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Since the end of the Davis Cup final with the Czech Republic vs. Serbia, I’ve been pondering the continued relevance of the event. I know that at the start and end of each Davis Cup round, there are the usual posts about the participation of top players or the lack there of in the case of Juan Martin del Potro and Roger Federer; the schedule of the ties and the overall Davis Cup format. Clearly, the Davis Cup continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many players. It can solidify a player’s reputation as the best their country has to offer as it does Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, or Rafael Nadal or raise the profile of traditionally overlooked players like Canada’s Vasek Pospisil and Great Britain’s Dan Evans. We even have a narrative trope that Davis Cup results transfer over into the regular season, transforming a good player into a great one as it did Djokovic in 2011. The jury’s still out on what impact Berdych 2013 run do for him in 2014; maybe that elusive slam. One thing is certain: anything that is over 100 years old like Davis Cup has a lock on nostalgic and mythical values for its adherents. However, I can’t help but think that Davis Cup has little value beyond a nod towards a brand of nationalism that no longer holds currency in an increasingly global world.
The argument goes: Davis Cup is a tennis player’s chance to represent their country and throw off the shackles of individualism for the bonds and fealty of the group. Clearly, that’s not the case. Tennis players represent their countries throughout the tennis season. If it’s not always clear, just check for the flag or country name adjacent to the player’s own name on every ATP tournament site. It’s pretty hard to miss. They are representatives of their countries whether they wear their flag or countries name on their backs or not. Ever take a look at cheering sections of an ATP tournament? Judging by the colors and props that fans use to cheer on their favorites, it’s no accidents that flag colors are the go to choice to one’s allegiance. It may not be the easy us vs. them fervor that Davis Cup engenders in the crowd but tennis fans certainly know and care about the countries from which their favorites hail.
Maybe it’s the individualistic nature of the usual tennis tour that Davis Cup subverts? Well, how about the Olympics? Tennis players can become part of their countries team every four years. What better signifier of national pride is there in sport than to compete in the Olympics and try to bring home a medal? At the Olympics, tennis players can even compete in multiple categories: singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Unlike this year’s Davis Cup where Djokovic and Serbia leave empty handed, at the Olympics they would have been soothed by a silver medal. Just try to take Federer’s silver medal away, if you think there’s no value in it for a tennis player. Is every four years too long to wait for tennis players to have their shot at glory? Who says you have to do so? Why can’t tennis be a part of the winter games too? Tennis happens year round.
So, what’s the hold that Davis Cup has over its adherents? Ah, I get it: best of 5. There is something transcendent about a five set match. It is what separates the Davis Cup and the slams from everything else in the men’s game. So many opportunities for greatness lay in that format: the possibility of coming back from two sets down or contesting a match that runs overtime like the seven hour epic doubles between Tomas Berdych/ Lukas Rosol and Marco Chiudinelli/Stanislas Wawrinka in 2013. Better yet, the special place a doubles match continues to hold in Davis Cup, if nowhere else. Just ask the Ferrari challenged Serbians from this past weekend. Sure, these things contribute to Davis Cup lore but there’s no reason the International Tennis Federation can’t lobby for best of five to become the standard of the Olympics. As you can see, I believe that much of the obvious values of Davis Cup can be transferred into that global monolithic sporting event that still captures people’s imaginations every four years.
However, for all my logical arguments about supplanting Davis Cup with the Olympics, I suspect they’ll fall on deaf ears. The Davis Cup calls to something that is outside of the Olympics. It’s the about world history—the history of the great nations of tennis, from its founding two members, the US and Great Britain, to France, Austria, Belgium and Australasia. Even though Davis Cup counts over 130 nations as participants, the roster of winners remains fairly exclusive; only thirteen nations have been crowned Davis Cup champions since its inception in 1900. In the end, Davis Cup participants aren’t just competing against each other or subverting their individuality for some undefined national pride; they are making a claim for their nations’ standing amongst the big six, no, the original big two. Whether this drive makes sense in our confused and jumbled world lacking a peerless nation, being able to add your nation’s name on a trophy who’s only accepted thirteen in over 100 years has cache that a medal that can be won by hundreds.