Learning to Love the Davis Cup – Mirth and Madness in Madrid

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(Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Bill Simons

Madrid

My head spins. The fatigue courses through my veins. It’s 2:16 AM and I’m the last reporter to leave the upstairs press room. I know that in just a few days an elated champion will feel glee, but for now, there’s gloom.

Writers share dispiriting tales. The last bus from the hotel leaves way too early – at 11:00 AM. Late the other night, transport left a writer stranded at the Magic Box. The scheduling of matches borders on madness and there have been problematic forfeits.

Here, the usually well-oiled machine of tennis is grinding. America’s doubles match goes on and on, still far from its mind-boggling 4:04 AM conclusion. The Davis Cup website is a problem, their app isn’t happy. The stats are scarce, the scoreboard is confused. At times this three-stadium circus spins almost out of control.

Madrid is flooded by Americans each summer. But now, at November’s Davis Cup matches, there are a mere 60 Yankees or so who jingle cowbells and clap politely. Their “USA! USA!” chants are barely audible as Canadians, and then Italians, dominate the room. America, which is almost ten times bigger than Canada, is by far the most populous nation in the Davis Cup. If only we’d been able to round up a single trumpet player with a tad of talent and a slightly mad drummer, we could have transformed the one-sided vibe. Oh, well.

Organizers have said this would be the World Cup of Tennis, and promised that, unlike before, the best players would gather. But seven of the top ten players are missing. And, as if to rub salt into the wound, demigod Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev are drawing huge crowds for their Argentinian exhibitions.

But wait, the Davis Cup’s Opening Ceremony was a triumph. Taylor Fritz has just scored a noble upset over Matteo Berrettini. But no one knows for sure whether America has been eliminated or not. Can this get any worse?

Have Davis Cup backers taken paradise and put up a parking lot? Why did the Laver Cup get so much right, and here less so? Suggestions for change bounce off the walls. Quick, change the match scheduling, make the event longer, switch its end of the season date, get a second venue, go back essentially to the old format, or, as Novak Djokovic suggests, have home matches around the world until an eight-team playoff at one venue.

Eventually, Jack Sock and Sam Querrey prevail over the Italians and some good sleep helps me. This morning as I walk the back streets to the stadium, I think of how Billie Jean King has always preached the value of team play in a solitary sport. Despite all, the players relish playing with their mates and for their nation. There’s nothing like it.

Often belligerent Nick Kyrgios beams when he talks about his love for his brothers on the Aussie team. John Millman talks of Australia’s storied Davis Cup tradition. Despite a boycott by angry French fans, Nicolas Mahut speaks of the joy of wearing the French blue. And while the free-form locker-room camaraderie of the Americans impresses, the sheer bliss of the Canadian victory celebrations sends shivers.

Today, the Americans are gone. So what’s a guy to do but head out to the Kazakhstan-Britain tie? Here gentle grandmothers from Surrey mix with Cockney boys with red, white and blue spiked hair. Banners from Northam, Scotland’s Rutherglen Lawn Tennis Club and the British Association of Tennis Backers are everywhere. Not far from a “Murray Nation, Back the Brits” sign, Judy Murray pulls for her son Jamie, while East Londoners sing La Marseillaise while waving the Union Jack – go figure.

But it is the Kazaks who rule this roost. As the proud head of their association wears a proper blue and yellow sash, zealous fans roar. A drummer with a flag in his headband pounds. A sarcastic trombonist mercilessly mocks British missteps. A fan in gold lamé sporting an eagle’s head is one of the most inventive Davis Cup characters I’ve seen since Jojo, the Zimbabwean clown. All the while, after every point, the Kazak din continues. Finally, a fine British gentleman with a proper accent calls out, “Oh shut up.”

The Kazkaks don’t, but the Brits win and Jamie Murray tells the crowd, “This atmosphere is unbelievable.”

And, despite all its warts, so it this Davis Cup.

Back at my seat in the press room a Chinese writer works studiously. Handlers from the Chilean team chatter and Janko Tipsarevic strolls by. I look up at a screen and elated Canadians are singing “Oh Canada.” Beyond the TV, in the press room, a gaggle of anxious French reporters all but trip over each other as they quiz the defeated Jo Willie Tsonga and Benoit Paire. A German writer has a 40-minute conversation with their team Captain and reporters wearing bright Kazakhstan shirts wait for Alexander Bublik to do his press conference.

Yannick Noah said all the changes to the Davis Cup would crush the soul of the competition. Certainly there have been radical moves and there are massive problems. But there is too much goodness in the competition, the tradition, the athleticism of the big stars like Novak and Rafa and the surprising moxie of overachievers like Canada’s Vasek Pospisil and German Jan-Lennard Struff. Yes, you can claim, as did Ion Tiriac, that this is a joke. And Russian Shamil Tarpishchev called this “blitz tennis.” But, he also said it was “a celebration of tennis.” I agree. And, despite all, I like it.

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1 COMMENT

  1. We heartily agree with your assessment Bill. It was time for a change to the Davis Cup, and changes never take place perfectly or easily. We applaud the attempt and the effort, and we’re sure next year’s event will be even better! Can the USTA take some of it’s funds and set up low cost tour groups of raucous fans (say US Open style) to attend next year’s event?

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