Monday, September 19, 2011

From Out of the Ashes, A Final to Die For

The valiant efforts of the world's top players during Davis Cup play over the weekend reminds us that the event is about more than just tennis.

Pity on me, for I spent most of the Davis Cup weekend wondering why the heck Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were subjecting themselves to the rigors of the Davis Cup semifinals when they should have been spending the week shuttling between the Hyperbaric chamber and the massage table. After the torturous final week of the US Open, I had convinced myself that the worst thing for the game -- and subsequently, the worst thing for the game's top two players -- would be to see these guys take the court for their countries less than a week after the US Open's Monday final.

In this age of brutally physical tennis, where players are considered over the hill at the age of 30 (well, not all of them, but most), I was worried that Djokovic and Nadal were taking on too much of a burden to play Davis Cup. This is how careers get shortened, I was thinking, already lamenting the day that each will declare themselves through with the game (when none of us are quite through with watching them play the game).

Even as it had to be therapeutic for Nadal to lead his fellow Spaniards to victory on home soil against France, I kept finding myself asking "Why the heck is he playing?" In the end, Rafa probably made the right decision to play. He did it for the fans and for his teammates, and down the road, he'll be remembered for acts like this where his humility and dedication to country take center stage right along with his otherwordly brand of clay court tennis.

But even after Nadal sealed Spain's 4-1 victory with an awe-inspiring thrashing of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, you could tell he wasn't happy that he had to do it with the fatigue of four matches in five days still weighing heavily on his bones. Such is the quandary that Davis Cup presents.

To play or not to play? To care or not to care? To sacrifice the body or preserve it?

Given that the event can be such a momentum-grower, it was hard for me to understand why the Spanish team didn't try to grow some momentum for some of their players who need it the most. Why not give Fernando Verdasco a chance to get the inspiring win he so badly needs at the moment? (Verdasco did beat Gasquet in a meaningless dead rubber to close the festivities.) We're talking about a wonderfully talented Spanish team that is built not just on one man after all.

I know in hindsight Rafa's triumph was what the fans wanted, what the team wanted (it sets up a mouth watering final vs. Argentina in December) and maybe even what Rafa wanted, but it would have been nice if someone else had been given a shot to shine. Especially since Rafa could have used the rest, and his comrades could have used the confidence that might have come if they had beaten the French without him.

In Belgrade, Serbia suffered exactly what Spain avoided. Novak Djokovic was sent to the court running on fumes, and he paid dearly for it when he faced an inspired Juan Martin del Potro. Djokovic's retirement gave Argentina the victory, and it puts the Argentines in position to win their first Davis Cup title in Spain in December.

The decision to send an already injured and energy-depleted Djokovic on court against Del Potro was a head-scratcher for sure. The pressure to put Nole out there on the final day must have been great -- and coming from everywhere. Still, the man had a torn rib muscle -- why run the risk of doing serious damage to it?

Here's a better question: Why ask why?

In the end, Djokovic and Nadal's valiant efforts, regardless of the outcome, shines a light on Davis Cup and points to it's uniqueness and validity as an event. The event has been much maligned due to its inconvenient placement on the tennis calendar, but regardless of its knack for bad timing, or its relatively meager compensation levels, the event is major source of pride for for all who partake.

The fact that Nadal and Djokovic were willing to lay their bodies on the line for their countries this weekend -- as much as it pained us to watch -- has once again opened my eyes to the allure of Davis Cup. It's about tennis, but also it's about something bigger. In the end, I realized that I have no business questioning Serbia's move to play Novak Djokovic on Sunday, even though he was only at 60%. They wanted the win, and they were prepared to risk it all to get it. Who can fault them for that?

Additionally, the Davis Cup finally got a dose of the starpower it has been yearning for so badly, with Federer showing up in Australia and Andy Murray getting busy against Hungary.

All things considered, it was a fantastic weekend for Davis Cup, in which the true spirit of the event came through. My initial reaction was to reject it, but in the end, it won me over. With Argentina set to clash with Spain in the final in December, the tennis cognoscenti are already wondering if a bit of Davis Cup glory might do for Juan Martin del Potro what many believe it did for Novak Djokovic after Serbia's victory in 2010.

In a sport that is highly individualistic, we owe it to Davis Cup for providing a platform for fans to see the world's top players in another element. Even when things go horribly wrong, like they did for Novak Djokovic and Serbia in Belgrade, we learn something new about the character of the players in the process.

I can't complain about that at all.

1 comment:

  1. Let's not forget that Spain and Argentina played the Davis Cup final in 2008 in Argentina. Spain showed up to play, as visitors, without Rafa, and took the Cup. The Argies want revenge! :)

    It's going to be a great final!


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