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Monday, September 24, 2007
Best in show at Davis Cup

The come-from-behind Russian win was spectacular and Andy Roddick's third-day heroics for team USA were the definition of "clutch", but the most compelling story at the end of another Nationalistic Orgy Weekend (aka Davis Cup) wasn't about the Big Dawgs -- it was about the Lhasa Apsos and Miniature Schnauzers.

How about that Dudi Sela, folks!

Dudi put on his big boy pants on Friday, and, by Sunday night, Israel found itself in the elite World Group of the 2008 Davis Cup competition. Never mind that the tiny nation is likely to be woofed down by one of the larger canines in the first round of play come February. Sela, ranked No. 105, beat Fernando Gonzalez, the Australian Open finalist and world No. 6, in the fourth rubber to clinch for Israel. Two elements in Israel's win stand out because they are central to the unique and explosive nature of Davis Cup:

First, Israel was playing at home: Peel, oh, 80 ranking points worth of confidence off Gonzo's psyche.

Second, as the ancient prophet has often warned DC favorites: Beware doubles. Israel's Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram are a world-class doubles team, and on this occasion they were off-world class, taking down the former Olympic Games gold medalists, Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu. The fifth set was a 6-3 barn burner that turned the tie for Israel and put the nation into the World Group for the first time in 14 years.

But Israel's win was part of a larger, developing pattern in Davis Cup -- the trend toward absolute rather than relative parity. Not so long ago, the World Group was a gentlemen's club consisting of the Big Dawgs (USA, Spain, Russia, Australia, France) and a few lesser powers who could make life uncomfortable for them (Sweden, Germany, Czech Republic, Croatia, et al). Now, those lesser powers are fighting for their places in the revolving door as nearly every nation can field a team capable of barging into the club.

In fact, while Israel was the feel-good story of this Davis Cup weekend, the more resonant story was that of Serbia, which qualified for the World Group for the first time and, with Novak Djokovic leading the parade, is going to give fits to anyone it meets. The other World Group qualifiers this weekend were: Korea (first time in 21 years), Austria, Romania, Czech Republic, Great Britain, Slovak Republic and Peru.

And who ended up left out for 2008? Traditional powerhouse Australia, Croatia (the winner of the whole shootin' match in 2005), Chile, Japan and Brazil. Want to add up the land mass and population of the winners and losers. Nah. Let them mourn in silence. As U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe presciently said a few weeks ago: "I think what you're also seeing is a lot of teams coming in and out of the World Group … I think that's how [Davis Cup] has changed so much, you're seeing different countries sort of come in and out of the top 16."

In other words, they're all Rottweilers now.

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