That mighty ship of tennis – the Davis Cup – had come to port in Spain. Here in Madrid’s Magic Box an Argentine fan with a blue and white turban struck a pose. Spanish fans from Toledo and Cordoba pounded their drums, and players and fans alike debated the worth of a radically different format.
Last year France played at home in front of 20,000 raucous fans. Today there were a meager 400 fans on hand as they narrowly downed Japan. They said it was strange. Pierre Hugues Herbert joked that, for the first time in his life, he could hear himself sing La Marseillaise.
But while the French players sang songs of sorrow, journalists dove deep into the stats: 100,000 of the 130,000 tickets available had been sold, with 70% of them bought by Spaniards. Surprisingly, Chileans had bought the second most, followed by Britain and Italy.
It was noted that America had won the most Davis Cup titles in history – 32. That’s great – except we hadn’t prevailed in a dozen years. But no worries – we had a 15-0 record against our first foe, Canada. Never mind that the North American rivals hadn’t played since 1965, when Arthur Ashe was on the American squad.
Then, in this year of titanic changes, there was the most curious of today’s Davis Cup facts. The first Davis Cup meeting between the US and Canada in 1913 featured American Norris Williams, who 15 months earlier had survived the sinking of the Titanic. And speaking of naval disasters, here in Spain, folks still remember the sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588, when little England took down the then powerful Spaniards and began centuries of mastery at sea.
Today, here in Madrid, 431 years later, Americans hoped little Canada wouldn’t tip over our boat. But a certain sinking feeling was in the air.
A rowdy band of Canadians wearing their red and white CIAG (Canada Is Already Great) hats, hockey shirts and precise face paint totally dominated Stadium 2. Their air horns were punishing, their maple leaves proud and their rhythmic “La-la-la-la-Shapovalov” chants were imaginative. In contrast, there were only a few American fans and officials on hand and, in comparison, their polite applause and gentle cowbells seemed like whispers. Plus, American athletes haven’t been doing so well against Canadians of late. Just ask the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, who fell to the Toronto Raptors in this year’s NBA finals, or Ms. Serena, who was worked over by Bianca “She the North” Andreescu at the US Open.
To make matters worse, the US was competing without our top player, No. 19 John Isner. We’d be counting on Davis Cup rookies Reilley Opelka and Taylor Fritz, both 22, who’d be led by rookie coach Mardy Fish.
With a fast two-out-of-three-sets format, Captain Fish liked the opening matchup of Opelka vs. Vasek Pospisil. A massive muscular tower in red, white and blue sneakers, Opelka blasts 144 mph serves and menacing forehands. It’s dangerous to be a ballperson in one of his matches. His second serve seems to bounce to the third floor.
This year, Opelka won the New York Open, he’s hit over 1,000 aces, and his No. 33 ranking is far better than Pospisil’s No. 150. But part of the beauty of Davis Cup is that rankings don’t matter much. Pospisil, 6’4″, who’s coming off injuries, recently won a challenger in Knoxville, and he scored a mighty win over Italy’s Fabio Fognini yesterday. He sensed that this was his moment. He drew his 6’11” rival into rallies and ran him to the corners. His errors were few and he coaxed two costly volley errors out of the American, en route to a nothing-but-tie-breaks win, 7-6, 7-6.
Fish said Opelka “didn’t play a bad match. He handled the moment well. But Pospisil played the best I’ve ever seen him play…In the second set, he gave us two errors…Sometimes you have to tip your hat to someone who plays so well. He hardly made any errors.”
Next up for the Americans was the rising Californian Taylor Fritz, who so wanted to even the tie against Denis Shapovalov. But the Canadian, who’d just reached the Paris Masters finals, is fleet and forceful. His one-handed, lefty backhand combines grace and power. Now ranked No. 15, he’s a fighter, who in the back of his mind wanted to redeem his own wretched Davis Cup history, when he accidentally blasted a chair ump in the eye. Today, he blasted timely serves and moved with beauty as he prevailed 7-6, 6-3.
Fritz was despondent, commenting that the margins had been narrow. “In the second set, if I could have won it would have been big for our team. In the tie-break I was up twice. But I couldn’t make it happen. It sucks.”
And that’s a sinking feeling.
Now, to get out of the group section, the US will have to win all three of its matches against a powerful and rested Italian team, with Monte Carlo Masters winner Fabio Fognini and No. 8 Matteo Berrettini.