Once there was a time when Davis Cup was more important than the Slams. Cup matches reached across the oceans by radio, and announcers like Ted Husing described classic battles between the Americans and Australians, the French, Germans, and British.
Most kids of the late 1930's in suburban New Jersey, where I lived, were sports nuts like me. Baseball was big and football was second, but some of us cared about tennis too. We were too late for the great confrontations between Tilden and the French Musketeers, but there was still plenty to pay attention to.
It must have been 1936--I turned nine that September--when I remember first listening with my Dad to matches, between the Americans and the Australians I believe. By the next spring I was a full-blown fanatic, my enthusiasm mostly directed to America's quest for the Davis Cup. The quest was a long process, involving contests with several lesser teams and also the Australians. (For the European teams, the effort was even longer, as there were many more countries in the European Zone.) I began cutting out the newspaper stories, and built quite a Davis Cup scrapbook. Don Budge played singles for the Americans along with either Frank Parker or Bitsy Grant--Budge and Gene Mako played the doubles. At length, the U.S. team crossed the Atlantic by ship for the Interzone Finals at Wimbledon against Germany. The German team was led by von Cramm, a fine player considered equal with Budge as probable world champion to succeed the Britisher Fred Perry, who had turned pro.
The Cup outcome, it developed, came to rest on the third-day singles between Budge and von Cramm. Their match has sometimes been called the greatest ever played, and it's hard to disagree. That day, I was traveling with my family in our car to my grandmother's in Pennsylvania. One of the clearest memories of my boyhood is our refueling stop at Washington, New Jersey, where for a few minutes I listened to the news of what seemed certain defeat for the Americans, with Budge two sets down. I had no voting rights, so we were soon back on the road. (Our car radio was, as usual, useless.) While we drove on, Budge somehow turned things around, winning the last three sets, the final set from down 2 games to 5. Oddly, I have no memory of how and where I learned the incredible news.
A week or so later, as expected, the victorious Americans successfully challenged the defending British team, now without Perry, thus winning the Cup. My scrapbook was complete.
Soon afterwards, von Cramm's career was wrecked by the Nazis, so there would be no serious German challenge for decades. In 1938 the Americans, with Budge and a young Bobby Riggs, successfully defended against the Australian challengers. I remember listening at a friend's house.
What for me was the supreme sports story of my lifetime unfolded the next year, 1939, when the Australians came to Philadelphia to challenge for the Cup. Budge had turned pro, so Riggs was now the American leader, joined by Parker in the singles. I was now almost twelve, and I listened to Riggs's fine victory over John Bromwich the first day, which followed Parker's unexpected win over Quist. The matches were played under the shadow of the Nazi blitzkrieg into Poland and the decisions by the western powers to declare war. It was thus clear that this would be the last Davis Cup for some years. It was noted that, with mobilization in Australia, Adrian Quist would soon be in uniform.
With a 2-0 lead after the first day, the American captain decided to use two youngsters in the doubles--Joe Hunt (the finest player ever from the Naval Academy) and Jack Kramer (who later became world champion). Hunt and Kramer played well but, not unexpectedly, lost. Still, the Americans continued to look like like a sure thing.
I believe I listened to every point of the fourth match, Riggs against Quist. It was hard to believe what was happening. Against all expectations, the number one American could not get atop the number two Australian, who was almost surely playing the last major match of his career. Quist's miracle doomed American hopes, for Parker had little chance against Bromwich, a excellent lefty with a two-handed forehand. The American defeat left me unconsolable for weeks.
The coming of the war meant a halt to international tennis and, for me, the end of local tennis too. Weeds took over my Dad's court, and there would be no high-school tennis for us. Finally, in 1946 Kramer and fellow Californian Ted Schroeder brought the Cup back from Australia, and in 1947 the Americans successfully defended at Forest Hills. I was there, watching from the stands while on September leave from the Naval Academy. Bromwich played but not Quist. Though the matches were thrilling to watch, it seemed to me that for most Americans the Cup had lost its appeal.
Perhaps it was that the competition seemed unfair--the war years had been harsher to many countries than to America. Many top American players had been able to maintain their skills during the war. The first TV came in 1948 and 1949 from Forest Hills, again during my September leaves, and Gonzales arrived to challenge Schroeder. But never again, in my opinion, did the Cup regain its prewar luster among American kids and fandom in general.
I never met Adrian Quist to tell him how much I admired his win, despite the misery it brought me. I did meet Bobby Riggs, many years later. But that's another story.
AN AFTERTHOUGHT: The recent news that Pete Sampras will again pass up the Cup's early rounds makes a strong American showing in 1998 doubtful. Sampras wishes to focus his effort on the ATP point standings, which measure tennis success today. There is no question that the physical demands of high-level competition, week-after-week, make Davis Cup play a real burden for Sampras, who is hardly alone in sometimes skipping Cup play.
I once believed that Davis Cup matches should be shortened to best-of-three sets, thus reducing the physical demands. Perhaps a number-three singles and a number-two doubles could be added to give the paying fans their money's worth and make the competition less dependent on a single dominant player. These ideas are worth discussing, but I now see that if the Cup is to regain its past luster it's best if only the very top players compete.
One thing might help and could easily be done. The ATP ranking system could be modified in order to award hefty points for Davis Cup success. A player who leads his team through the long competition to final Cup victory, for example, should be rewarded with as many points as a Slam championship. Such a change would, I believe, make the rankings more meaningful just as it would enhance the Cup competition.