Isn’t it great to see three members of the tennis world's vaunted big four still battling on, even though the US Open has been over for nearly a week?
Roger Federer is the only one of that group who won't be swinging a racket this week, but there is one caveat: There’s no chance that any of the top three players in the world will actually end up playing each other.
If you haven’t been paying attention, it’s Davis Cup semifinal and world group playoffs week. And ATP no. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 2 Rafael Nadal, and No. 3 Andy Murray are all taking part. It’s a fantastic week for this 113-year-old competition that has faced some serious obstacles in the Open era.
One of the major challenges has been the puzzling and unexpected indifference of what once was the largest tennis audience and market of all (at least until China popped Li Na among us), the United States. Who would have thought that the nation where the competition was conceived and brought to full splendor would suddenly lose interest in what is the world’s second most popular international team competition (after World Cup soccer)?
The ITF and its U.S. affiliate, the USTA, have traditionally had trouble selling Davis Cup to newspaper editors and television executives, and thus the viewing public, in the Open era. The fact that some top stars from various nations (led by Jimmy Connors) went lukewarm on Davis Cup, usually because of the relatively low material reward, didn’t help the cause.
Also, as the tour grew and became more remunerative, the Davis Cup commitment seemed more onerous. Although the competition takes place over just three days (Friday through Sunday), it’s really a one-week event -- just like most tournaments.
Thus, at least two of the teams must make the commitment of a full month to the effort. And while the current dates are somewhat inconvenient, at times in the past they were much worse. Overall, Davis Cup participation still is a lot to ask of a player like Nadal or Djokovic.
Also, the choice-of-ground tradition -- teams alternate hosting or traveling to their opponent’s venue each time they meet -- wreaks havoc on the increasingly rigid, pre-established schedules of the players.
For those reasons, the game is littered with erstwhile Davis Cup reformers who would like to see anything from a two-week “Davis Cup festival” that decides the entire competition at one site, to a return to some sort of “zonal” structure to ease some of the travel-related drawbacks.
So far, the ITF has instituted some reforms in the structure of the event, but it has held firm on the key and most controversial elements -– the calendar that requires four weeks from finalists and the alternating host rule.
That’s why Murray is currently busting a gut in Croatia, newly crowned U.S. Open champ Nadal is back in Madrid’s Caja Magica even though his next tournaments are in Asia, and U.S. Open runner-up Djokovic is basking in the love of his Serbian countrymen in Belgrade.
Now note that only one of those matchups -- Serbia versus the Czech Republic -– is part of the current competition’s semifinals. Djokovic is playing for the tennis equivalent of a Super Bowl ring, but Nadal and Murray are merely trying to ensure that their teams remain in the elite 16-member World Group that plays for the Cup.
That’s a little like Miguel Cabrera or Chris Davis going down to help their clubs’ Triple-A affiliates win their respective divisions.
All of this is great news for fans of Davis Cup. And it’s also a mild rebuke directed toward Roger Federer. Switzerland also is involved in the critical world group playoff battle (hosting Ecuador). Stanislas Wawrinka, the Swiss player right behind Federer, is playing the best tennis of his life (he was a U.S. Open semifinalist and ranks No. 10, just four ticks below Federer).
That means the Swiss could potentially win the whole thing next year, assuming they get past Ecuador this weekend and remain in the World Group.
The odds are good that the even without Federer, the Swiss will win out. The question then becomes whether Federer will play Davis Cup in 2014? I can think of some excellent reasons besides patriotic pride for him to do it, but for today, let’s just be happy with what we’ve got.