Each round of Davis Cup play brings fresh thrill. Sundry three-day
engagements, played simultaneously at many sites across the globe, link
tennis people worldwide. Youngsters everywhere dream of playing for their
countries, while all fans debate the line-ups and likely outcomes. The pro
warriors themselves profess that Cup play is the most challenging and
pressure-packed experience of their careers. Davis Cup remains the game's
Cup play began in February for the sixteen nations of this year's World
Group. Spain, having won the 2000 championship just two months earlier on
clay, now lost to the Netherlands on an indoor hard surface. Meanwhile the
U.S., led by first-year captain Patrick McEnroe, lost to Switzerland when
young Federer won two singles and, with Manta, the doubles. Russia defeated
Slovak Republic behind two singles wins by Kafelnikov, and Germany defeated
Romania behind two wins by Tommy Haas. Elsewhere, four other nations advanced
to the second round.
The eight winners faced off in the second round in April. Host Sweden defeated Russia when Johansson won from Kafelnikov in five,
while Netherlands defeated a German team lacking Haas.
Switzerland, again playing on home court, was eliminated by France. The main
French hero was Nicolas Escude, who first defeated Federer in four sets and
then, with the team score tied at two matches all, defeated Bastl in five.
Similarly, Lleyton Hewitt carried his Australian teammates to a remarkable
victory over Brazil at Florianopolis--Kuerten's home. The young Australian,
playing on clay before an unsupporting crowd, won two singles and, with
Rafter, the doubles.
Thus the semis in September provided two intriguing match-ups. Australia
faced Sweden on an outdoor hard court (Rebound Ace) in Sydney, while France
met the Netherlands on indoor hard (Supreme) in Rotterdam. Neither meeting
was televised here in the U.S.
I kept up with the opening match in Sydney over the Internet. It was like listening
to tennis on the radio many decades ago, except the challenge to the
imagination was even greater. I tried to use the length of time between
points to guess how points were being decided. Johansson clearly was
contending well against higher-ranked Rafter. The Swedish player lost the
first set by a closely contested service game, and kept things equal in the
second until the final two points of the long tiebreak, also won by Rafter.
Thus despite Johansson's seemingly fine effort, it seemed unlikely that the
visitor, now two sets down, could prevail.
My attention was divided, as I simultaneously watched U.S. President Bush in
his televised address to Congress pledging war against international
terrorism. I remembered the week in 1939 when the broadcasts from the
capitals of Europe betold the start of a new world war even as I listened to
Riggs and Parker playing the Australians in the Cup challenge round. The
conjuction of war and play seemed the same now as then.
When I returned to the Internet the next morning, I was surprised to learn
that Johansson had defeated Rafter by winning the last three sets. Bjorkman
in the second match, it turned out, also produced a score better than
expected, although Lleyton Hewitt recovered from one set down to lift the
Australians out of deep trouble. Australia then won the Saturday doubles, and
Hewitt closed out matters with a close win over Johansson. It must have been
an exciting three days in Sydney.
Meanwhile France closed out the Netherlands by winning the first three
matches. Clement and Escude won in singles and Pioline-Santoro surprised
Haarhuis-Schalken in doubles.
Thus two grand tennis traditions will again come together in the final round
in December. The host Aussies, having two of the world's highest-ranked four
in singles, will be favored over France regardless of surface. The three
young French stars--Clement, Escude, and Grosjean--all have performed
exceptionally well on the Melbourne Park Rebound Ace courts on past
occasions. The Australians wish to install a temporary grass surface to
improve their chances. This, to me, seems a patently unsporting action which,
if allowed, would greatly diminish any satisfaction in winning. It is
remindful of the American plan to play the Australians on clay at Longwood
several years ago. I believe nations should ordinarily be expected to host
Cup ties on whatever surface is used for their primary open tournaments.
Having a third world-class singles artist is a worthwhile asset for France
(i.e., Grosjean), not only as insurance against possible injuries but also as
a possible fresh substitute on the third day. Might Philippoussis, just now
back from surgery and starting his quest for his earlier form, represent like
depth for the Australians?
More than a hundred other nations played in the zonal groups this year. Eight
teams emerged to compete with World Group first-round losers for membership
in next year's World Group. Argentina, Croatia, and Britain earned promotion
in promotion/relegation ties played in September. The India-U.S. match-up was
postponed to October. The Americans were to have offered a powerful singles
line-up in Andy Roddick and Todd Martin, but Roddick's subsequent ankle
injury in Hong Kong now raises uncertainty.
The Davis Cup was once the prime focus of world tennis. I believe that the
Cup remains critical to the future of the game and has been in good health
during Year 2001 to date. Pro tennis has always been both business and
competitive sport, where Davis Cup is the clearest reflection of the latter.
If the sporting side of the game--i.e., especially the Cup--is allowed to
wither, the business side too will sag.
But is the Cup worth building if it fails as a force for reducing hatreds?
As often happens in international sport, the Cup has been sometimes spoiled
by unsporting host audiences fed on national or ideological partisanship.
Today there is concern that the competition could suddenly turn ugly amid a
world of widespread terrorism. I applaud that many nations situated in
regions of hatred took part in this year's Cup play--among them Iraq, Iran,
Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Pakistan, Tajikistan,
Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most of all, I applaud the great majority of Cup athletes
and officials whose examples surely contribute to the faint hope of
fraternity among all peoples.
Twelve nations of this year's Fed Cup World Group played elimination
match-ups in April and July. Four survivors emerged. Each match-up consisted
of four singles and one doubles match.
The four survivors were France, Argentina, Russia, and Australia. These will
join last year's four semi-finalist nations--U.S., Belgium, Czech Republic,
and Spain--in the World Finals 5-11 November in Madrid. The Finals will start
with round-robin competition in two groups. (Group A consists of U.S.,
France, Czech Republic, and Argentina.) The winners of the two groups will
then play each other on the final day for the championship. All round-robin
engagements and the final-day's play will consist of two singles and one
Defending-champion United States should be a strong favorite to win in
November. Of the world's top-ranked eight stars, the U.S. claims
five--Capriati, Davenport, Seles, and the Williams sisters. Only Belgium, with
Clijsters and Henin, seems a plausible contender. But the American players
have complained about the decision to play the Finals in Spain. (The rule had
been that the defending champion, i.e., the U.S., would be the host.) If the
top American stars boycott the event, then France would seem the likely final
survivor opposite Belgium.
Some eighty other nations competed this year within a pyramid arrangement
akin to Davis Cup zonal play. In July, the upper-group survivors met World
Group losers for membership in next year's World Group. Sweden was the only
nation to win promotion.
Fed Cup has been around since 1963 but has never attained the public appeal
of Davis Cup. Televised images of last year's finals in Las Vegas showed many
empty seats. The formats have changed from year to year, perhaps too often.
The coming matches in November could be fascinating if the top players from
all competing countries are present. But it is clear that Fed Cup has not yet
achieved its potential for building the women's game.