Weekend proves Davis Cup is alive and well

Let’s assume you’re new to tennis and have heard mostly negative things about the Davis Cup.

You’ve been told that nobody cares, that the top players don’t feel passionate about it, that the best-of-five-sets format (with no tiebreaker in the fifth set) is outdated, and that tennis isn’t a team sport, so trying to make it one makes no sense.

Have I covered most of the bases?

Well, if you then watched Davis Cup this past weekend, here are the surprising things you might have learned on what has been one of the finest exhibitions of Davis Cup tennis over a full weekend in a long time:

Passion overflows

"Nobody cares" should read "nobody cares more than Davis Cup fans," as demonstrated by the crowds that filled the venues where the four World Group quarterfinals were played.

You know how conservative and boring those Swiss are, right? Well, if you tuned in to the Kazakhstan at Switzerland match at any point in the weekend you saw how the Swiss fans, so many of them decked out in bullfighter red and white, shook the rafters with their stamping, hooting and hollering.

In Italy, Andy Murray actually petitioned chair umpire Pascal Maria for help during his match with his No. 1 counterpart, Fabio Fognini. The Italian fans were shouting and screaming at Murray even as he tossed the ball to hit a second serve. It might have been ugly, but it wasn’t like nobody cared.

Big effort from big names

Although the demands of Davis Cup lead most top players to pick and choose the years and/or ties in which they play, almost all of them hold the competition in high regard, and once they sign up, they’re all-in.

The major heroes of the weekend for the winning teams were big names. World No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka overcame a bad case of nerves in the critical, fourth-match battle of each country's top players to stave off elimination for the heavily favored Swiss.

World No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did the same for the French after they fell into a 2-0 hole against Germany, and No. 25 Gael Monfils ultimately clinched it. Also, No. 4 Roger Federer clinched for the Swiss in the fifth and final match of that tie.

Murray of Great Britain, now No. 8 in the world but the defending Wimbledon champ, almost had a heroic moment of his own before running out of gas on Sunday after having to play most of two matches on clay on Saturday in Naples.

The format works

The format of the Davis Cup certainly is not television-friendly. That’s one of the reasons broadcasters have shied away from it. A five-set Davis Cup match can go on for five or six hours, wreaking havoc with programmers. But so what? Sometimes you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

I’m in favor of fifth-set tiebreakers. But those epic overtime matches (like German Davis Cup rookie Peter Gojowczyk’s 8-6 fifth-set win over Tsonga on the first day) become part of the lore and legend of the game, especially when they feature underdog heroes like Gojo.

And the fact that the two singles players each play two matches (barring a second-match substitution) means redemption is a frequent Davis Cup theme. Just ask Wawrinka or Julien Benneteau. The latter was a surprise selection to play No. 2 singles for France over No. 25 Monfils despite being ranked No. 50 overall and just ninth on the French depth chart.

Benneteau was crushed by Germany’s Tobias Kamke (No. 96) on the first day but then partnered with Michael Llodra on “double Saturday” to stave off a humiliating German sweep with an excellent win over Andre Begemann and Kamke.

There’s a lot more strategy in Davis Cup than you might think, given the four-man teams and five-match format. Had the French lost the doubles, captain Arnaud Clement would have been the goat of the tie for promoting Benneteau ahead of Monfils. Davis Cup may not be chess, but it isn’t checkers, either.

Team angle brings intrigue

As for the team aspect of the competition, most players will tell you that being on a team and playing for your nation puts you under loads of pressure. That helps account the frequency of Davis Cup Cinderella stories and improbable upsets, like the four that occurred over the weekend.

But the agony of defeat and thrill of victory are unparalleled in the sport.

I don’t know about you, but for me, any event in which the likes of Federer and Wawrinka (themselves an Olympic gold-medal doubles team) end up with their backs to the wall and fighting for their lives is a very good thing.