The enduring mystique of the Davis Cup

Playing in the team event is a lot different from playing in the professional circuit. While you still have to win your singles tie, a loss doesn’t signify the end of the campaign. There’s always a chance to comeback. These factors ensure that Davis Cup will remain relevant for most tennis pros. By Priyansh.

“There was once a love affair between the Davis Cup and me. At the beginning of my career, it was the most important thing, and my debut is one of my happiest memories.”

That was Roger Federer, speaking in the midst of a Davis Cup campaign that ended successfully for him last year. Among the players with eight or more Grand Slam titles, only he and Jimmy Connors had failed to win the hallowed trophy until Switzerland gained success in 2014. It was a high-point of his career. It was also a high-point in the history of the tournament.

For long, Davis Cup was only hallowed in name. Not to suggest that it has been returned to its past standing now. But the charm flickers again, sometimes robustly.

Federer’s views before and after the win were a reflection of reality. Although the Swiss legend was immensely proud to have won it, his sentiments were peppered with realism. However, his commitment to play the Davis Cup and lead Switzerland to victory represented a change in attitude. With his personal targets more or less fulfilled, Federer desired collective glory.

The 17-time Grand Slam champion’s story was among the latest episodes that have featured a mini-renaissance of the Davis Cup. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal famously experienced personal success after winning the competition. While it might be simplistic to link the two, it would be foolish to ignore its impact. The duo themselves opined that the Davis Cup title win drove them to greater things. It’s the little things that sometimes cause larger developments.

Andy Murray, by contrast, has been more invested in Davis Cup as compared to his major competitors. Great Britain has often relied on the Scot’s excellence to pull the team over the line, as witnessed during the recent quarterfinal against France when he won both singles and the doubles rubbers. The second of the singles wins arrived in difficult circumstances as he struggled physically and mentally against Gilles Simon. However, despite losing the first set and being broken in the second, Murray fought back to win in four sets. Overwhelmed, he sat down on his chair at the side of the court and refused to look up. There were tears as he considered the sheer amount of effort that he had delivered over the weekend. It had taken much out of him; it had also given him immense satisfaction. The ultimate prize is still not his but Murray believes that he can gain the prize. The reasons for his investment in Davis Cup are clear.

“Because I believe we can win and also because I love the team. You don’t get that in any other event, so you have a lot of memories from the Davis Cup and that’s one of the reasons why you’re passionate to play.”

However, 2015 wasn’t exactly the best year for the tournament. Nobody from the top 10, except Murray, took the tournament seriously. Consequently, the median ranking of players in live rubbers of the quarterfinals dropped to 65.5; it was 43.5 last year. This meant that half of the players in the last eight this year were ranked below 65.

Despite the drop in interest this year, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) President Francesco Ricci Bitti remains unfazed. “There will always be occasions when top players have to miss ties, but this can allow new players to become heroes for their country.”

This is the path forward for Davis Cup — the stars will occasionally demonstrate interest but it will be the players from the lower rungs that will justify the tournament’s worth. The tournament’s appeal is derived from the sport’s amateur origins. Its popular narrative speaks of deliverance for the nation.

However, the sacrifices aren’t made for the collective cause alone. Players suffer real losses on a personal level. An involvement in the Davis Cup may have a knock-on effect on rankings and earnings. Despite the shamateur status of the tournament’s participants, players are paid appearance money only in some cases. Of course, money is not the strongest lure behind the return of the top stars to Davis Cup. A title win represents a major success for players, even for multiple Grand Slam winners. Hence, the charm of turning out for your country is strong and attractive.

The nature of professional tennis also has a say in the importance attached to Davis Cup. A tennis player won’t be victorious at the end of most weeks in a season. Davis Cup, however, provides instant gratification. Win three of the five rubbers and you’re the victor.

Moreover, it’s a pleasant relief from the loneliness of the circuit. Travelling for weeks at end and playing tournaments on your own can prove to be brutal task. Despite the presence of an elaborate backroom staff in modern-day tennis, the player is responsible for the results alone. This changes in Davis Cup. While you still have to win your singles tie, a loss doesn’t signify the end of the campaign. There’s always a chance to comeback.

These factors ensure that Davis Cup will remain relevant for most tennis pros. It’s a glorious competition that has seen darker times but its viability is not in question. There’s no reason to believe this will change anytime soon.