain the Americans. The U.S. defeated the Swedes 4-1 as Andy Roddick captured both of his singles matches, the Bryan brothers came through again in the doubles, and James Blake put a little icing on the cake at the end. In Moscow on the indoor clay, the Russians, spurred on by the singles triumphs of Igor Andreev in the opening and closing matches, came from behind to defeat Germany 3-2.
Meanwhile, in the World Group Play-Offs, U.S. Open finalist Novak Djokovic was leading Serbia past Australia indoors at Belgrade. Great Britain—led by the exploits of Tim Henman and the Murray brothers-- stopped Croatia on the lawns of Wimbledon. And Switzerland, despite a pair of hard fought singles triumphs recorded by Roger Federer, fell 3-2 against the one-two punch of Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych from the Czech Republic in Prague.
Altogether, aside from the two World Group semifinals, there were eight World Group Play-Offs spread all across the world, and other battles between nations in different zones. For those of us who follow the game with almost religious devotion, for the diehard fans who are totally immersed in every avenue of the competitive game, the complexity of the Davis Cup schedule is still comprehensible. We know that the dates are spread out all through the year, marking our calendars and arranging our schedules to make certain we are fully informed. So we were on top of it all last weekend, intrigued by the entire adventure. Unfortunately, the sports world at large was utterly confused by all of the activity. They find it nearly impossible to follow.
Why did the likes of Federer, Roddick, and Djokovic make themselves available to represent their countries less than two weeks after the conclusion of the U.S. Open? They made the sacrifice to compete at a time when they deserved to be recuperating from a long summer because they believe in the endeavor and want to step up and help out their countries. It is as simple as that. But the players are well aware that the vast sporting public, the people who closely follow the Grand Slam events, the fans who know a good deal but not everything about tennis, are often indifferent about Davis Cup. Can anyone really blame them for that?
To me, it is a shame what has transpired. Sometimes the leading players make themselves available, as was clearly the case over the last weekend. Sometimes they elect not to play. Switzerland lost to Spain in the opening round of the World Group but neither Roger Federer nor an ailing Rafael Nadal played in that contest, which took place less than two weeks after Federer had won the Australian Open. He opted out on that occasion, which was thoroughly justifiable. In the spring, when Spain faced the U.S. in the quarterfinals, Nadal, bothered by a nagging foot injury, skipped the team event again. He had every right to stay away both times.
Federer has played selectively since he reached the top, recognizing that he must take care of his own personal priorities at the majors first, and then worry about Davis Cup and everything else. If you want to be the greatest player in the game and you are striving to become the best ever, that is how you go about your business. Those who criticize Federer and other top players when they do skip Davis Cup don't really understand the demands on the elite competitors.
I believe the top players should be applauded every time they show up to play for their countries, but never derided for not competing. And here were three of the top five players in the game-- Federer, Djokovic, and Roddick-- all out there too soon after the U.S. Open, going to different corners of the globe in pursuit of a team effort, knowing full well that tennis at its core is an individual sport honoring those who achieve the highest honors all by themselves. That is the way it is, and that is how it will always be.
The way I look at it, the big names were all playing noble roles but not nearly enough people were paying attention. To be sure, the fans who attended the matches were exhilarated by what they witnessed, but beyond the boundaries of those arenas the story was different. It was essentially a lost weekend, with aficionados taking only a passing interest. Now the U.S. has an excellent chance to win the Cup for the first time since 1995, when Pete Sampras almost single-handedly led the Americans past Russia in Moscow.
The U.S.-Russia confrontation-- to be held at an American location this time around-- will not take place until November 30-December 2. More than two months will have elapsed between the semifinals and the final. That is much too long and interval. How many fans are really going to care about the outcome? As I have said before, the format must be revised. I would love to see the Davis Cup combined with the women's Fed Cup at one location each year for between two and three weeks, with the site moved to a different country every year. They should hold the event every autumn.
But if the ATP, WTA, and ITF can't find a way to make that happen, the men could at the very least more seriously explore the concept of a specific time frame reserved solely for the four rounds of the World Group in Davis Cup to be completed. That is the only way Davis Cup could ever be significantly elevated in the public eye. Barring that occurrence, there will be too many lost weekends for the players, too little exposure for a prestigious team competition that has been around since 1900, and the Davis Cup will drift aimlessly into the future with no chance to reinvent itself.
We can do a lot better than that.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com
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