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Sunday, May 22, 2022
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Opinion

Pride And Prejudice

Top guns like Sampras and Agassi snub the Davis Cup. But as long as the likes of Paes, Hewitt and Blake are putting their best foot forward, the beauty and charm of this magnificent sporting event will endure.

Pride And Prejudice
| Collage: AP/Gopinath S.
Pride And Prejudice
outlookindia.com
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Monday, July 8. Wimbledon 2001. Men’s singles final. Goran Ivanisevic of Croatia versus Patrick Rafter of Australia. A rain-soaked second week results in the men’s singles final being scheduled on a Monday. People’s Monday, it’s called. The schedule change means that Sunday tickets aren’t valid and that entry into Centre Court will be first come, first serve. It’s democracy at its fairest. It works beautifully, as Wimbledon sees scenes it has never seen before.

Early into Sunday night itself, people started queuing up outside the road lining the All-England Club for tickets. They came with sleeping bags, food hampers, radios, books, toothbrushes, razors -- and high spirits. It was a party out there.

By morning, the queue stretches to three miles. The very concept of People’s Monday ensures the 13,370-strong crowd in Centre Court is a heady mix of tennis enthusiasts, supporters of the two players and people simply out to have a good time. At 2 pm on Monday, Centre Court is a sea of green and gold (the Aussie sporting colours), with a few red and white islands (the Croatian national colours), and a cacophony of noise. Flags, inflatable kangaroos, silly hats, bugles, hooters. Nirmal Shekhar of The Hindu summed it up aptly in his report the next day: "It was like watching a Davis Cup tie between Australia and Croatia at Melbourne Park."

The sporting spectacle Wimbledon saw that July Monday was indeed special, a once in a blue moon kind of a thing. Who knows if the draw, two likeable champions and the weather gods will conspire ever for an encore on that hallowed grass court? It doesn’t matter. There’s that memory to relive, over and over again. And, there’s Davis Cup every year to build some new ones.

An intense, fun-filled, partisan atmosphere is an integral part of virtually every Davis Cup tennis tie played in countries that are even remotely passionate about tennis. The Davis Cup is a grand stage, grounded in history and built on the concept of nations. It’s a different ball game than the normal tennis tour, which is mostly about individuals. In Davis Cup, a player might be alone on court, yet he is not alone. He carries the hopes and dreams of his team-mates and a nation.

Davis Cup demands that players be conscious of their national identity. It demands that players feel a huge amount of pride and honour in representing their country. It demands that players don’t think of themselves as just individuals, but as individuals who are part of a team. It’s one of the finest team competitions in all sport. At stake is the biggest prize in team tennis. For a player, it’s a special feel, provided he can feel the enormity of the occasion and the high that comes with just competing and being there.

The ‘Four Musketeers’ from France did in the 20s and 30s. The never-ending assembly line of Australian greats did in the 50s and 60s. John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg did in the 80s. Lleyton Hewitt and Leander Paes still do. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi don’t.

This weekend, the US takes on France on the red clay of Roland Garros, Paris, in one of the two semi-finals. Make that a depleted US team against the French, as missing from the US line-up are Sampras and Agassi -- two of the finest tennis players not just of their era but of all time, but with blots for Davis Cup records.

Sampras said he was "emotionally drained" from the effort of winning the US Open two weeks ago; Agassi stuck to his earlier stance of not playing the Davis Cup this year. Coming from guys who’ve been playing the tour week in, week out for eight months a year for almost a decade-and-a-half and considering that this is for a place in the final of the world’s premier team tennis tournament, it’s an apology of an excuse.

The bitter truth is that Sampras and Agassi have rarely had their hearts in Davis Cup, seeing it more as a career goal rather than as military service (with the fun element). They are not the only ones. Over the years, especially since the nineties, a lot of top players have dithered while committing to playing for their country.

They say it’s too taxing to play in addition to the regular tour, there are too many adjustments to make. Lame excuse. Four ties at most in a year, four weekends in a year. Add travel and preparation, four weeks in a year. Is that too much to ask when the mantle of the world’s top tennis nation is on the line? What these players won’t say out aloud is that they’d rather play on the tour, and see their ranking and bank balance rise. Perhaps, it’s a sign of the times that playing for team glory and national pride comes after playing for the self.

Davis Cup might be poorer by the absence of marquee names like Sampras and Agassi, but it’s a good thing the US has an elder statesman like Todd Martin and exciting youngsters like Andy Roddick and James Blake signing up. Says Blake: "It’s (playing in Davis Cup) a no-brainer. It’s something I can believe in. You get a high playing for your country and I love being part of a team."

It’s a good thing for world tennis that the Swedes still raise their hands when it comes to committing for the Davis Cup. As do the French, the Aussies, the Spaniards, the Indians, and many more others who see the beauty of this sporting event.

There’s the tie format, played out over three days, four singles and one doubles, best-of-five sets. Each match is a battle that has a bearing on the outcome of the war. This effectively means the tie is decided only on the second or the third day. And when the tie swings from one side to the other and goes right down to the wire, to the final singles match on the third day, it’s like watching a fifth set tie-breaker in a grand slam final.

The best-of-five format gives great room for individual expression, yet doesn’t assure victory. Germany’s Boris Becker notched up a singles record of 38-3 in 12 years of Cup play (he lost twice to Spaniard Sergio Casal and once to Dutchman Paul Haarhius), yet had just two titles to show against his name. Team work.

There’s the history of 103 years to draw from, of long-standing nation rivalries, of ties won and lost. The US team returns to Roland Garros this weekend after 75 years. Roland Garros was built in 1928 to stage the Davis Cup finals that year against a Bill Tilden-led US team. That decade, the fight for Davis Cup supremacy was between the US and France. The US dominated the earlier half of the decade, before the French, led by the Four Musketeers (Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon), notched up a six-year winning streak, starting 1927.

Their first title was the sweetest, as the Musketeers had faltered at the last hurdle against the Americans in the previous two years. There’s a moving excerpt from a piece written by Lacoste titled ‘A Quest for the Cup’ that describes the unbelievable sensation of bringing the Cup home to France for the first time.

Lacoste wrote: "Victory! A simple word. So short -- and yet how expressive. The end of an effort begun in 1922. So many matches played in all the countries of the world, so many endless thousands of miles travelled over, so many hopes shattered as soon as formed, and today finally realised. The Atlantic crossed and re-crossed seven times. Months and months passed in dreaming of this day! And at last it had come."

Like all sport, Davis Cup is about competing hard, striving for victories, but there’s so much more happening on the periphery. Like the bonhomie and the camaraderie. Says Nikki Pietrangeli, who played for Italy in the late 50s and early 60s and is the most prolific Davis Cup player of all time (164 matches in 66 ties, with an awesome record of 78-32 in singles and 42-12 in doubles): "It's not just you, there are people. If you become friends with everybody, I think it's a great experience. Really, when you play Davis Cup and you play on a team, it's something different. That's what makes Davis Cup such an unbelievable event."

This spirit is epitomised by the Australian team that visited Spain for their semi-final tie in 2000. The players from Down Under all grew handle bar moustaches to ape their non-playing captain, John Newcombe. The extra facial hair, groomed and styled with great care, didn’t help them win the tie, but it was one of those little things that showed just why they are always a formidable Davis Cup outfit.

Sure, it helps that they have the current world number Lleyton Hewitt in their ranks. Hewitt hadn’t missed a tie since his 1998 debut till a bout of chicken pox forced him out of this year’s first round tie against Argentina. He’s back, playing against India this weekend, despite knowing well enough that even a second-string Aussie team could have done the job with great ease. But then, he believes in Davis Cup values, and stands up for it.

Hewitt is in the enviable position of being a winner. One of his opponents, Leander Paes, isn’t. A fading, rusty Paes spearheads a team of Davis Cup greenhorns, which is considerably weakened by the absence of ace doubles player Mahesh Bhupathi through injury. He plays above himself when he plays under the Indian flag -- a bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and a win-loss record of 61-27 in Davis Cup (38-19 in singles and 23-8 in doubles), which includes victories over Ivanisevic (on grass), France’s Henri Leconte and Arnaud Boetsch (on clay, away from home), to name just three. Can he do it to the Aussies in Brisbane? He might not pull off the tie, but he’ll surely cause a flutter or two.

But, it doesn’t matter if this Indian team wins or not. What matters is they are there, on court, representing their country. Said Paes before the tie: "The odds are definitely in the Australians' favour playing at home, having the number one singles player in the world, having Todd Woodbridge as one of the formidable doubles players over the years. But as far as we go, it's our responsibility to put out best foot forward for the country, and that's what I take pride in."

As long as the likes of Paes, Hewitt and Blake are out there, putting their best foot forward, the beauty and charm of this magnificent sporting event, started by Dwight Davis in 1900, will endure.

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