In July 1987, Boris Becker and John McEnroe played a tennis match in Hartford, US. At stake for two leading lights of men’s tennis then was preventing their respective countries, Germany and the US, from being cast away for a year from showtime. They played five sets over 6 hours and 20 minutes, the second-longest singles match in the Davis Cup then. Becker won. The US was relegated. And the Davis Cup thrived as a place where extraordinary outcomes arose from a format that demanded another level of toughness of body and mind, and hearts that beat for a lot more than the self.
So, it feels different this week in Madrid, when the format of an event that goes back 119 years is upended. Instead of a partisan home crowd, it’s a thinner assembly of largely neutrals. Instead of five-setters that make time stand still, there are three-setters that come and go. Instead of the slow burn of a weekend, it’s a blitz in the working week. It’s also very early days, but one thing is sure: men’s team tennis is in a churn to net big players, matchups, fans, eyeballs, returns—and it’s hard to say where its place of rest will be.
The Davis Cup changed to make it attractive for the Beckers and McEnroes of today to play for their country. That was the last generation of top male players to show up unconditionally for team tennis. As world tennis moved into a phase of American dominance, the likes of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi shunned the Davis Cup. And, for all the wonderful ways they have been ambassadors of tennis, so have Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
The Davis Cup didn’t work for them, or for several below them. They said it demanded too much time and energy and messed with their personal calendars. Hence, in Davis Cup records, they barely register a presence. The list of the 15 most-capped players in Davis Cup singles in the Open Era (post-1968) features only 5 who have ever won a major, and none of the Big Three is even close. The closest is Federer, and he’s ranked only 27.
In this list, instead, are one Indian, Leander Paes, who was as awkward and yet effective a singles player that could be, and two Pakistanis who have never stood in the arc lights of team tennis. There are 13 countries represented and it’s led by a colourful Romanian. It’s a list that embodies an essential ethos of the Davis Cup: put less-fancied players out there and let them find new levels playing under a flag.
Conversely, in recent decades, more-fancied players have struggled to find the same meaning in the Davis Cup. Player number 15 in the above list is Manual Orantes of Spain, who played 53 singles matches. By comparison, Federer has played 48, Djokovic 38 and Orantes’ countryman Nadal 25.
In the 15 years that Federer and Nadal have shared on the tour, they have never faced each other in the Davis Cup. Djokovic has played Nadal and Federer only once. Federer and Djokovic have won the Davis Cup once, Nadal thrice.
Such conditional commitment to team tennis gained pace in the late-1980s and coincided with tennis finding new commercial legs. Of the 12 players who have won at least 6 major titles in the Open Era, only five have played more than 40 Davis Cup singles matches. For every McEnroe or Becker, who would play thrice in three days, there’s also an Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras, who was selective.
They couldn’t plug into the Davis Cup narrative of finding new levels. Sampras, for example, had a winning percentage of just 65% in Davis Cup, against 84% in majors. Conversely, Becker and Borg were virtually unbeatable in Davis Cup singles. As has been Nadal, whenever he has shown up, registering a dominance even greater than in grand slams.
In a way, team tennis is trying to answer that question: how to get the likes of Nadal to play more while preserving the best parts of the Davis Cup. The answer this week, bankrolled by a private consortium, is shorter matches, a compressed time frame and more money.
Team tennis faces an existential moment, and the experiments are on. Two months ago, there was the Laver Cup, an annual Europe versus Rest of the World competition. Six weeks on, there will be the revamped ATP cup, featuring teams from 24 countries. The format is similar to Davis Cup, the money is less but it comes with the incentive of ranking points. For now, Becker-McEnroe at Hartford is history.
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