Where Davis Cup Went Awry In America
Why doesn't Davis Cup capture the American public? Yes, I know the tickets for this month's final between the United States and Russia in Portland, Oregon sold out in less than 30 minutes. But I'm talking about on a larger scale. Believe me, having futilely pitched several sports editors at publications all around the country about covering the tie, I speak from experience. But yes, I will be there, and while the fans scream and a reasonable flock of international media will be in attendance, I expect TV ratings to be low and nationwide coverage to be minimal. It's too bad, as this is unquestionably one of the best shows in tennis, filled with great intensity, super players, and many plot lines.
The American team, Andy Roddick, James Blake, Bob and Mike Bryan, relish the chance to put aside their own personal agendas and root each other on.
What gives? Americans love sports, particularly team events. America created the Davis Cup. America has won the Davis Cup more than any other nation. Just about every great American tennis champion has been a member of a winning team. All of them have been part of this competition. The Americans competing in this month’s tie – Andy Roddick, James Blake, Bob and Mike Bryan – relish the chance to put aside their own personal agendas and root each other on. They enjoy taking a bit of direction from their captain, the affable Patrick McEnroe. In large part, it’s as close as these guys get to aping the format of the big-time sports they’ve grown up following.
Well, perhaps here is where we get to the belly of the beast. And maybe, just maybe, it all went awry one awful week in Jamaica.
First, though, let’s reflect on Davis Cup’s allure. If the upside of tennis’ focus on individualism is profound self-reliance and the spirit of responsibility, then the downside is isolation. Any one who makes it as a professional tennis player is a quarterback, a starting pitcher, a person who must play the entire game. In another sense, each player is also a team owner, usually accountable strictly to his own personal needs and desires. This kind of ego focus can often make it hard for the public to cuddle up to a tennis champion. After all, when Michael Jordan or Joe Montana won, at least he could subdue his ego under the rubric of “we.” Not so with tennis players.
But Davis Cup is a great exception. Seeing these singular dudes join forces for a few fleeting moments is fantastic. That aspect of collegial collaboration to me is even more important than the mock jingoism of flag-waving that also surrounds the event. I’d like to think that Davis Cup is more about young men cheering one another on than any kind of patriotic agenda. Yes, I know players relish hoisting the flag, but perhaps less because they grasp all of what America stands for – and instead, savor the chance to contribute for a rare time to a greater good than personal glory.
Roddick, for example, enjoys knowing that the entire result is not just a function of what he does – he’s got Blake alongside to back him up. And for both singles players, it’s great to know that Mike and Bob are so well-organized and disciplined in treating the art and science of doubles. Add to this a strong layer of sportsmanship and all the elements are in place for wonderfully dramatic tennis – a very vivid contrast to the week-in, week-out solitude of the tour.
So, back to Jamaica and what I’m opining might be the reason Davis Cup is so tepidly-received in the U.S. In March 1972, the U.S. Davis Cup team headed to Jamaica for what promised to be a routine victory. The squad was paced by Stan Smith, the defending U.S. Open champion who that year would become number one in the world. Also on the squad were a group of youngsters, including Smith’s doubles partner, Erik van Dillen and a rapidly-ascending 19-year-old, Jimmy Connors. The previous year, Connors had been an enthused hitting partner for the U.S. team that beat Romania in the finals. As the ’72 campaign got underway, he was hoping to make his debut. Keep in mind that this period also coincided with the remarkable American tennis boom.
Events took an odd turn. Though Connors that year had already won two titles and extended Smith to five sets in a final earlier that month, when he lost a challenge match to van Dillen days before the tie, team captain Dennis Ralston chose van Dillen to play singles.
Whether it was because of a real or perceived personal affront, Jimmy Connors never fully committed to Davis Cup Play.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Connors’ grandmother Bertha – who along with his mother Gloria had coached him since infancy – had a heart attack. Connors was given the OK to leave Jamaica. The angered Connors’ matriarchy seethed that Jimbo hadn’t been given the chance to play. On her deathbed, Bertha demanded Gloria never let the boy play Davis Cup. At the same time, Connors’ manager, Bill Riordan, eager to use Connors as a wedge in his battle against Ralston and ascending agent Donald Dell, helped fan the flames.
And so it was that the American player who would be by far the most popular star of tennis’ boom years of the ‘70s would pretty much view Davis Cup with contempt. Yes, Connors eventually played – but never committing to compete with the kind of passion he brought to the rest of his tennis. It was always a matter of push and pull, hope and pray. This space isn’t the place to detail Connors’ profound ambivalence towards Davis Cup, but the upshot was that the event lost a great deal of its luster throughout the ‘70s. After all, if the world’s number one player had little regard for it, why should others?
I won’t say Connors is the only bad guy here. Those tennis boom years were marked by excessive political in-fighting between the ITF, ATP, WCT and a host of other tennis organizations. In many ways, Davis Cup got lost in the shuffle.
Fortunately, John McEnroe came along in 1978 to save it – well, at least sort of. As a player, he was exemplary, never failing to answer the call. As McEnroe’s star ascended in the late ‘70s, his participation in Davis Cup helped restore some of the event’s significance. Many the weekend he paced the entire U.S. team, leading the way in singles and doubles.
But for all the people John McEnroe helped turn on to tennis, it’s rarely explored how many he turned off. The high stakes aspects of Davis Cup may have often brought out his finest racquet work; but they also revealed some of his ugliest behavior. In 1981, in nationally-televised home ties versus Australia and Argentina, his conduct was atrocious. In a doubles match, captain Arthur Ashe considered defaulting McEnroe and his partner, Peter Fleming. In the finals against Argentina, McEnroe called an African-American linesman “boy” and was frequently rude to officials and opponents alike – all the kind of actions that violated the code of sportsmanship that for so long had made Davis Cup such an attractive form of international competition.
Click photo: John McEnroe was perhaps the USA's greatest and most dedicated Davis Cup player but his behavior on the court could be atrocious.
In other words, American tennis’ two biggest stars were often brats when it came to showcasing Davis Cup.
Of course I can’t entirely blame Connors and McEnroe. Davis Cup’s complicated, months-long format is tough to follow. Tennis itself is a sport with a language very few Americans can understand. While one aspect of the game is profoundly elemental – Andre Agassi called it “two guys, trying to figure things out” – we all know it’s not easy for the casual observer to understand what’s going on out on the court.
I wish things were different. Having spent 35 years obsessing over the game and a good part of my professional career working in marketing and communications, I’d like to think there are tools that can better promote this game – and, in this specific instance, Davis Cup. But then again, I’m increasingly starting to see that tennis is a self-selecting sport, one that’s not that easy to learn – and if you don’t play, I’m uncertain why or how people can follow it beyond the occasional perfunctory look. In high school most people who take a foreign language study Spanish or French. Tennis might well be best-geared for those who love Latin – a smaller group, an idiosyncratic world, but for those who take the plunge, one with a great many riches.
TennisOne’s Joel Drucker has been attending Davis Cup ties as a journalist since 1989. He’ll be on-site for this month’s final.
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