MADRID, November 25, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
The historic Davis Cup entered a new era and format this past week that culminated in Spain winning the inaugural version of Davis Cup 2.0, the Davis Cup by Rakuten Madrid Finals, before an enthusiastic sellout crowd – including His Majesty the King of Spain Felipe VI – that filled up La Caja Mágica in Madrid Sunday evening. Final tie score: Spain 2, Canada 0.
Gone was the year-long drama building up to a Davis Cup Final featuring two nations. Gone was the familiar World Group of 16 nations contesting home-and-away ties played on a variety of surfaces, usually favoring the home team.
Instead, the new-look Davis Cup that was the brainchild of Spanish football superstar Gerard Piqué and Kosmos, was contested like a football World Cup during a one-week, season-ending 18-nation tournament that played out immediately following an exciting Nitto ATP Finals in London won by Stefanos Tsitsipas. The action-packed “World Cup of Tennis” was staged on a neutral, hard-court surface – the same center court stadium that plays host to a successful clay-court ATP Masters 1000 during the European spring clay season. Thanks to a happy ending supplied by host nation Spain, it was a night filled with soaring emotions.
While the Davis Cup Final always seems to come at the end of what is an already too-long and too-tiring tennis season, it’s been steeped in tradition – 119 years-worth of tradition, thank you. The Davis Cup was started by a group of Harvard University students led by Dwight F. Davis in Boston, Massachusetts, back in 1900.
It was the belief of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the governing body of the Davis Cup, that an overhauled format, which showcased best-of-three sets matches instead of the traditional best-of-five sets, and reduced from four singles matches to two, along with one doubles match, would be more attractive to the sport’s elite players – namely Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. It was because of the waning interest of today’s Big Three superstars of tennis that the ITF felt a radical change was needed for the Davis Cup to maintain its relevance. As it happened, all three played plenty of memorable tennis this past week, but only two of them – Nadal and Djokovic – showcased their talent at the Davis Cup Finals. As for Federer, he was off on a lucrative, barnstorming tour of South America with Alexander Zverev, which included a Saturday evening exhibition match in Mexico City witnessed by more than 40,000 fans, who filled a Mexican bull ring stadium that was retrofitted for tennis.
While many initially took to calling the new-age Davis Cup “the Kosmos Cup” or “Piqué Cup,” both references to the Kosmos capital investment group headed by the Barcelona football star that is bankrolling the new-look Davis Cup venture – at the tune of $3 billion over 25 years – it’s worth remembering that the Davis Cup is played for national pride with no money or rankings points offered to its participants. And, if there were many false starts and bumps and ego bruises throughout the week – many of them embarrassing – the big positive of the week that will be talked about for weeks to come is the quality of tennis exhibited – especially by Nadal. It was Spain’s sixth Davis Cup title overall and its first since 2011.
“It’s been an amazing week,” said Nadal shortly after he clinched the Davis Cup title for Spain with a gutsy 6-3, 7-6 (7) victory over Denis Shapovalov of Canada, winning on his third match point. It was the Spaniard’s 32nd consecutive win in this competition. He’s now 29-1 lifetime in Davis Cup singles and has not lost a singles match in more than 15 years. After shaking hands with the formidable opponents from Canada, who were playing in just their first Davis Cup final, Nadal returned to the center of the court – alone – to bask in the applause of the many happy and adoring, flag-waving Spanish fans, which included Nadal’s family.
During the awards ceremony that followed, the 33-year-old Nadal won the most inspiring player award for his energetic and magnificent play throughout the exhausting week, in which he went a perfect 8-0 (5-0 in singles and 3-0 in doubles), devastating opponents in both singles and doubles without losing serve once.
“We went through many things. Father of Roberto (Bautista Agut) passed away, Marcel (Granollers) couldn’t move with the lower back, Pablo (Carreño Busta) injured. So, to win, I could not be happier,” said Nadal.
— Davis Cup by Rakuten Madrid Finals (@DavisCupFinals) November 24, 2019
Later, during the team’s press conference, Nadal further expressed what winning the Davis Cup meant to him. “We went through everything this week. Yes, I won eight of eight matches, but I say this with my hand on my heart: The person who was vital in this Davis Cup was Roberto. What he did, for me, is nearly inhuman. You can’t explain it. He’ll be an example for the rest of my life.”
Roberto Bautista Agut set the stage for Nadal with his heartfelt 7-6 (3), 6-3 win over Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime that gave Spain its opening point of the championship tie.
Spain’s team captain Sergei Bruguera added, “Yesterday, he was at his father’s funeral and today he is out there giving everything. So many emotions.”
Among the critics of the new Davis Cup format, Sports Illustrated tennis writer Jon Wertheim tweeted: “Again: the player buy-in here (tears from both Nadal and Djokovic) has, in itself, legitimized this new Davis Cup. Lots of glitches to be worked out, but – thanks largely to the good fortune of the home team winning – an overall success.
Among the glitches, there was criticism over scheduling – the U.S.-Italy tie lasted until 4:04 a.m. – because only three covered stadiums were available for the use during the tournament. Also, there were issues involving technology – namely, a hapless app that had to be relaunched the second day of the finals and, still, remained slow and ineffective in providing basic info (scores, results, daily schedule) tennis fans have come to expect in a timely and readable manner – and television coverage in the United States was hard to come by after Tennis Channel was unable to agree to financial terms with Kosmos to broadcast the Davis Cup. (Fox Sports 2 showed only the two U.S. ties and Sunday’s Spain-Canada final.) Finally, there were a lack of spectators for matches involving teams other than Spain. On the eve of their Saturday semifinal against Spain, Great Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association hawked 800 free tickets via the internet to ensure there would be more than just a few Union Jack flags waving in support of the British in La Caja Mágica.
While Piqué suggested during a press conference Sunday before the final that changes would be made, the Davis Cup by Rakuten Madrid Finals will return to the Spanish city with 18 teams in 2020.
Meanwhile, New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey, who at the beginning of the week wondered “how much anyone will care who wins the big, gleaming trophy,” exclaimed after the championship tie: “With nothing left to prove at this stage, Rafael Nadal went out and proved something more.
“That at the end of another grueling season he could shrug off nagging injuries, middle-of-the-night finishes and inspired younger opposition and still lead Spain to a Davis Cup title by winning all eight of his matches.”
“Nadal, back at No. 1 at age 33, was undoubtedly the player of the week in this new, quick-hitting 18-team final format that is hardly to everyone’s taste in tennis.”
Looking back, let’s face it: the Davis Cup as we knew it for generations is gone – replaced by something different – exciting at times, but also mentally and physically draining on the players. And, let’s not forget the fans, too, many who stayed from first ball to last ball, watching matches that finished well after midnight all week long.
While Great Britain team captain Leon Smith was quoted in the British press early Sunday, following his nation’s 2-1 loss to Spain in the semifinals, as saying “It’s been extremely intense playing back-to-back-days,” earlier in the week, his American counterpart had a different outlook.
“I think you’ve got to look at it as a whole, look at the big picture,” said U.S. team captain Mardy Fish at the beginning of the week before his team split its two group ties, losing to Canada and winning over Italy. “It feels different, a little different, sure, but the bones are there. They playing for your country is there, and the team part is there, and it’s always special putting on the flag and putting on the jacket.”
After the last ball was struck, there were five players – Nadal (5-0), Andrey Rublev of Russia (4-0), Kyle Edmund of Great Britain (3-0), Djokovic from Serbia (3-0) and Alex de Minaur from Australia (3-0) – who won three or more singles matches. When Serbia fell 2-1 to Russia in Friday’s quarterfinal round, it signaled the end of a “golden generation” for the former war-torn Yugoslavian nation with the retirement of Janko Tipsarevic, who played on Serbia’s 2010 Davis Cup championship team, along with Djokovic and Viktor Troicki.
“I would lie if I say if I didn’t think about the potential end of my professional career would happen in Davis Cup,” said Tipsarevic during an emotional team press conference. “It’s never a good time to retire, but if I could choose the moment, this would be the moment.”
Now, no longer will there be a bright spotlight focused on just two nations – although Sunday evening’s finale between the Spanish Armada and upstart Canada – a lovable team that was carried all week long by the 20-year-old Shapovalov and the recently-returned No. 150 Vasek Pospisil, who won three singles and two doubles matches earlier in the tournament – was both dramatic and entertaining. But, let’s face it: a neutral venue cannot replicate what fans have experienced in the past. However, thanks to the success of the host nation, the stands were filled to capacity each time Spain competed, and they cheered loudly for the universally-beloved Nadal and the rest of their Spanish heroes.
“Rafa is a super hero,” said Feliciano Lopez, who teamed with Nadal to clinch Spain’s place in the final with a dramatic doubles win over Great Britain, then assumed the role of cheerleader on Sunday. “Last night and today again he does things the rest of us just don’t do.”
Indeed, Nadal’s career continues to be one filled with intense, superhuman efforts. As the Davis Cup week unfolded, he said, “the competition is dramatic, and with this new format, even more.” While it may be too early to tell if changing the Davis Cup format becomes beneficial for the sport in the long run, on the court, one can’t imagine better tennis than this.