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Steve Flink: A Waste of a Great Davis Cup Weekend

3/10/2009 1:10:00 PM

by Steve Flink

As the eight opening round, World Group ties were completed over the past weekend in the 2009 Davis Cup, I found myself fully immersed in what was going on across the globe in our sport. In Birmingham, Alabama, Andy Roddick led the United States past Switzerland, a nation that was sorely missing Roger Federer. The Americans triumphed 4-1, with Roddick contributing two victories in singles and lifting his nation with the force of his will. It was entirely fitting that he would clinch the win for the U.S. with a straight set win over Stanislas Wawrinka.

But the U.S.-Switzerland contest was only one of many intriguing confrontations. The Czech Republic hosted France in Ostrava, and not even two singles victories from the remarkable Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could prevent France from suffering a 3-2 defeat. Gilles Simon lost to both Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek, and in the pivotal encounter Berdych and Stepanek joined forces to dismantle Richard Gasquet and Michael Llodra in a four set doubles skirmish.

Meanwhile, Croatia--- led by the formidable Marin Cilic and Mario Ancic---- downed Chile 5-0, Argentina defeated Netherlands 5-0, Russia--- helped by none other than Marat Safin--- topped Romania 4-1, Germany overcame Austria 3-2, and Israel upended Sweden at Malmo 3-2 with fans barred from viewing the proceedings as a security matter.

Last but not least, Rafael Nadal propelled Spain past Serbia 4-1 with two emphatic singles wins over Janko Tipsarevic and Novak Djokovic. With Nadal in his element on red clay at home, his nation was virtually unstoppable, but surely his fans appreciated the opportunity of watching him perform near the top of his game on his favorite surface.

Indisputably, it was a showcase weekend for Davis Cup. Think of all the top 20 players who were representing their nations, including Nadal, Djokovic, Roddick, Tsonga, Wawrinka, David Ferrer, and Stepanek. It was surely a time to celebrate just how captivating Davis Cup can be, and just how much this international team competition has to offer. And yet, much as I regret feeling this way, I still come away from that weekend feeling that it was largely wasted.

Why is that the case? Quite simply, the quarterfinals in the World Group will not be played until the weekend after Wimbledon in July. That is four months away. I fully understand the complexities of the scheduling, and the difficulties the International Tennis Federation has in finding the right time slots to finish four rounds amidst a terribly crowded calendar. The fact remains that all of the excitement that was created here in the early stages of March will be squandered. How in the world can fans not be put off by a gap of four months between rounds?

The game suffers immeasurably from such incoherence. The fundamental problem is this: with four Grand Slam events accounting for eight weeks every year, with so many other significant events stretching across the calendar in both the men's and women's games, with all of the players fully committed to the tournament game and individual pursuits, Davis Cup (and Fed Cup) must be squeezed into the schedule, often at inopportune times. Last weekend was a rare exception; the early March timeline made sense for everyone, and made it easier for the players to be ready, willing and able to participate.

I enjoyed watching the U.S.-Switzerland showdown. On the opening afternoon, Wawrinka upended Blake in the first match, which ensured that the outcome of the team contest would not be settled until the third and final day. After dropping the opening set, Wawrinka managed to contain Blake convincingly from the back of the court. He refused to allow Blake to set the agenda, preventing the American from unleashing a sufficient number of explosive forehands. In turn, he returned with significantly more consistency than his adversary.

But what really impressed me about Wawrinka was the weight and accuracy of his first serve. More than anything else, it was his serve that allowed him to send Blake to a four set defeat. The Swiss picked Blake apart meticulously. After losing his serve from a break up in the second set, Wawrinka was never broken again. He went time and again to the Blake backhand in the deuce court in the range of 130 to 135MPH, and the American could not handle it.

Wawrinka demonstrated why he resided briefly among the top ten in the world a year ago. He thoroughly outplayed Blake. Roddick immediately got the Americans back on track with a 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 victory (5) over an unseasoned yet inspired Marco Chiudinelli. Bob and Mike Bryan took the doubles over Wawrinka and Yves Allegro in four sets, and that set the stage for Roddick to face Wawrinka on the final day.

Roddick could hardly have asked more of himself in gaining a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 triumph. He made Wawrinka work exceedingly hard to hold serve, and was unflinching in the longest and most telling rallies. Most importantly, Roddick served magnificently. In three unrelenting sets, he won 56 of 73 points on serve, never faced a break point, and did not allow Wawrinka to get as far as deuce. After facing only one break point and not losing his serve against Chiudinelli, Roddick was again unshakable on serve, a point he reinforced at two important junctures in the match with Wawrinka.

At 5-4 in the first set, Roddick was down 0-30. Had he not served that set out, Roddick would surely have been aggravated and Wawrinka might have conceivably found a way to steal that set in a tie-break. But Roddick sedulously protected himself in that vital tenth game. At 0-30, he sliced an immaculate backhand approach shot deep down the line to force Wawrinka into an errant pass. The American then ran around his backhand and nailed a clean forehand into a vacant corner.

It was 30-30. Roddick then collected the next two points to close out that set. Surging with confidence, he swept through the second set, winning 20 of 23 service points, giving nothing away from the baseline. Wawrinka knew the winds of inevitability were blowing irresistibly in Roddick's direction, and the 26-year-old American the third set in style. Nevertheless, he was down 0-30 when he served for the match at 5-2, but struck back forcefully to win four points in a row to seal the verdict for the U.S.

Now Roddick has garnered 31 singles victories as an American Davis Cup stalwart, a record surpassed only by John McEnroe among U.S. competitors. That is no small feat. Roddick has put himself on the line for his country continuously since 2001. He has made a habit out of beating the people he is supposed to handle when he represents his country, and has been unstoppable when given the chance to close out team triumphs for the U.S. His record in that situation is no less than 11-0, and that is to be admired. To be sure, from Roddick's heroics at home in the U.S., to Nadal's clay court exploits in Spain, to Israel's extraordinary victory over Sweden, to the impressive win recorded by the Czech Republic over France, it was indeed a compelling time for Davis Cup fans.

Unfortunately, that brings me back to my central point: the quarterfinal Davis Cup ties will not be waged until July 10-12. That is almost obscene. And the injustice of the situation is twofold. Four months will have gone by, which in and of itself is harmful enough. But even worse is the fact that there may well be some withdrawals among the leading players, depending on how they fare at Wimbledon. If Nadal, for instance, reaches his fourth Wimbledon final in a row, he will be physically and mentally spent whether he defends his crown on the Centre Court or not.

Under those circumstances, how can he be expected to recharge his emotional engines and be ready to compete in Davis Cup five days after playing in the final of the biggest tournament of the year? Moreover, why should he be asked to shift from grass courts back to clay with so few days to make the transition? The same holds true for Roddick. What if he makes a serious run at Wimbledon; he, too, would need to endure a nearly impossible transition, all in the name of playing for his country. The U.S. will face Croatia away, presumably on clay.

The leading players clearly enjoy being able to compete for their countries when the time is right. But there is no escaping the fact that tennis is not at its core a team sport. When Federer pulled out of the Swiss clash against the Americans, he was understandably and justifiably looking out for himself, and recognizing that the heart of the 2009 season is just ahead for him. He chose to step aside, knowing full well that had he lifted his team past the U.S., his talent and time would have been required for as many as three more Davis Cup weeks later in the year. Federer is first and foremost an individual who must address his own concerns; in the final analysis, it is as simple as that.

One of these days---- and I hope that day is not decades away--- the powers that be will reconsider the entire Davis Cup formula and play the entire World Group competition at one location every year over a 17 day period. Move it to a different country each time. Allow the fans to get as joyously immersed in Davis Cup as they do for the major tournaments. Give the public the chance to see it all unfold over a compressed time frame. Then, and only then, Davis Cup would be as big and important as it ought to be.

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