Draw of Davis Cup still brings out best
The Davis Cup final between the Czech Republic and defending champion Spain in Barcelona this weekend will take place in its usual time slot, encroaching on both the traditional holidays and a men's tennis "offseason" that has shrunk to little more than a coffee break.
Yet all of the stars from both countries, including an apparently exhausted and demoralized Rafael Nadal, will show up. That's a tribute to the power of the event, which has survived and even prospered despite having its relevance challenged continually by some fans and critics.
To demonstrate the value of the 109-year-old competition, the International Tennis Federation commissioned an economic impact survey, the results of which were released Thursday. In what should be an unsurprising development for anyone familiar with bureaucratic theory, the numbers are positive. An independent company, London-based Fathom Consulting, estimated that the 125-nation tournament generates $184 million annually in economic benefits for host countries and cities, not to mention $53 million in direct revenue for the ITF and its members.
The summary contended that the Davis Cup "differs from sporting events like the Olympics or the FIFA [soccer] World Cup in that it offers greater value for money." In other words, the tournament almost always takes place in existing venues. All the host country has to do is turn on the lights, dust off the seats and sell tickets. That means nations of modest means or modest tennis tradition don't have a lot of out-of-pocket costs. Remember that for every glitzy Spain-Serbia first-rounder, there is an Algeria-Ireland being played further down the food chain.
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Davis Cup generally spreads the wealth by spreading its sites around within countries instead of anchoring itself to the largest cities. The U.S. Tennis Association has been consistent in its philosophy of placing Davis Cup in midsize markets -- Winston-Salem, N.C.; Portland, Ore.; and Birmingham, Ala., to name a few recent choices -- where tennis is the most exciting (and essentially only) game in town on that particular weekend. The animated ambience at those sites has reflected that, and with the decreasing number of major tournaments left in North America, it brings great players to audiences that otherwise wouldn't see them. (There's still something to be said for holding Davis Cup on a grander stage once in a while, though.)
The question of where to shoehorn the tournament into a crowded calendar leads to tinkering every few years. In 2009, the first round was pushed forward, from early February (when post-Australian Open travel was often an issue) to the first week of March, and the quarterfinals from April to July, during the short lull following Wimbledon. The semis and final remained approximately where they were, in September after the U.S. Open and the week following the year-end championships, respectively.
Still hard to follow, you say? That may be a distinctly American bias. The rest of the world is more accustomed to keeping track of multiple schedule threads within the same sport. Soccer teams, especially in Europe, participate in several tournaments concurrent to their league play. Doesn't seem to bother their fans.
Where Davis Cup can cross anyone's eyes is the home-and-away format -- the relative strength of each team doesn't count, just where they played last time they met, even if years have rolled by in the meantime. On the other hand, the home team chooses the surface, providing fertile ground for strategic intrigue. Is it better to play on your own team's best surface or the other team's worst?
Another valid criticism is the fact that the defending champion doesn't get a first-round bye the following year, and sometimes even has to play the first round on the road (see above paragraph). It seems there should be some reward for perseverance other than that behemoth of a trophy.
But the retort to that lies in the fine print of that just-released economic survey. The 2010 draw has been held and we already know that the sexiest matchup possible in this tournament -- Spain versus Switzerland (i.e., Roger versus Rafa) -- is on tap for the first round next year, a gala event that wouldn't materialize if Spain were to prevail this weekend as expected and then get a pass to the quarters.
Speaking of that, let's get back to the players, whose commitment to Davis Cup can be priceless. The mere fact that Nadal is showing up despite his current malaise says volumes about the hold the event has on many of the world's top men. Nadal has played for Spain in just one of three ties this season -- the first round against Serbia -- and gave his regrets for last year's final because of his aching knees. His team upset Argentina without him, but he is still the leader of that pack and having him present at less than 100 percent could spur everyone else to give 100 or more.
By the way, don't expect to see the same guy who seemed almost bewildered as he exited the ATP year-end finals with a meek 0-3 record in round-robin play. Nadal hasn't lost a Davis Cup singles match since his debut outing in 2004; he's 12-1 and a big reason Spain has won 17 consecutive meetings at home and 19 straight on clay. Ditto for Fernando Verdasco, who also went winless at the ATP championships but teams with fellow lefty Feliciano Lopez in one of the most formidable Davis Cup doubles tandems in the world (4-1 in their Past five outings).
Loyalty abounds on the U.S. squad, too, and doesn't seem to have abated even after the 2007 championship run. Patrick McEnroe, already the longest-tenured U.S. captain in history at nine seasons and counting, just elected to accept a contract extension even though he has two other jobs and three children under 4 years old. Andy Roddick's thirst hasn't been quenched, either. After losing a five-setter to tireless grinder David Ferrer in the semifinals in Madrid last year, Roddick walked out of the bullring into the U.S. dressing room and methodically smashed the spare rackets in his bag, not even bothering to remove the plastic from some of them.
Money drives everything in professional sports, and it's no wonder that the ITF would use money as one measure of Davis Cup's success. But what's interesting about the event is that it retains some elements it had back in the days when players wore white V-neck sweaters, didn't get paid and weren't viewed as economic catalysts: prestige, mystique, pride and camaraderie. Go figure. May the best nation win and rest, however briefly, on its laurels.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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