It is of no great benefit to the US team that Roger Federer is the only one of the world’s top four to participate in this weekend’s Davis Cup.
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That’s because the Americans must travel to the Swiss city of Fribourg for the first round of World Group matches as the 112-year-old competition kicks off another troubled year.
More on the US chances in a moment but first let us examine the state of the Davis Cup, which should rank high on any tennis players’ to-do list.
The ITF, which relies on the Davis Cup for a good percentage of its income — as do all the middle- and lower-ranked tennis federations — is correctly pointing to the fact that world No. 6 Tomas Berdych will be playing for the Czech Republic against Italy; that No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic will be playing for Serbia against Sweden and that those two highly ranked Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils have answered the call of their captain Guy Forget to play for France in Canada.
But Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray are all no-shows. In fact only five of the top 10 and 10 of the top 20 have opted to play in the Davis Cup this year, which is unacceptable. Part of the problem lies with the Olympics, which has crowded the already cluttered calendar, further limiting the recovery time for overworked top stars. Everyone seems to want to play at Wimbledon under the Olympic flag so it is the Davis Cup which has been squeezed.
The intensity of the competition itself is another issue. When a player commits to the Davis Cup, he knows he is entering a very different environment. Suddenly, he is not playing for himself but for his country, captain and teammates. The mental pressure builds and, like having to play best-of-five-set matches, many players feel exhausted after a Davis Cup weekend.
That was one reason why the agreement between the ATP and ITF, made a few years ago, to play the Davis Cup in weeks directly following Grand Slams was so ridiculous. After playing in that incredible US Open final on a Monday last September, Djokovic was supposed to be playing for Serbia in Belgrade that Friday. He passed on the first singles; tried to play two days later and injured his back. Small wonder. Federer, who barely had two extra days to travel, had to get himself to Australia and actually played that Friday. Absurd.
This year there was, at least, a week between the Australian Open and the first round of Davis Cup, but the semifinals are still scheduled the weekend following the US Open. What are the chances of Djokovic playing if Serbia is still involved?
The ITF resolutely refuse to entertain any of the suggestions to address these issues by coming up with a format that would increase the size of the World Group while not adding to the players’ workload. It would entail a two-week Davis Cup bonanza at one site in the fall, vastly increasing television revenue and clarifying the competition in the minds of the tennis public — which is necessary.
Maybe, one day, something might change. But don’t hold your breath.
In the meantime we can concentrate on the chances of Jim Courier’s squad surviving in Switzerland without its banker — the doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan. Mike is participating but not Bob, who is tending to his newborn baby.
With Federer highly likely to win two singles rubbers, winning the doubles becomes essential for the US. When I spoke to Courier on the way back from Australia, he admitted that it would be difficult without one of the twins but was typically upbeat.
“It’s still doable,” he said. “Mardy Fish has played with Bryan before and he would seem to be the obvious choice to fill in, but we will have to see how everyone is when we get over there.”
Apart from Mike Bryan, John Isner and 19-year-old Ryan Harrison are the other members of the squad, and both could slot into the doubles if Fish is embroiled in a grueling five-setter on the first day.
But doubles is not Courier’s only problem. If Federer wins two singles matches then Fish and Isner will both need to beat Stan Wawrinka, the man who won Olympic gold in doubles at Beijing while partnering with Federer, if the States is to have any chance of progressing. And Wawrinka is tough. He may not have been playing his best tennis in recent months — he lost to Nicolas Almagro in the third round in Melbourne — but the Davis Cup is a different ball game, and he is not likely to roll over.
So the odds of a US victory are not great, but the Davis Cup is a special tournament and there are no foregone conclusions. It is a superbly conceived sporting contest and does not deserve to be ignored nor misunderstood.