Davis Cup remains ever fascinating to fandom in all countries. The historic international team competition, however, remains well behind the four Slams and other pro tour events in the priorities of many players, agents, and writers. Things were different decades ago. So important was the Cup in 1931, for example, that the official U.S. committee required Frank Shields to concede the Wimbledon singles championship to fellow American Sidney Wood. Shields had hurt an ankle in winning his semi-final, and the committee wanted him fresh for Cup play the following weekend. Thus the Wimbledon final went unplayed, and a week later Shields won the only American singles point against Britain.
The times also showed a sense of fairness in international sport of a kind not seen today. Working in the Library of Congress recently I came upon a 1935 news account tellling about the American choice of court surface for a forthcoming Davis Cup meeting with Australia. It had been widely agreed that the U.S. team would have the advantage on a non-grass surface. The matter was debated and, after asking the Australians their preference, the U.S.L.T.A. committee decided on grass "out of fairness and courtesy to the visiting nation." It was, the announcement continued, "the sporting way to act."
Today, of course, Davis Cup host nations make no apologies in choosing whatever venues and surfaces seem most helpful to their own team`s cause.
Last year`s final round was decided in the fifth set of the fifth match after host France and visiting Russia stood tied at two matches all. In a battle of 20-year olds on indoor clay in Paris, Russian star Mikhail Youzhny, replacing Kafelnikov, recovered from two sets down to defeat talented Paul-Henri Mathieu. It was only the second time in a hundred years of Davis Cup history, that a final round produced a five-setter in a deciding fifth rubber.
Over 140 nations applied for Cup play in the new year, 2003. The 16-nation World Group included twelve European nations, along with Argentina, Brazil, and perennial powers Australia and U.S.A.
The sixteen nations were reduced to eight in early February. Croatia defeated the United States when Ivan Ljubicic, serving brilliantly, defeated James Blake and Mardy Fish in singles and (with Ivanisevic) in doubles. Andy Roddick was absent with injury. (Andre Agassi, whose career Cup record in singles is 30-5, had not played Davis Cup since his superb, largely overlooked contribution in 2000.) Meanwhile defending champion Russia survived Czech Republic on indoor clay in Ostrava after another deciding fifth-rubber five-setter, Davydenko defeating Stepanek. Sweden and Brazil also went to the fifth rubber, Sweden`s Vinciguerra defeating Saretta in straight sets.
The eight became four in early April. Australia swept Sweden, while Spain and Argentina triumphed on red clay over Croatia and Russia, respectively. Meanwhile Roger Federer`s three wins (two singles, one doubles) led the Swiss team in defeating France. Federer`s W-L record in Cup singles for the year thus became 4-0. The pairings were now set for the September semi-finals, played September 19-21 and discussed next.
SWITZERLAND vs. AUSTRALIA
Basil Stafford writes from Melbourne that the first-day`s matches were exceptional to watch. Lleyton Hewitt, as expected, proved far too strong for Kratochvil, while Philippoussis lost to Federer in three hard-fought sets, repeating the result of their Wimbledon final. The Australian played great tennis, in Basil`s judgment, but Federer "could do no wrong." For Basil the second-day doubles was even more wonderful to watch, the Australian pair Arthurs-Woodbridge winning after falling behind two sets to one. Our correspondent admired Todd Woodbridge`s deft serve-returning, intelligent volleying, and all-around shot-making--"setting the point up rather than winning it outright." Federer played brilliantly most of the way, but when Arthurs "caught fire" it was the Australians who moved on top.
On the third day (in Basil`s words), "Hewitt looked all but dead at two sets down and Federer serving for the rubber. A live fifth rubber looked a certainty. Federer had been hitting the ball with great authority and with the silkiness we know he can produce. His forehand was particularly telling as he reeled off winners especially down the line seemingly at will. Indeed, Federer`s second set was awesome and almost perfect. I cannot remember him losing a point on his first serve in that set. Hewitt was playing in the cautious manner for which he has been lately criticized. He was failing to find penetration on either side, and Federer was punishing the many mid-court balls he received. At the change of ends it was noticeable that Hewitt was shaking his head in talking with captain Fitzgerald....
"But what a comeback. You cannot ever discount Hewitt`s fighting spirit, and fight he did. When Federer was serving for the rubber Hewitt made him play at everything and was rewarded. Nothing special--just tough. He won the tiebreak. In the fourth you could feel the momentum changing. Hewitt was going for his shots now and playing aggressively--going for the lines. It was Federer who was now playing short balls and making errors...."
To Basil, the defining moment came late in the fourth set at break and set point against Federer. Federer, who had been taking soft options, especially drop shots, hit a very good drop shot, which Hewitt could only scoop back. The point should have been Federer`s. But Hewitt managed to cover the volley, pushing it past a helpless Federer to end the set. It seemed to Basil that the mental game had been won. The fifth set was Hewitt`s, 6-1.
Lleyton put words to his supreme joy and what Cup play meant to him: "This beats the hell out of winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open."
ARGENTINA v. SPAIN
The dream meeting of the top clay-court nations seemed spoiled when Argentina`s highest-ranked players--Coria and Nalbandian--became unavailable because of injuries. Host Spain thus seemed an extreme favorite, represented in singles by Ferrero and Moya, both of whom were (like Coria and Nalbandian) ranked in the world`s first eight for 2003. Both Spanish stars indeed won their first-day singles, Moya recovering from two sets down to defeat a cramping Zabaleta. Eyebrows rose only slightly on the second day when an Argentine pair won the doubles.
But the world`s attention leaped on Sunday upon the unbelievable news of the straight-set victory of Agustin Calleri (substituting for Zabaleta) over Juan Carlos Ferrero, current French Open champion and recent semi-finalist at U.S. Open. Both nations now had two wins, and the verdict remained up to Spain`s Carlos Moya and Argentina`s Gaston Gaudio. The two men had played only once before, Gaudio having won in two straight sets last year on Barcelona clay. Gaudio showed a remarkable 13-2 record in past Cup play.
But Moya`s career had been on an upswing, especially on clay, and the Mallorcan star on this day gave his best tennis. Moya prevailed in three straight sets. Afterwards, the disappointed Argentine captain said of Moya, "he played like the world`s Number One today."
So it will be Spain and host-nation Australia in the Cup final in November. The pattern where the Cup has been won by five different nations in the last five years will therefore be broken.
Sixteen other nations played on the same weekend, competing for eight places in next year`s World Group. Each meeting paired one of the first-round losers in 2003 World Group against one of the recent winners in upper-level zonal play. I watched most of a first-day`s match, televised from Bratislava, Slovak Republic.
The red clay was deep in color from the moisture that betold the slowness of the bounce. Andy Roddick, winner of 19 consecutive matches including U.S. Open, all on outdoor hard surfaces, seemed a likely winner against Dominik Hrbaty, a hard-hitting 25-year-old, whose most successful years seemed behind. Both players showed strong power from both sides. But after the first set, won by Andy, often it was the Slovak player whose flattish rocketry pushed back the American. Andy found himself playing most points from ten feet behind the baseline, often forced deep into the corners. Any moderately soft return by Andy was promptly dispatched to an open corner by Hrbaty. Andy tried taking serve earlier or coming occasionally to net, with little success. It was a stunning--indeed a magnificent--win for Hrbaty.
Matters did not look good for the Yanks. Next on court were Slovakia`s Karol Kucera and America`s Mardy Fish, who had been selected by captain McEnroe over James Blake. Both Fish and Kucera had recorded improving results during the summer, but when the two met in the recent U.S. Open the result had been a solid win by the veteran Slovak player. Under enormous pressure, Fish reversed the previous verdict, achieving a superb four-set victory--on slow clay before an unsupporting gallery. His win thus headed off the unthinkable for the Americans, who then collected the doubles (won by the Bryans) and a third-day singles win by Roddick. It was a satisfying four-man-team triumph.
Of the eight promotion/relegation meetings, the challengers won four. Max Mirnyi won two singles and (with Voltchkov) the doubles to lift Belarus and relegate Germany. Canada won promotion by defeating Brazil in Calgary behind Dan Nestor`s surprising win over Kuerten and 18-year-old Frank Dancevic`s win over Saretta. Austria relegated Belgium after Malisse withdrew with back trouble, and in Casablanca Morocco relegated Britain behind wins by Arazi over Henman and Rusedski.
Meanwhile lower-zone final-round or promotion meets were held in still another eight locations worldwide. All in all, it had been another brilliant Davis Cup weekend of more-than-ample drama, not seriously marred by bitterness or controversy.
The World Group draw for 2004 became known soon afterwards, including the pairings for round one in February. (U.S. will host Austria.) If the eight seeded nations survive in February, then the quarter-finals in April will see Australia hosting U.S.. Likewise Russia will host Argentina, Switzerland will host France, in both cases repeating 2003 pairings, and Spain will face Netherlands.
Davis Cup is unbeloved by many in or close to the tennis business, and its extended schedule is difficult for the players. It might help to improve individual rewards, to include generous ATP points. I especially hope that public enthusiasm returns in the United States, which has seen Cup disappointments in recent years and where many show distaste for the frequent non-availability of the country`s top stars. That each year`s Cup play extends over many months, in my opinion, is beneficial, as it produces tennis news and topics for discussion worldwide over much of the year. If tennis is to grow as a major sport, the international flavor and the continuity of Cup competition provide a priceless treasure.
Let us salute the two finalist nations of 2003, and let us also salute the 140-odd other nations who participated.
Arlington, Virginia, USA
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