New Era, Same Soul? A Strong Opening Day for the Davis Cup

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Madrid

Hey, I simply wanted to make a point. Twenty months ago I wrote a letter (which was also a cover story) to ITF Chief Dave Haggerty. It pled, “Save the Soul of the Davis Cup.” I noted the singular passion of home and away matches, how they bring so much joy to towns little and large around the world. My point: they stoke hope and spark dreams, and it would be a shame to do away with one of the core assets of tennis, no matter what other problems the Davis Cup had. I’d known Dave for years, but I never heard back.

Today, in my own mind, at long last I got a reply. My answer came midway through the dazzling opening ceremony for the Davis Cup Finals. One Davis Cup captain after another appeared on the arena’s big overhead screen. One by one they repeated a clever, unmistakable mantra. Again and again the arena was told “New era, same soul. New era, same soul.” The thought that this was somehow the ITF chief’s response to my long-ago letter seemed silly. But, then again, what’s life without silly thoughts?

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Opening night on Broadway is everything. With every unsparing critic in town watching, it’s make-it-or-break-it, baby. The World Cup’s opening ceremony impresses, but in sports there’s nothing like the Olympic’s opening ceremony. Athens and Beijing still resonate. It was touching when Maria Sharapova carried the Olympic torch into Sochi’s stadium in 2014 and many a tennis player, including Djokovic and Federer, have carried their nation’s flags. But nothing beats Muhammad Ali overcoming the shakes and lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996.

In tennis, the French Open kickstarts with a Sunday opening. At Wimbledon, Centre Court always opens precisely at 1:00 PM and the defending champion gets the coveted honor to play. It’s a poignant, let-the-games-begin moment. And, of course, the US Open’s opening night, with its rock stars, light shows and celebs, always sizzles.

The Davis Cup, as critics have warned, could prove to be a setback initiated by a Spanish soccer-loving superstar. But if the change was only for the money, the opening ceremony here in Madrid’s Magic Box would have fooled you. There’s never been a ritual quite like it in our sport. It began in an extended darkness and proceeded with a dawn-of-man theme. “There was an emptiness,” a booming Biblical voice informed us. “There was an emptiness. There was a void. And in that vacuum a sphere was created. And man began to play.”

Here was a stirring, minimalist explanation of the creation of games and sport. I was hooked. And the ceremony just got better from there. Pounding drums, ethereal voices and passionate violins thrilled the sparse but happy crowd. Rich with Spanish flair and flashes of tennis history, it concluded with an inventive dance filled with graceful twirls, stop-and-go bursts, explosive stretches and breathless leaps that captured the essence of tennis.

It inspired. And it was the perfect prelude to a moving parade of nations that began with the greatest of all South American tennis countries – Argentina. One imagined the tennis-playing poet Guillermo Vilas, or perhaps the devilish David Nalbandian or the saintly Juan Martin del Potro.

Then came the nation that perhaps most adores Davis Cup. If tennis in France was built on Davis Cup glory in the 1920s and 1930’s, Australian tennis is rooted in its legends of the 50s and 60s. Today there was Davis Cup Captain Lleyton Hewitt, who began his career as a “juice boy,” a role reserved for Davis Cup newbies who have to prove their worth. A vocal Davis Cup critic, his raised collar seemed as defiant as Nick Kyrgios’ orange socks were bright.

The parade continued. When it comes to style and flair, nobody outdoes the French. Gael Monfils, Jo-Willie Tsonga and Benoit Paire (who is tennis’ bearded answer to James Harden) impressed. How wonderful it was to see Andy Murray stroll in, his career-threatening hip surgery now but a distant memory. And there are few better sights in our game than Rafa wearing Spain’s beloved red and gold colors.

Italy, with its linebacker-like Matteo Berrettini, Russia, with its grizzled Soviet-style captain, and Columbia, with its nothing-to-lose long-shot dreams, all strode in. Then came the Stars and Stripes. There’s something special about seeing our flag abroad – I stood tall. But not as tall as Reilly Opelka. The 6’11” Davis Cup rookie makes 6’6″ Sam Querrey look short. And Frances Tiafoe, with his broad smile and constant chatter, is a spot-on representative of the free-form aspect of the American character that is still so admired around the world.

But it was last year’s champion, the Marin Cilic-less Croatians, who were given the honor of being the last team to enter. As usual, the Croatians had a hardy cadre of supporters. Displaying the most distinctive sporting colors in the world, with its checkerboard red and white design, they not only shouted in delight, they brought a full band – trumpets, drums, a tuba and what seemed to be 76 trombones.

But this is the 21st century. So instead of a storied eight-month competition that brings passion to the far corners of the world, we have a compact one-week tennis festival. In the comment of the week, Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev suggested that “blitz chess” was replacing “classic chess.” Similarly, instead of Croatia’s loud musical throng blasting our ears, we heard nothing. The drums and trumpets of the best band in tennis were silenced by the ear-shattering amps that filled the Magic Box with the sounds of a British deejay and a Puerto Rican singer. The place rocked. Now we’ll see if the Davis Cup Finals by Rakuten, the World Cup of Tennis, rocks.

Although there was scant TV and media coverage in the US, the Davis Cup is off to an impressive start, and Spain doesn’t even play until tomorrow. Spirits were high, voices were loud, drums pounded and by the end of the day attendance was good. On center court Andrey Rublev and Karen Khachanov led Russia past Croatia. Vasek Pospisil and Dennis Shapovalov gave Canada wins over Italians Fabio Fognini and Matteo Berrettini. And David Goffin helped Belgium prevail over Columbia. Tomorrow’s matches are appealing. The US will play Canada – that will be tough. Spain will face Russia and South American rivals Argentina and Chile will face off.

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