The Davis Cup's special allure

Australia's Mark Philippoussis (left) and Lleyton Hewitt in a celebratory mood during the Davis Cup presentation ceremony at the Rod Laver Arena.The two seem to be made-to-order for Davis Cup. -- Pic. AFP-Australia's Mark Philippoussis (left) and Lleyton Hewitt in a celebratory mood during the Davis Cup presentation ceremony at the Rod Laver Arena.The two seem to be made-to-order for Davis Cup. -- Pic. AFP

Men's tennis is two sports, really: there is the year-round circuit comprising the Slams and the ATP events, then there is the Davis Cup. Tennis is merely a game on the circuit. The Davis Cup is an institution, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

BATTLE-HARDENED grown men with ice in their veins cry in public like star-struck teenaged girls at a Bryan Adams concert. Eighty-something grandmothers risk arthritic limbs as they jump out of their seats in excitement. Protagonists with a dodgy reputation for commitment fight with the sort of proselytising zeal you'd more readily associate with an elite commando battalion.

Ah, Davis Cup! There is nothing quite like it in the world of sport. If William Shakespeare had wanted to weave a classic tale around a sporting event, he might have zeroed in on the Davis Cup long before Dwight Filley Davis donated a silver punch-bowl 13 inches in height for an international team tennis competition in the year 1900.

Everything about the Davis Cup is a touch anachronistic in this day and age. The values it represents, the format of the competition, the emotions it triggers, and not the least the fact that it is a celebrated team championship in what is largely a selfish one-on-one sport.

Yet, the Davis Cup thrives. Mark Philippoussis, who played a heroic role in Australia's 3-1 defeat of Spain at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne last fortnight, was willing to risk a career-threatening injury flare-up as he made light of excruciating pain in his serving arm to beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in the fourth rubber.

And, if you believed the Australian sports press over the last few years, you might have thought that Philippoussis's commitment to Davis Cup was matched only by Americans' love for cricket.

Ah, Davis Cup! There is nothing quite like it in sport. It is unique simply because its special allure through a hundred years and more is simply unmatched.

"I still get goose pimples when I stand out there with the guys, when I hear the Star Spangled Banner and watch the flag go up,'' said John McEnroe, the man who single-handedly re-ignited passion for the competition and injected new life into a dying event in the late 1970s.

McEnroe spoke those words in 1986 but goosebumps have been felt by other champions long before he was born. And they continue to be felt even today.

But, what price goose pimples? In the present-day scheme of things in men's tennis, what are they worth to the megastars of the game? How do they rank alongside crisp bankrolls? And to what extent, in terms of sacrifices, will a top player go in order to experience that special tingle of excitement run through him while playing for the country?

Last fortnight's final alone answered every one of these questions. Lleyton Hewitt, fearing physical burnout, did not play a single tournament for two months as he practised on grass in Melbourne to prepare for the final.

Philippoussis could very easily have seen a doctor and then sat out of the reverse singles. But the giant Greek-Australian battled pain and exhaustion to outlast Ferrero in a dramatic fourth rubber.

Carlos Moya had not played on grass in three years, yet he managed to conjure a beautiful serve-volley game that surprised Philippoussis on the opening day.

None of these men, a millionaire each one of them, might have gone as far as they did in any other competition. But Davis Cup is dif<147,1,7>ferent. "At the end I was completely numb,'' said Philippoussis. "It felt like I wasn't playing — I was sort of watching from the side.''

In varying degrees, every player who has had the good fortune to feature in the Davis Cup, whether at the highest levels or in the obscure zonal competition, might have experienced the feeling Philippoussis was talking about.

While Australia, which won the Cup for the 28th time this year, and the United States, which has been crowned champion a record 31 times, have been the two most dominant nations in the 104-year old competition, somehow Davis Cup is not only about trying to lay your hands on the coveted punchbowl.

Leander Paes has never featured in a Davis Cup final. Yet, the heroic Indian is the most successful Cup player of his generation, a man who, time after time, has transformed himself into an all-conquering giant on the Davis Cup stage.

I have asked him several times why he has failed to recapture his Cup commitment and form on a Grand Slam stage in singles. He has tried to come up with an honest answer every single time. But only once did he get to the heart of the matter.

"Somehow, you know, the feeling is not the same (in the Grand Slams). When the flag goes up, when the national anthem is played, it is a different feeling. There is a new energy,'' he said in Tokyo a few years ago after beating Takao Suzuki in a dramatic five-setter to take India into the World Group playoff round.

Ah, Davis Cup! It's all about feeling, all about that very special feeling which galvanised the Four Musketeers — Jean Borotra, Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Jacques Brugnon — to help France win seven consecutive Davis Cup titles from 1927 to 1932.

That was the golden age of French tennis and the country has never quite managed that kind of world domination again.

The towering presence of Fred Perry helped Britain to four titles in the 1930s but the nation that hosts the greatest championship in the game — Wimbledon — has not won a single title after 1936.

John McEnroe single-handedly re-ignited passion for the competition and injected new life into Davis Cup in the Seventies. -- Pic. AP-

After the end of the Second World War, Davis Cup has been dominated by Australia and the United States although, in the last three decades, since the introduction of the World Group format in 1981, the Europeans, led by Sweden, have successfully challenged that domination.

Then again, the Davis Cup is not about numbers, not merely about matches won and lost; it is about the pride a player takes in taking part in the competition, it is about his willingness to dig deeper than ever before while representing his country.

In a quarterfinal match between the United States and Sweden in 1982, before tie-breaks were introduced, John McEnroe beat Mats Wilander 9-7, 6-2, 15-17, 3-6, 8-6 in six hours and 22 minutes.

"If it wasn't Davis Cup, I might have collapsed out there on the court,'' said McEnroe.

Surely, the Cup's magic potion does inject fresh life into tired players and enables them to stretch the limits of their endurance and skills as Philippoussis did in Melbourne the other day.

On an unforgettable July Sunday in Frejus in the South of France 10 years ago, Ramesh Krishnan was flat on his back on a masseur's table after playing four and a half sets in the deciding fifth rubber against Rudolphe Gilbert of France. Bad light had stopped play and Ramesh got a reprieve.

After an exhausting three days on a slow red clay court in a dilapidated medieval coliseum where members of Roman royalty once threw slaves with hungry lions to amuse themselves, Ramesh had nothing left to give.

Yet, after taking care of aching limbs on a long night, the 32-year-old Indian came back the next morning to complete a famous victory that was largely built on the unforgettable heroics of a 20-year-old Paes.

"When you hurt like that, it is very tough. And you have to deal with the tension too. But Davis Cup always brings out your best,'' Ramesh said about that match.

Of course, experience helps. Seven years earlier, in October 1987, Ramesh went out to play Wally Masur of Australia at the White City Stadium in Sydney in the Davis Cup World Group semifinals.

The tie was locked 2-2 and Australia had only once, previously, lost a home tie from that position. The odds were formidable and Ramesh fell behind 1-4 in both the first and the second sets. But even as Vijay Amritraj sought to keep his morale up from the captain's chair, Ramesh outplayed his Australian rival in straight sets to carry India through to its third Cup final.

Success on the big stage in Davis Cup is not merely a matter of dealing well with tensions. It is also about how a player successfully rides the waves of emotions and comes up with his best in the face of adversity.

This is precisely why, through 100 years and more, not all great players in the game have had great success in Davis Cup. Some, like John McEnroe, Lleyton Hewitt and Leander Paes, are made-to-order, so to say, for Davis Cup.

They are from the mould that produced such great Davis Cup players as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Fred Stolle, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Nicola Pietrangeli, Ilie Nastase, Ramanathan Krishnan and Vijay Amritraj, to name only a few.

There are others who have played some spectacular winning tennis in Davis Cup from time to time — men such as Boris Becker, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.

But each one of them, in their own way, have drunk the magic potion of the Cup and have dealt with its tensions and dramatic twists the best they could.

In a way, men's tennis is two sports really: there is the year-round circuit comprising the Slams and the ATP Tour, then there is the Davis Cup.

Tennis is merely a game, on the circuit. The Davis Cup is an institution.