By Bill Simons
AN OPEN LETTER TO MY FRIEND, ITF PRESIDENT DAVE HAGGERTY
As writer Thomas Moore suggests, “The soul is not a thing. It represents an area of experience that conveys essence, depth, substance, and mystery. You become aware of it when you realize how deeply some event stirs you. It goes further than emotion and can hardly be expressed in words. You can also sense that depth in a geographical place or an object that is precious to you.
“We become aware of our soul when we feel a deep stirring, perhaps at the sight of a rosy dawn or when we fall in love with a person or place. This awareness…affects our very being. That’s the point about the soul – it reaches deep and can affect the way we find meaning. ”
Tennis gives us many wonders. While Wimbledon is a sporting cathedral like no other, and the US Open roars with New York ferocity, the 118-year- old Davis Cup is at the heart and soul of tennis.
Yes, the venerable competition has many a critic. Still, fans come from every corner of Spain to descend on a soccer stadium, waving flags and hoping for national redemption. Ecstatic Africans pack a Zimbabwe hockey rink for the biggest sports event in the history of their young, troubled country. And French fans watch as their triumphant team circles a Grenoble arena in a conga dance that’s one of the greatest celebrations in tennis history. To some Australians it’s almost a religious rite. Aussie Adrian Quist recalled, “Playing Davis Cup was an obsession. Everything else, even tournaments, took second place.”
From Perth to Fort Worth, from Croatia to Calcutta, from Kazakhstan to California, Davis Cup is played each year with exuberant zest and joy. But the Davis Cup is a low-hanging pinata. It’s easy to bash – it takes too long, it’s too far flung, it’s draining, it’s irrelevant.
But it’s still great. After all these years I say it’s an underappreciated populist treasure that showcases compelling tennis across the world. In all of sports, it stands as a truly unique annual competition – one that should be relished and embraced.
But now the International Tennis Federation’s board has approved a plan, one that will come to a final vote in August, that would replace the current Davis Cup format that gives us 15 compelling ties across the world, plus numerous other regional matches. In its place would come a one-week, one-city 18-nation round-robin competition in November, featuring three best-of-three set matches.
Tentatively scheduled to be played in Singapore in 2019 with $22 million in prize money, the deep-pocket, presumably glitzy event will have a certain made-for-TV cooker-cutter similarity to the ATP and WTA Championships, the Laver Cup, and a possible new ATP World Cup, all of which would be staged in the two-month “off-season.” Talk about clutter.
But I say there is nothing in pro tennis that comes close to matching the Davis Cup’s frenzy and excitement – raw, unfiltered passion, close to the people. Heritage and tradition matter. Don’t kick tennis’ grand old lady in the shins. Don’t take the heart out of the Cup – make it shine. We ignore our soul at our own peril.
The Davis Cup was founded in 1900 by Dwight Davis, a young idealistic Harvard student who said, “I thought if men of different nations could get together and compete on the court, they would get along and the world would become a better place.” The Davis Cup grew to prominence thanks to so many – including American Bill Tilden, France’s Four Musketeers, Harry Hopman and generations of Aussies, Arthur Ashe and John McEnroe. It has inspired kids everywhere.
As for me, I’m no different from millions of other dreamers. I, too, fantasized about playing Davis Cup. Who wouldn’t want to go out and battle for their country? In nearly 40 years of covering the game, some of my most vivid memories are of Davis Cup play – whether it was in Zimbabwe when fans packed a leaky hockey rink for the biggest sporting event in the history of their young, problematic nation, or the 100th anniversary of the Cup in Boston, or a triumphant day in Portland when the US claimed the title. And what’s not to like about lunch with the Bryan Brothers, as Bob and Mike dominate on a Saturday afternoon? The Davis Cup still stirs the imagination, encourages play and remains the heartbeat of our great sport.
Remember when Swedes tossed the triumphant Stefan Edberg up in the air in a flag? Or when John McEnroe battled Mats Wilander for over six hours in St. Louis? Or when an exhausted Pete Sampras single-handedly led the US to triumph in Moscow and then collapsed? To many, the Davis Cup has been everything. Aussie Pat Rafter confided, “I think about Davis Cup even in the shower.” Brit Mark Cox said, “No amount of money can compensate for the loss of ego from a poor Davis Cup experience.”
But now, in a game where money and rankings are key, stars often dismiss the Cup’s importance. After Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang all failed to play a tie, former Treasury Secretary William Simon wrote: “The case of the four stars who put their comfort and paychecks ahead of representing their country, is, alas, symptomatic of a far greater ill – the nation-destroying attitude of no longer caring much about our country. All too often today our own comfort, convenience, and the almighty dollar come first.”
But look again. In a sport where observers claim that we need to do more than repeatedly showcase Roger and Rafa, the Davis Cup regularly elevates mid-level stars (think David Goffin, Gael Monfils and Denis Shapovalov) and puts them on a pedestal – it’s their moment to shine. And, if you take a close look, all six of today’s marquee players (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka and Del Potro) have picked their spots and had scintillating moments of Davis Cup triumph that jolted their careers. In the lives of Djokovic and Murray, Davis Cup play has been a core uplifting narrative.
All the while, the lore of the Davis Cup – from France’s Musketeers to one-man wonders like bloody Mardy Fish high on a Columbian mountain to Andy Murray at home in Glasgow – is one of the richest veins in the game – so many tales, so many memories.
Sure, not all Cup matches sizzle. Finland’s Veli Paloheimo joked, “Usually, we have problems with Davis Cup spectators – we don’t get any.” Due to security concerns, a Sweden-Israel match was played in a virtually empty arena in Malmo. Other times the Cup attracts huge throngs. Over 27,000 fans came out in Spain and again just last year in Lille, France.
Part of the appeal of Davis Cup is how it reflects the sometimes wacky, at other times sublime nature of life. David slays Goliath upsets and political subtexts are just grist for the mill.
A fan in Africa held up a sign: “Hi Mom, Send Diesel.” Ecuador’s Davis Cup Captain was so elated when his nation downed Arthur Ashe that he broke his leg when he tried to jump over the net. The very young Andre Agassi told us, “There are two things I live by. No. 1: you can never drive too far for Taco Bell. No. 2: You can never beat somebody too bad in Davis Cup.” Once he buzzed a Davis Cup stadium with his private plane. He got so worked up after playing Paraquay that he quipped, “We rubbed those guys out like the little bugs they are.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Spain’s Alec Corretja, sounding like a Buddhist monk, said, “We have to be humble. It’s transcendental. We have to suffer, maintain and be quiet. I will sacrifice and think globally.” The cross-generational, team element of Davis Cup can’t be overstated. Here, leaders like Newcombe, Hewitt, Agassi and Roddick mentor and guide time and again.
In a competition that often features catcalls, cowbells, blaring horns, pounding drums and the occasional mirror, Brazilians have been said to taunt their foes and Argentines have been accused of dirty tricks.
Still, Rod Laver gives us an uplifting take: “When the umpire announces ‘Australia’ instead of your name, and they start playing the national anthem, it’s impossible not to get a lump in your throat.” Italian Nicola Pietrangeli offered a different perspective: “A little cheating is expected in Davis Cup. Not robbery, really, because no one wants to be a thief, but a little help in touchy situations. It’s all right because it is for your country, and besides, the other country is doing the same thing.” Then again, after France edged Australia to win the Davis Cup, 15,000 Aussie fans stood and sang La Marseillaise.
During the Cold War, Romania resorted to outrageous stalling tactics and line calls when they played the US. The Soviet Union detained an American advising the Israeli team and denied him access to Russia. And Czechoslovakia’s Jan Kodes said, “We have to win. Our country will not allow us to lose to the Russians.” There have been many dreary hassles relating to Israel. Then again, the King of Jordan shook hands with Israel’s Davis Cup players and wished them luck. Recently, courageous Cambodia overcame genocide to score an inspirational Davis Cup win.
Now the ITF is throwing a lot of money at its Davis Cup headache. The big dollar proposal by Kosmos Investment Group, which is headed by Barcelona soccer star Gerard Pique and Rakuten billionaire Hiroski Mikitani, was first rejected by the ATP. Now they are proposing to pay the ITF a whopping $3 billion over an incredibly long 25 year stretch to stage the event. The proposed agreement brings to mind the ATP’s ill-fated $1.2 billion marketing pact with ISL some 18 years ago which lasted less than two years before it went bust. Also, there is nothing in the Kosmos deal about the women’s competition, the Fed Cup. Ouch!
The range of reactions has been mind-boggling. While some players have backed the initiative, Wimbledon Chief Phillip Brooks told IT, “It’s a bit of a mess.” Federations from Australia to Belgium have opposed it. France’s Nicolas Mahut was succinct: “They’ve just killed the Davis Cup.”
Lleyton Hewitt, the most successful Davis Cup player of all time, contended, “A lot of people are frustrated and see this as a money-grab…It’s all about money, not representing your country. It makes absolutely no sense…You can’t call this the Davis Cup…You can ask anyone for the past 50 years who has played and [this] is not what it is about, nor what it should be about…I am quite strong on the whole thing. Tennis Australia is fighting against this.”
To pass, the proposal will need a two-thirds approval. Money shouts, politics rule – still, let us hope it is soundly rejected. After all, there is nothing like the soaring passion of Davis Cup. There is no ecstasy in the game like a Davis Cup match point. The competition is a potent antidote to the solitary, soul-deadening grind of the circuit.
In its place, in a city with only a modest tennis tradition, we would get yet another formulaic made-for-TV happening – bright spotlights, high hype.
Clearly serious reforms are immediately needed for the Davis Cup. It needs to be less demanding on players’ time and they need to be paid far more and to get ranking points. For all its flaws, there is so much extraordinary goodness in the Davis Cup as we know it. But the ITF is throwing the 118-year old baby out with the bathwater. Yes, their Davis Cup operation could be a success, but surely the patient will die. Sadly, Yannick Noah may prove to be right when he tweeted, “They sold the soul of an historic event. Sorry, Mister Davis.”
But life is about more than apologies. Starting with you, Dave, caring tennis lovers must now band together to make sensible changes and hopefully save the soul of our sport.
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