Events History

Davis Cup – Now And Then

By Mark Winters

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In the beginning, the competition was played as a Challenge Cup. The set-up allowed the winner from the previous year to sit on the sideline while the other countries battled for a spot in the final.

The “wait and watch” was great for the title holder but the format proved to be an ultra-marathon for all the other participants. In 1972 a change was finally made, and play became a somewhat more sensible win and advance tournament.

Now that the “bigger must surely be better” version of the Davis Cup has concluded, it’s time to take a look at how the event itself has evolved over time.

Initially, it was a clubby/chummy affair between the US and the British Isles, as Great Britain was known long before there was even a thought of Brexit. True, there had been international, country versus country tennis gatherings, such as England versus Ireland or England versus France, but that was in the 1890s.

The “official” team competition wasn’t birthed until 1900 when the US and BI faced-off at Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, Massachusetts.

The visitors, who were supposed to be the creme de la crème of tennis because they came from Great Britain, were throttled by their upstart hosts, 3-0. One of the competitors on the winning side was a Harvard student named Dwight Davis.

Five years after the launch, Australasia (with players from both Australia and New Zealand), Austria, Belgium and France took part in what was called the International Lawn Tennis Challenge. Perhaps to downplay the seeming pompousness of the title, the competition quickly became known as the Davis Cup, a salute to the donor of the perpetual trophy.

In the beginning, the competition was played as a Challenge Cup. The set-up allowed the winner from the previous year to sit on the sideline while the other countries battled for a spot in the final.

The “wait and watch” was great for the title holder but the format proved to be an ultra-marathon for all the other participants. In 1972 a change was finally made, and play became a somewhat more sensible win and advance tournament.

Since then, the international competition grew so large that it became unwieldy and modifications were needed. None of those alterations have even come close to matching the November 18-24 Madrid extravaganza that was created by Gerard Pique, the former FC Barcelona football (soccer) star and his Kosmos team, supported by Hiroshi Mikitani’s Rakuten financing and sanctified by the International Tennis Federation.

Before going further, it must be stressed that the “old Davis Cup way” was really no longer working. But, bulldozing history to put up a new event demands an overwhelming amount of thought and even more insight.

Thus far, it appears that a “too much, too soon” approach has been built on a foundation that isn’t exactly sand, but something nearly as tenuous. In its first appearance, the set-up seems fragile. It is as if, Pique and his collogues were trying to create a Tennis World Cup.

My first Davis Cup experience was in 1963 at the majestic Los Angeles Tennis Club. The US faced Mexico. I was new to the game as a player and even more of a rookie when it came to knowing about the Davis Cup. Being in high school, I didn’t have the necessary connections to be “gifted” a ticket to the matches. Though I wasn’t destitute, I just didn’t have the money for tickets to the three-day tie.

I was, however, bold. I wanted to see Chuck McKinley and Dennis Ralston take on Rafael Osuna and Antonio Palafox so I decided to “make an impression”.

I wore a pale blue shirt, topped it with a tasteful tie, preppy khaki slacks and the footwear of the day – that wasn’t a tennis shoe – penny loafers. Carrying my blue blazer in the crook of my elbow, I arrived very early on the first day of the matches and went directly to the fence at the back of the LATC where the wire was sagging just enough to let me scale over.

Even though I was a Davis Cup novice, I remember being impressed by the sheer dynamic of the US facing off against Mexico. The backstory was even more interesting because as a 17-year-old Ralston had teamed with Osuna to win the 1960 Wimbledon doubles title.

Now, Osuna was his opponent, but he was still a USC teammate. Together, they had practiced at the LATC , where USC played its home matches, and coincidently, won the1963 NCAA doubles title. But, that didn’t matter at all for the three days of the tie.

The LATC center court seemed gigantic to me. As mentioned I was a rookie and this was my first glimpse of play on a big stage. The bleacher seating was on wooden benches surrounding the court. There was room for a couple of thousand people.

Because I was so early, there were very few people around. I browsed around and noticed there were individual chairs at court-level on the west side of the court. They looked much more comfortable than the bleachers and my goal was to be close to the action. I wanted to taste it.

After all these years, I can still remember being a tad uncomfortable making my next move. But I figured after my Eiger Mountain entrance success, I managed to continue with my “I belong here” approach. After putting on my sport coat, I walked onto the court and went straight to the seating area…and was one of the few spectators there.

In time others joined me. I exchanged greetings, trying to be friendly while attempting to be invisible. Just before the start of play, a small man, who was importantly dressed, came up and started to talk to me. For a moment, I almost swallowed my tongue.

He was John Coman, who I later discovered was a Southern California Tennis Association Vice President and a close friend of Perry Jones, who was the “Emperor of  Tennis” in the section. During our brief discussion, he told me about his love of the game and his long-time involvement as a tournament official and umpire. (In fact, he would later invent the Coman Tiebreak, which Jimmy Parker said some senior players refer to as “The Roamin’ Coman”).

When the matches concluded, I bumped into Coman on the walkway outside the court entrance. He asked what I thought about the first day’s play. After we exchanged assessment, he asked if he would see me the next day. Believing that Friday had been a “one-off, I really lucked out” occurrence, I was eventually able to mumble “I hope so…” He then said when I got to the club to look for him at the SCTA office, which was in a nook on the east side of center court.

For the next two days, I repeated my back fence climbing routine, watched the US dominate Mexico, 4-1 and received a wonderful tennis education thanks to John Coman.

(An important aside, the US went on to defeat Australia in the December 26-28 final, on grass in Adelaide, 3-2. The Honorable Robert Kelleher, who I met through Coman at the LATC, was the team captain. He served as President of the United States Lawn Tennis Association in 1967-68 and was a driving force behind the advent of Open Tennis. The International Tennis Hall of Fame recognized all that he had done for the game when he was inducted in 2000. A Federal Court Judge in real life, over the years, he provided tennis players like Jack Kramer, Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King with legal advice. He also played an instrumental role in Martina Navratilova gaining US citizenship after she defected from Czechoslovakia in 1975. In the years after our Davis Cup meeting, “The Judge” became a close friend.)

The 1963 Davis Cup Team: Arthur Ashe, Dennis Ralston, Robert Kelleher, Marty Riessen and Chuck McKinley. Photo: Robert Kelleher Collection

The Madrid undertaking was bold and innovative. Still, with all the pre-tournament hype and sensationalism as fanfare, the end product came up short which opens the door to analyzing what actually took place in Year One. As the saying goes, “first impressions are almost always the most lasting.”

A few of the issues on the “Could Have Done Better” list include:

– Match scheduling (the US versus Italy finished at 4:00 a.m., just in time for the players to enjoy an early breakfast. (Nearly every tie was almost eight hours in length.);

– Plodding ticket sales;

– Improvements in communication, with clarity for the fans, players and media. Keeping accurate information flowing so that speculation is not regularly brought into play.

With the old Davis Cup there were often gripping, edge of your seat, emotional contests in the “five matches, five-set” play. Home and away ties added crowd fervor which made the competitive recipe even tastier.

It’s hardly surprising that whenever Spain played on the Manuel Santana Center Court, with a capacity of 12,422, the crowd was raucous. The Arantxa Sánchez Vicario No. 2 Court, with room for 2,923 spectators, rocked on occasion. From time to time, Court No. 3 was loud too, but that was due more to having a mere 1,772 seats in an enclosed space than a collection of rabid fans.

Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt admitted that the atmosphere lacked feeling because of the neutral setting. French doubles standout Nicolas Mahut brought up how much his country’s fans ordinarily helped their team, but few were in attendance. Faithful support groups stayed away to show their unhappiness with the decision to scrap the old Davis Cup format.

I clearly understood what Mahut was talking about. I had been in Lyon in 1991 when the US faced France, on carpet, in the final. The atmosphere at Palais des Sports Gerland was electric, truly vibrant.

The hosts were the underdog against US captain Tom Gorman’s team, which included Andre Agassi, the formidable doubles tandem, Ken Flach and Robert Seguso, and a 20-year-old making his Cup debut, Pete Sampras. Les Bleus had not won the treasured trophy in 59 years. Prior to the tie, it seemed they could only hope for a three-day “Joan of Arc” moment.

The revered Yannick Noah, the last Frenchman to win Roland Garros in 1983, had retired from competition in 1990. He was in his first year as Davis Cup captain. Though Guy Forget, who is now the Roland Garros Tournament Director, was solid, he was not in the same league as Agassi and Sampras. What’s more, Noah was desperate to find a second singles player. He reached into his “magic bag” and selected Henri Leconte.

Leconte was the poster boy for left-handers playing the game on the elite level. In essence, he could be wickedly brilliant and pedestrianly laggardly all within an eight-shot rally sequence. Ranked No. 143, after dealing with a collection of injuries that ravaged both his body and his confidence, he was an extremely risky choice.

The final member of the team was Fabrice Santoro, a two-hand playing, shot-making magician. He had played in earlier rounds, but this was the final and he was only 18.

Thinking back, my ears begin to ache as I recall the deafening support provided by the crowd of over 7,000. Initially, Forget was inspired and took the first set, 7-6 against Agassi. Thriving in combustible surroundings was nothing new for the American. He became more precise marching through the remaining sets 6-2, 6-1, 6-2. Leconte balanced the score edging a nervous Sampras, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.

Flach and Seguso were never spectacular as a team, but they were reliably steady. Against Forget and Leconte, they appeared to by trying to escape the Titanic. The 6-1, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 score reflected how unsuccessful they were at reaching the lifeboats.

Sampras was first up on Day Three and again seemed to be very tight. Forget took full advantage and secured a 7-6 3-6 6-3 6-4 victory. In was his country’s first Davis Cup final triumph since 1932 when the US also came up short.

During the celebration, Forget said that he didn’t think the US team understood how much the Davis Cup meant to the French team and to the partisan crowd.

Years after the tie, Sampras admitted being overwhelmed by the crowd and reacting like a “deer in the headlights.” (He candidly said, “I choked…”)

Four years later he didn’t “choke” against the Russians. For me, being in the early December dungeon cold at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium in 1995 and watching the US prevail 3-2,  post-Cold War, against “new” Russia, is a cherished recollection.

Captain Tom Gullickson was, as always, a discerning leader. Of course, he had a redoubtable group of players including Sampras, Jim Courier, Todd Martin and Richey Reneberg, who was a late replacement for the injured Agassi.

The Russians had countered with Andrei Chesnokov, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and doubles specialist, Andrei Olhovskiy.

In what some called “Pete’s Cup”, Sampras, in a difficult to put into words encounter, survived a three-hour, thirty-eight minute slog against Chesnokov, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 on ultra-slow red clay. The score, in and of itself, is still mesmerizing. But, seeing Sampras hit the match winning shot and collapse onto the court with severe leg cramps will always be a vivid memory.

As soon as he crumpled to the ground, George Fareed, the US team doctor, along with trainer Bob Russo sprinted to his aide knocking over some of the shrubbery surrounding the court. Sampras later admitted that it was humorous to see the two barreling toward him while he was thinking “all I want to do is straighten my legs”.

The author Mark Winters and US Davis Cup Team Doctor George Fareed on court at Palais des Sports Gerland.

Once the medical rescue team and the patient moved to the locker room, Kafelnikov bested Courier, in the second, contest, 7-6, 7-5, 6-3.

Being 1-1 and playing at home with the backing of a vociferous crowd, the Russians appeared to be in the driver’s seat. This was particularly true with the doubles being the next match up. Kafelnikov was paired with Olhovskiy.  A steady, smart tandem, they were supposed to face Martin and Reneberg, who had never previously teamed up.

Keeping with the “Pete’s Cup” theme (and thanks to “Doc” Fareed’s icing and electrolytes treatment), Sampras was able to wobble around in the team dressing room roughly an hour after his singles match. He told Gullickson later that night he would see how he was feeling in the morning and if he was able to do so, have a hit and be ready for the doubles.

The team believed that Sampras was out, but as the captain said, with a “that’s Pete” look, “he came back from the dead”. Sampras admitted being quite sore before play began. Then the adrenaline kicked in. Martin and Sampras, who had won Queen’s that June, managed to edge the opposition 7-5, 6-4, 6-3.

I remember watching the match as if it was in slow motion. It overwhelmed my attention. Looking back, I don’t remember if I even took a sip of the water I had brought with me to my media seat. I was absolutely engrossed. Actually, I was enthralled watching Sampras playing and doing it so amazingly well.

But, he wasn’t done. On the final day, he pulverized Kafelnikov, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 to end the tie. Courier lost, what was an exhibition match, 6-7, 7-5, 6-0 to Chesnokov making the score 3-2. But, the real total was Pete Sampras, with an assist from George Fareed and Bob Russo, “3” and Russia “0”.

It is something I will never forget. Actually, I don’t think that anyone on hand could ever forget what unfolded during those three days.

1995 Davis Cup Team-Richey Reneberg, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Tom Gullickson, Pete Sampras and Todd Martin. Photo

In Madrid, ties were reduced to three matches (two singles and just one doubles) which made the contests Tweet-like. Instead of slashing the number of characters that could be used, the new look limited the essence of the product being proffered – Showcasing the players and their teams.

The confusion became more profound on the rules front when it came to “play or don’t play” the doubles, the tie-break and translating the results procedure. It seemed only those with a mathematics degree could make sense of the situation.

Additionally, with 18 countries participating, many fans, as well as players, ended up feeling they were meandering members of a “lost tennis tribe.”

Because of the venue’s layout, there was a chorus of comments about the need for trekking skills to traverse the architecturally pleasing Caja Mágica three court facility. Pathways and route planning came up short. Perhaps hosting such a huge spectacle at a new location brought about “never been there or done it” first experience jitters.

Looking at the big picture, the most staggering aspect of the “new” Davis Cup has to be the 25-year agreement with $3 billion dollars at stake. How do tennis fans put these “Monopoly-money” like figurers into any meaningful perspective?

The quarter-century commitment and pledged funding are difficult to comprehend . The “unreal” combination of years and money brings to mind 1999.  That was when the staggering ISL (International Sport and Leisure) Worldwide-ATP marketing, broadcasting and licensing agreement for “elite” tournaments was made. It was a ten-year arrangement for $1.2 billion. Unfortunately, ISL collapsed in May 2001. Oops.

Canada’s performance was stellar in reaching the final against Spain. Because of the “fairy-tale” quality that had been part of its success, “The Great White North” was looking to join Australasia, Croatia, Serbia, South Africa, Sweden and the USA, each of whom took home the Davis Cup in its first appearance in the final.

Unfortunately, having won the tie five times since 2000, the home country was a prohibitive favorite to earn number six. That Spain closed out the inaugural Pique/Kosmos/Rakuten/ITF Davis Cup, 2-0, wasn’t surprising.

As a result, the Canadian first-timers joined Belgium in 1904, Japan in 1921, Mexico in 1962, Chile in 1976 and Slovakia in 2005 as debut finalists and history’s runners-up.

With 24 years more to go, the new Davis Cup has potential. Still, the tennis world is trusting that the future offers more than just a quote from Bob Dylan, the 2016 Literature Nobel Prize winner.  Dylan, who many regard as the world’s poet laurate said, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

And a big budget doesn’t necessarily make it better. It just makes it happen. One can only hope that what seemed like a week-long exhibition will become more organized, less confusing and a tribute to the Davis Cup tradition.

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