The enduring uniqueness of the Davis Cup

ROHIT BRIJNATH

IF you search the Internet on Google, visit sporting archives, browse through universal libraries or meet with historians, there's a fair chance you will still not find it. A parallel to the Davis Cup, that is. As an institution it is perhaps unique.

In Adelaide, where India collided with Australia 10 days or so ago, this distinctive quality was revealed. On one side of the net strode the world No.1, Lleyton Hewitt, the man who stands triumphantly at the top of tennis' pyramid, an artful mix of majestic mechanics and a powerful passion. On the other side, incredibly, walked the world No. 831, Harsh Mankad, in literal terms a player at the bottom of the pyramid, a slightly nervous work in progress, a player in search of himself.

That these men, so far apart, should meet in actual competition, under respective flags, is the very heart of what makes the Davis Cup special.

Sport functions on the basis of equality, in effect it does not, or is not presumed to, discriminate. It is not supposed to matter what religion you follow, whether you are tall or short, or black or white, or economically powerful or dispossessed, and mostly this is true. Opportunity exists for everyone.

The only discrimination arrives, understandably, with talent. It is where the average and the gifted are separated. Ordinary men play with their peer group; if they improve, and their ranking rises, they rise to another level and compete with a new peer group. It is the way of the world. In cricket, India usually plays, for example, with England and Australia, while Holland mainly battles with Singapore and Scotland.

But, perhaps, only in the Davis Cup, does sport allow for the ordinary man to grapple with the extraordinary talent, for the unknown to meet the champion, for the average man to have the chance to knock off his hero. And on a regular basis.

Sport is powered by dreams, by the reality that on a given day, in the strangest of circumstances, a small man can overreach himself and live that dream. For that given day, players who spend their life in anonymity, struggling through satellite circuits in dusty, no-name towns, pleading with sponsors, wondering if it's all worth it, get an opportunity to walk on centre courts in proud stadiums, in front of swollen crowds, against the world's best and show what they're made of.

It is absurd, it is also romantic and uplifting. It is like a go-kart racer from Ecuador facing off against Michael Schumacher in a Formula One race.

In football, India will perhaps never play Brazil in true competition, nor will India's boxing heavyweight champion face off against Lennox Lewis. But, in Davis Cup, Mankad is allowed his one day in the sun.

For that one shining, fleeting moment, Mankad was given a chance for the unthinkable. Maybe Hewitt would get sunstroke or double fault excessively or Mankad hit a string of winners: victory was improbable, but not impossible. And we know that because India's reputation in Davis Cup has been built on resolve subduing ranking, on our ability, in fact, to embrace the unthinkable.

Rarely, in sport, does India play above itself; in 1983, when we did, against the West Indies, India won cricket's World Cup. Mostly, it is the exception; in Davis Cup, it is almost the rule. With only one Top 10 player, Ramanathan Krishnan, India has made three Davis Cup finals and one semifinals since 1966.

In 1993, Leander Paes was ranked No. 208, and Ramesh Krishnan even further back, were faced against Henri Leconte (No. 68) and Arnaud Boetsch (No. 25) and, in the last match, Rodolphe Gilbert (No. 79), in the Davis Cup.

If it was an ATP tournament, even a 128-draw Grand Slam tournament, they would have never played each other because the Indians' ranking was too low. But in Cup play they met, and a miracle was fashioned.

In 1987, a 33-year-old Vijay Amritraj, on his last legs, his ranking low, played 23-year-old Martina Jaite, who finished the year No. 14, and won in five sets. Paes, of course, has made a living, and a reputation, challenging and out-energising superior players.

They were all extraordinary moments, a unique writing of sporting history. And if, in fact, we consider India's defeat of the West Indies in 1983, when only a handful of nations play cricket, to be a David and Goliath story, then what do we call these?

But perhaps these special moments are to become fewer. And, it is unfortunate, that Australia, who understand better than most the traditions of Cup play, are lobbying for change.

Last year, Australia reached the Davis Cup final. Early this year, when the competition re-started, they lost to Argentina in the first round, immediately after the gruelling Australian Open, and thus had to play India in the world group qualifier recently.

The Australians believe that is unfair, that asking top players to interrupt their hectic tour commitments repeatedly through the year will result in them refusing to play. When, in fact, people want to see the best players in the Davis Cup. As a result, they want the winner and finalist of the previous year to be given a first-round bye the following year.

In effect, it would reduce the number of teams in the Davis Cup World Group from 16 to 14. It was also reduce the opportunities for lesser, but combative nations, like India.

When Australian captain John Fitzgerald, a fair man, argued for change at the India-Australia tie, this writer asked him if Australia was not a Davis Cup force presently, and was, in fact, a struggling nation like India, would be put forward the same argument. To his credit, Fitzgerald conceded there was a counter-argument and that nations like India would be punished by this ruling.

Whether change will come is to be seen. Fitzgerald is not completely inaccurate when he says the beauty of Cup play, like in most competition, is to see the best versus the best. But we are right too. After all, the Davis Cup is distinctive because it is not like other competitions. In No. 831 versus No. 1, or better still, Vijay versus Jaite and Ramesh versus Gilbert or Paes versus Boetsch, rests a unique equality, a matchless confrontation, and a small, magnificent possibility that heart will triumph over talent.

To alter the system now, to ask lesser nations to, in a way, abandon their dreams, would be a spear into the very heart of Cup play.