By: Jane Voigt
So it begins, the most anticipated Davis Cup final in recent memory. Switzerland and France on indoor red clay.
Much of the attention on the weekend centers around none other than Roger Federer, the leader of the Swiss team. The 33-year-old has international likeability, ranking No. 7 in Forbes list of The Highest Paid Athletes. He has contracts with Mercedes, Rolex, Nike, Lindt Chocolates, and many more top-of-the-line companies that send a message to their target markets that say, “we endorse Federer and we love what he does for our bottom lines.” Federer’s athletic resumé is highlighted first and foremost by 17 Grand Slams singles titles, the most of any player in the history of the game. However, the Davis Cup title has eluded Federer, Switzerland by extension.
This missing component for Federer has stimulated a good deal of hand-wringing over whether he is the Greatest Player of All Time – a silly conversation in its own right, and one that will likely never be settled. Yet, if the Swiss team pulls off the victory, it certainly would add credibility to the GOAT discussion for Federer. And who better to bring home the bacon than Switzerland’s favorite son.
The elusive trophy, the fact that Federer will lead “his” team, and the intriguing fact that France, the weekend’s host, has an overwhelmingly dominant record, 12-2 over Switzerland, plus 9 Davis Cup to its credit, have all conspired to drive much of the hoopla surrounding the event. The health of Federer’s back has provoked much speculation, as well, and how that impacts the likelihood of a Swiss victory.
In the pre-draw press conference held on Tuesday, Federer said:
“It’s definitely not good enough to practice. I wish progress would be faster, but we’re trying hard.”
However, the ITF reported that Federer practiced today for the first time since withdrawing from the ATP World Tour Finals.
The last time a Swiss team competed in the final weekend was 1992, when Marc Rosset and Jakob Hlasek lead the charge. They ultimately lost a 3-1 decision to an American team comprised of Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, and John McEnroe.
Switzerland has pushed the French to its limit in the past. In the 2004 World Group quarterfinals, France edged the Swiss 3-2, needing the fifth rubber, a five-set tussle, to clinch the win.
The bleu, blanc et rouge French carpet that has been laid out for this final tie duly fits the celebrity of the occasion. On Friday, the new Stade Pierre Mauroy opens its doors to a sold-out capacity of 27,000 in Lille, the second biggest stage for any sanctioned tennis event ever. For context, the US Open’s Arthur Ashe Stadium seats close to 23,000, and had been considered the largest tennis arena before the construction in Lille.
Fans should be prepared for raucous nationalistic roars to fill the air inside this new venue, which is a stark contrast between the typical tolerance of fan-participation at a Grand Slam or ATP tournament. Noise is an integral part of Davis Cup competition. People can cheer, applaud, beat drums, and toot horns – at least until the chair umpire yells, “S’il vous plait,” which will undoubtedly ring out dozens of times this weekend.
As big of a final this Davis Cup has produced, the event itself has less oomph on the larger playing field of sporting events. It’s difficult to say exactly why, but some blame could be attributed to the language it employs.
The weekend is a ‘tie,’ each match, a ‘rubber.’ If the tie is not won after the first two singles’ and doubles’ rubbers, then ‘reverse singles’ are staged. If one team wins before the weekend closes, where four singles and one doubles rubbers have been played to determine the winning country, then the final rubbers will be deemed, ‘dead.’
No wonder sports’ fans feel dizzy about Davis Cup, and are put-off about a historic competition, one that’s been around since 1900. To ease the masses to the Davis Cup side-of-the-street, why not label the four weekends as part of a larger – and grander – International Davis Cup Series while labeling a ‘rubber’ a more accessible name, like ‘match?’
In The Language of Tennis, author Ossian Shine writes: “The etymology of Davis Cup terminology continues to confound me,” However, Shine told the New York Times that he believes the term “rubber” was derived from the 16th century and “pass-times like the game of bridge.”
Another quirk, which might keep people away from Davis Cup (and perhaps tennis in general) is the bizarre scoring format. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in sports.
Each broadcast entity normally employs a different graphic for score-keeping throughout the year. In recent times for Davis Cup, four columns have been pictured at times on viewers’ screens.
The first column lists the country’s names, which are typically truncated. The second notes the score – in rubbers won per country. Yet another column lists sets won in that rubber, per country. Finally, the fourth column is the set’s score, of which there could be up to five for each rubber.
The diction of Davis Cup, which is produced by the International Tennis Federation, the sanctioning body for all tennis, will probably not change come Friday afternoon in Lille. Tradition has its merits, at least in the short term. Can you imagine Wimbledon officials calling Federer anything but, “Mr. Federer”?
Oh, my, no.
On the French roster this weekend is Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Julien Benneteau, and Richard Gasquet. For the Swiss, Federer is joined by Stan Wawrinka, Marco Chiudinelli, and Michael Lammer. If the records for each man were scrutinized, not one person in their right mind would bet on Switzerland.
Tsonga is ranked No. 12, Monfils No. 19, Benneteau No. 25, and Gasquet No. 26 in singles. Federer will end the year ranked No. 2, and Wawrinka will be No. 4. However, Chiudinelli, a contemporary of Federer’s, is ranked No. 212, and Lammer is ranked No. 508.
But this is Davis Cup. It is a country versus country competition, that equals a rigorous football match on any pitch across the continents. It’s the only time these men can forget about individualism and truly show national allegiance. Davis Cup turns the singularity of tennis on its head, a very good thing for the sport.
Too bad it’s such a mystery to many outside the confines of stalwart tennis fans.
Correction: This article was edited to note that the newly completed stadium in Lille is, in fact, the second largest for tennis, outpaced by 200 seats by the stadium in Seville.
Follow Jane on Twitter @downthetee!