Rafael Nadal has already compiled a legendary Davis Cup profile. See for yourself — if you click on the results tab at this link, you’ll see that he’s lost only one singles match in his Davis Cup career, and that came in 2004 at the age of 17.
Novak Djokovic, though not as accomplished a Davis Cup player as Nadal, has also hoisted this trophy, which is cherished by those who appreciate the history of tennis and its identity as a global sport.
You might think that Nadal and Djokovic are somehow better than Federer because they’ve won Davis Cups while Federer hasn’t. No, that’s not really the point, although Nadal’s four Davis Cup victories do much to add to his place in the history of the sport and serve as a reason to elevate his overall tennis resume — not as a knock against Federer, but as a credit to his own accomplishments.
The reason Nadal and Djokovic are being mentioned is that Davis Cup — once an event the United States owned (in tandem with Australia) — does not receive intense media attention and broad, sweeping publicity in America… at least not when compared to the four major tournaments, particularly Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Davis Cup is something hardcore tennis fans know, love and appreciate on its own terms. It’s fun — or if not fun, certainly tempting — to envision a world in which this spirited international competition becomes more of a magnet for the casual sports fan, buoyed by more of a media focus in the United States. However, the fact that Davis Cup doesn’t carry as much cultural resonance in a strictly American media context is not the fault of the event itself. The fault lies with the media beast, not the tennis that’s put on display.
Nadal won four Davis Cups. Djokovic won this special tournament. Davis Cup moved along — not transformed, but not diminished in the eyes of tennis fans who regularly enjoy this event. Before moving to an overview of the upcoming Davis Cup final — Nov. 21 through 23 on Tennis Channel, which is at its very best when covering Davis Cup — let this point sink in:
Roger Federer won’t somehow “save” Davis Cup. First, that’s not his concern, and shouldn’t be. Second, the way Davis Cup is viewed by consumers of sports content in the United States is not within his control. Third, as said in my U.S. Open television review on Sept. 12, the long-term health and future of tennis as a television commodity needs to be based on the selling of the sport itself, not on a few superstars within it.
Appreciate the 2014 Davis Cup final — and every Davis Cup event — on its own terms, not because one particular player is in it. If that player happens to enhance your enjoyment, that’s great, but let’s be clear about the notion that the sport fashions this riveting piece of drama, removed from the paycheck-and-points questions that define the “ordinary” tennis tour. The sport creates the setting and the tension. The players, superstars or not, participate in the pressure-cooker known as Davis Cup.
We can now move on with our story of the 2014 Davis Cup Final.
If you don’t follow Davis Cup closely, and if the early-morning hours of your autumnal weekends (before college football starts at noon Eastern time) are devoted to English Premier League football — covered by Bloguin’s newly-created website, 32 Flags — you might want to set aside time for this year’s final, held the weekend before Thanksgiving in Lille, France.
Switzerland, making only its second Davis Cup final appearance (1992) and seeking its first title, will play nine-time champion France, one of the four most accomplished Davis Cup nations in history. It makes sense that France — the host of one of the four major tournaments and a nation which sits at the center of the sport’s development on clay — would own a substantial Davis Cup resume. The same is true for the other three host nations of major tournaments:
Great Britain also has nine Davis Cups, all of them won before World War II. Australia, one of the Davis Cup’s two superpowers over the long run of history, has 28 titles and 19 runner-up results. The United States, the king of the Davis Cup tournament, owns 32 titles and 29 runner-up finishes.
France is not America or Australia, but it can reasonably be considered Davis Cup royalty. After the top four, only two other nations have won more than three Davis Cups since the event’s creation in the year 1900: Sweden (7) and Nadal-powered Spain (5). Only two other nations have won more than two: Germany and the Czech Republic (3 apiece). Only one other nation has won more than one: Russia (in 2002 and 2006).
All told, only nine nations have won more than one Davis Cup in 114 years, and only 13 nations have ever sipped the nectar of victory from this particular cup. If you manage to win all four rounds in the same year, keeping in mind that your players have to deal with the rigors of the regular tour as well, your team has accomplished something substantial. The history enfolding this event, which is so much a part of the sport before it became the domain of professionals in 1968 (the beginning of the Open era), only adds to the value of a Davis Cup championship, if your country is good enough to attain it.
SWITZERLAND, FRANCE, AND A CAREER’S GLEAMING CHANCE
Yes, Davis Cup is a team event, something both Djokovic and Federer have realized over time. While Nadal had David Ferrer and (occasionally) Fernando Verdasco to help him reach the Davis Cup finish line, Djokovic and Federer have usually lacked that sufficient second wheel. In 2010, Viktor Troicki was good enough to clinch the Davis Cup title for Serbia with a victory in the fifth and deciding match (also referred to as a “rubber”) against France. Federer has lacked that significant sidekick, but with Stan Wawrinka entering the top four of the world rankings and finally playing near the ceiling of his potential, Switzerland has finally been able to pursue this trophy with realistic expectations of success.
Federer certainly wants to fill in this currently blank spot on his resume, but his failure to do so up to now is not a reflection of his talents or deficiencies; it’s a reflection of Switzerland’s thin bench, which has now been bolstered by the arrival of Wawrinka as a much better player than he was in past years. If you want to size up the Switzerland-France final in very simple terms, the Swiss will most likely need to win three singles matches, since it will be very risky to expect Federer to play three matches — singles on Friday (Nov. 21), doubles on Saturday (Nov. 22), and reverse singles on the final day of the weekend (Nov. 23). In order to win three singles matches, Wawrinka will have to win at least one in a daunting road environment. In what will be a recurring theme of the event, Federer — though obviously the box-office attraction — can’t be expected to win the event by himself. How Wawrinka plays will be a part of the story.
So will the performances of the members on the French team. Tennis — in Davis Cup as much as in regular tour events — is eternally a dialogue and not a monologue. How France’s players meet the moment will form the other half of this conversation, and it’s arguably the more important one.
Look no further than this weekend’s just-concluded semifinals.
Richard Gasquet must have looked at last week’s U.S. Open final and said, “Why haven’t I been able to get to that stage in my career?” Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic reached their first major final, something Gasquet has never been able to do. Gasquet’s career on tour has mostly been a road paved with regrets, a monument to “might-have-beens” and a litany of lamentations. At age 28, Gasquet knows he won’t have many more chances to leave a lasting mark on tennis. His window for a major title might have expanded last September after making the U.S. Open semifinals, but injuries and more close-shave losses at majors turned 2014 into a mostly fruitless season.
Davis Cup, though, gave Gasquet a lifeline.
When Gael Monfils — holistically exhausted after his five-set loss to Federer in the U.S. Open quarterfinals — showed poor form in practice during the week, French captain Arnaud Clement tabbed Gasquet to fill in for “La Monf.” Gasquet’s much earlier exit from the U.S. Open (in the third round, aka, in the first week of the two-week event) left him fresh for France’s semifinal against the Czech Republic on friendly red clay at Roland Garros, the site of the French Open. Gasquet was able to acclimate to clay, whereas Monfils had a much shorter turnaround time after playing deep into the second week of a hardcourt major.
Let the point be emphasized: This was not only a special moment in itself for Gasquet, though being able to play in a Davis Cup semifinal certainly rates as such. This was a moment which, days earlier, Gasquet did not know he was even going to receive. The regular-tour version of Gasquet might have greeted his singles match with top-10 mainstay Tomas Berdych as a chore. The Davis Cup version of Gasquet treated the assignment as the opportunity it was.
The result of Gasquet’s changed attitude? A straight-set trouncing of Berdych in what was Gasquet’s best tennis of 2014. Engaged, in rhythm, and able to defend with noticeable consistency, Gasquet defused anything and everything in Berdych’s game. The Czech, who had teamed with Radek Stepanek to give the Czechs two straight Davis Cup titles in 2012 and 2013, ran empty this time around. Gasquet became the latest average (or underachieving) tour pro to turn into a different and far more magnificent tennis specimen in Davis Cup. That roster of players — ho-hum on tour, supermen in Davis Cup — is a very long one. If this version of Gasquet shows up for Davis Cup, France will have to like its chances.
Similarly, if Monfils — who will be rested when late November rolls around — can learn from his fifth-set “el foldo” against Federer at the U.S. Open and play all five sets, not just four, with maximum concentration, France will be more than able to stand up to Switzerland in terms of singles prowess. Keep in mind that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — who has proven that he can take the fight to Federer when he’s at his best — is going to play in this Davis Cup final as his nation’s best performer. If France’s big problem is choosing between Monfils and Gasquet for the second singles slot, that’s a great problem to have… if, as mentioned above, both men are able to showcase their best stuff in this patriotic tennis passion play.
The focus of the tennis community now shifts to the fall’s more prominent ATP and WTA tournaments. As far as men’s tennis is concerned, especially in connection with the Davis Cup, it will be very interesting to monitor how all the singles participants, especially Federer and Wawrinka, handle their schedules going forward. Federer and Wawrinka will both play in the World Tour Finals in early November, something none of the top French players have to worry about. One of the fall’s bigger tour stops is the Paris (Bercy Indoor) Masters 1000 event, and it will be fascinating to see if Federer and (or) Wawrinka play in that event. If they do, how will they be received at the event, and also, will they perhaps play Tsonga, Monfils or Gasquet in a potential Davis Cup dress rehearsal? These and other questions will spice up the coming months in men’s tennis, leading to the World Tour Finals and the Davis Cup, both of which will be covered by Attacking The Net.
A closing note about this blog’s schedule for the remainder of the year:
Since this site was created by Bloguin as a major-tournament outlet, you’re not going to receive regular postings for the remainder of the year. You’ll get one-time reviews of the WTA Beijing event, the ATP Shanghai Masters 1000 event, and the Paris (Bercy) event after they end. You’ll get mid-tournament reports on the WTA Finals — the year-end championship event held in Singapore — as well as the ATP World Tour Finals in London before also receiving end-of-tournament wrap-ups. Coverage of the Davis Cup final in two installments, after Friday’s first singles matches and after the conclusion of the event, will mark Attacking The Net’s last stories for 2014.
Thank you for your support of ATN at the tennis majors in 2014. As the one-man staff for this blog, I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.