Yes, it’s a provocative headline. But it’s a question that has been on my mind for a number of months, particularly as hype around Switzerland’s campaign has grown, and even more since I had the pleasure of attending part of the semi-final in Geneva just over a month ago.
I think the question is worth asking, because I can’t think of another tennis event that so divides fans in terms of prominence. There are tournaments that are universally recognised, like the Grand Slams, or large scale events like Miami, or Rome. There are also tennis occasions that are pretty much universally treated as unimportant, like World Team Tennis, or the WTA’s curious “Tournament of Champions” which was admittedly better this year because Andrea Petkovic won. That’s always good news.
The Davis Cup seems to occupy a middle ground. Some people really buy into it; really pay attention to the construction of the teams and the tactical decisions and the geographical narratives. Others are traditionally dismissive of any tennis event that isn’t an individual endeavour. And I’m counting doubles as an individual endeavour, because there’s a kind of oneness to doubles players that is not the same as being in a national team.
So I’m genuinely posing the question: Does the Davis Cup matter?
Full disclosure – I’ve always thought of Davis Cup as a kind of sideshow. A sideshow for not-really-tennis-fans who need their sporting events to be draped in national flags and the impassioned songs of patriotism to really feel like they’re enjoying a moment. To me, in a self-satisfied way, I suppose I have always felt above the Davis Cup. “It’s okay, but I’d sooner buy a ticket to Charleston,” is, I think, a real response I once gave when asked about the event.
To a degree, that quote is still true – I would love to go to Charleston. But perhaps there are virtues to the Davis Cup that have been overlooked by me and my fellow naysayers.
The main virtue, I’ve come to believe, is the very thing that once turned me away from the event: the team aspect. Tennis is a lonely profession. It’s a lot of travelling, and even if you’re world number one it’s a lot of travelling that ultimately leads to a loss, and more packed bags. You’ve got to have a self-motivated and stubborn hunger to get out on court every day and earn your money, earn your reputation, maybe even win a few trophies along the way. It’s brutal, which is why it’s loved.
Davis Cup gives these players an opportunity to share that burden. What I realised, sitting in the stands in Geneva with a (vocally pro-Federer) stranger who I was plainly terrified of but who turned out to be extremely charming, was that the team is really visible in this situation. Don’t get me wrong, I always knew that the team was present and right behind their compatriot’s chair, but it never occurred to me how involved they are in the match from beginning to end.
There is open communication. Constant eye contact. A real sense that the whole team is living every moment.
For once, the players aren’t just looking up to their coach and a sole member of their family for support. They’re looking to a group of people dressed in the same colours as them, who’ve been through the same ordeal, who come from the same culture (mostly), and who need to win the next point as much as the player himself does. If you’re Roger Federer, surrounded by the clang of cowbells in a sea of red, only occasionally dotted with downhearted Italians in blue, you’re suddenly part of a much larger unit than you have been all year.
Even for Federer, who has crowds with him pretty much wherever he goes, that’s quite something. Imagine the elation for a player who never has crowds on his side, like Novak Djokovic.
So if it’s not important for reasons of national ‘responsibility’, which I think if we’re all honest we’d admit is also a big deal, then it’s at least important in terms of winning for somebody other than yourself for once. Tennis is a lonely sport, and therefore it’s a selfish one. Not a cruel selfishness, but a necessary selfishness. The Davis Cup is a moment of unity with the very countrymen you would happily cast aside if you played against them in New York, or Melbourne.
Context matters too.
Who won the Davis Cup last year? I should probably be ashamed of this, but I don’t know. In fact, I don’t think I could name the champions of any Davis Cup. I could take guesses at some stronger fields, I imagine the Spanish have probably won a lot recently, for instance, but even that could be wrong. I’m not going to allow myself to feel ashamed though because my ignorance in this respect is actually kind of useful for the point I’m making now. Context matters – and the Davis Cup matters a lot in 2014.
The Big Four are everything and nothing in the story of this past year. The gloss has been lost, somewhat, and so a lot of our focus has been on their defeats and on the rise of new names. That said, the most interesting stories this year probably have come from Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and Murray. Djokovic feels like the rightful world number 1 despite some struggles and a busy year in his personal life, Murray’s fight with his back recovery has been exhausting and fascinating, Nadal has really dictated the shape of draws either by presence or absence, and then there’s Federer.
Federer, at 33, is the story. He’s the story, love him or hate him. And again, like Davis Cup, I have not traditionally been what I’d call a ‘fan’ of Federer. I’ve liked and respected him, but there are other players who’ve interested me more. This year, really for the first time, I’ve found him a joy to watch. The narrative has been wonderful, he’s been tenacious and furiously determined, and Davis Cup has really been the cement that’s held the latter part of the story together.
Suddenly, Davis Cup is a crown jewel. It is the last flag. It could be the thing that completes the checklist of a legend or it could be the achievement that slips through the fingers of a man with the support of the world behind him.
And maybe that’s where I’ve underrated the Davis Cup. Maybe it’s never mattered to me because I’ve not realised how much it matters to the players. And how could it not?
For this brief moment in the calendar, they finally have a purpose beyond themselves.
Roger Federer has this one opportunity to gift one new record to a nation that really does idolise him. “He’s important to us,” a Swiss colleague of mine once said to me, “he’s been our hero for a long time now.” She wasn’t saccharin, but she was sincere.
That is, I think, a mightily privileged position for a player to be in. So, I admit it.
The Davis Cup matters.