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Thursday, November 30, 2006
Davis Cup becoming a global parity


The last significant tennis event of the year gets underway tomorrow: the final of the sport's showcase team event and a competition that some (including me) value above all things short of the four Grand Slam Events. We're talking Davis Cup, and Argentina begins the quest to shed its reputation as a frequent bridesmaid when it tangles with Russia in Moscow.

Russia? A modern-day Rip van Winkle reading that would undoubtedly puzzled, because, historically speaking, Australia or the U.S. put up at least one of the two Davis Cup finalists, and often both. Oh, France had some glory years more than five decades ago, as did Great Britain; but through most of the second half of the 20th century, English was the official language of Davis Cup champs.

This has changed drastically in the last decade, during which the U.S. has made it to just two finals (1997 and 2004), without winning either time (by contrast, in the previous decade, the Yanks were more like New York Yankees, getting to four finals and winning three). The Aussies have fared better, but the two traditional powers have won fewer than half the finals in the past 10 years. The defending champ is Croatia (having beaten the Slovak Republic), Spain won in 2004 and Russia took the Cup in 2002. Right now, it's hard to see either the U.S. or Australia as a force, never mind a dominant one, in the foreseeable future of Davis Cup.

There's no better way to understand where tennis is going than through the prism of Davis Cup, and that destination is global parity. This is something U.S. fans are going to have to get used to, because if you can't pronounce names like Djokovic, Acasuso, Davydenko or Ljubicic, much less enjoy the tennis those guys play, you're going to be living in a world of tennis hurt. And Davis Cup is just the tip of the iceberg.

It's an open secret that the Lords of Tennis are increasingly looking to Europe, South America and the Pacific Rim as the power centers of tennis in the years to come. The ATP appears to be shifting its base of operations to London (the group is now based in Ponta Vedra, Fla., a move that looks a lot dumber now than when the Agassi-Sampras generation was being cranked into the barrel of the tennis gun that had just fired and ejected the likes of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe). The dominant player in the world is a Swiss, his closest rival this moment is a Spaniard, and only one active American player (Andy Roddick) has a Grand Slam title to his name. No wonder the Euros are encouraging the ATP to sublet the Ponta Vedra location to the PGA!

My sources at the ATP Championships in Shanghai told me that Europe is aflame with promotional activity; there's talk of a dual-gender mega-event (comparable to our Indian Wells and Miami events) for either France or Spain, and of another one for China. As more and more countries other than the U.S. churn out top players and Grand Slam contenders, it will be increasingly hard to justify American dominance of the game's political and organizational infrastructure. The dominant language in the foreseeable future will still be English, but not necessarily the kind easily understood in Indianapolis, or Charlotte.

Remember the famous film clip of the helicopter struggling to lift-off the top of the U.S. Embassy as Saigon was about to fall, in the waning days of the Vietnam war? What's happening in tennis isn't quite that sudden or dramatic, but the evacuation seems to be underway. I'll have a recap of the Davis Cup action on Monday.