Heroism, Failure, Redemption in Davis Cup
Wednesday, March 9, 2005
By Mert Ertunga
Call it what you will...
There is nothing like it!
Over the weekend, the Davis Cup once again provided the tennis fans with a different kind of excitement. This is not your everyday tennis tournament type of excitement. In Davis Cup, one look at the players' face proves that this is not about that player or about his battle. What one sees on the player's face is so much more than tension about how to win the next point.
The Davis Cup is the moment where the eyes of the player are fixated on the ball and the court, but his mind is slowly, but steadily crushed under the responsibility of representing the vast population that live in his country, and that country's flag. What you see on the player's face is the stress of the whirlwind of thoughts circulating in his mind, including what his teammates are thinking of him, what the millions of viewers are thinking about him when he commits that double fault on that crucial point, or how he will celebrate the win and what a hero he will become to his country's fans if he could just ... oh just ... win the next two games.
Take it from a guy who has played the deciding fifth match of a Davis Cup tie, a match that lasted five sets. The picture slowly forming in front of you is composed of a large, very large, group of people (millions in most cases), with a group of boxing gloves enough for all of them laying on one side, and a huge layer gifts and flowers laying on the other. If you win, you are showered with one. If you lose you are punished with the other. Get it?
One guy experienced the punishment side three years ago at the pinnacle of Davis Cup. In the 2002 Davis Cup finals in Paris, then 20-year-old Paul Henri Mathieu played Mikhail Youzhny for the deciding fifth match. Mathieu, much to the delight of the home crowd, won the first and second sets. Then the nightmare began and two hours later Youzhny was the hero and Mathieu was the guy who choked the Davis Cup away in five sets. If one did not think Mathieu was haunted by that memory for three years, one probably did not see last weekend's tie between Sweden and France. Mathieu was once again put in the same position against Thomas Johansson, one of the more composed players on the tour.
This time around, the location was Strasbourg, France. Mathieu again won the first two sets. And then the nightmare began again. After leading most of the third set, Mathieu squandered away the set in a tiebreaker failing to capitalize on three match points, and went down a break in the fourth. That third set lasted 77 minutes, longest minutes of Mathieu's career, maybe his life. Yet Mathieu clamped down, and won the fourth set by winning the last four games in a row. Immediately, tears came pouring down on his face. Those tears also took away from his body three years of heavyweights that were hanging in his mind since the nightmare in Paris. This time around, he was the hero.
Meanwhile in California, the U.S. Team composed of Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, and the best doubles team in the world, the Bryan Brothers, could not possibly lose to Croatia, right? Wrong!
When Agassi went down to the young but bolding Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia, the alarm bells appeared for Patrick McEnroe. Then the bells started ringing loud and clear when the Bryan brothers, who had yet to lose a set in Davis Cup prior to last weekend, went down in four sets to Ljubicic and Mario Ancic. Surely, Roddick and Agassi could still bring the victory to Croatia the next day, couldn't they? Well, that next day was a day of absolute heroism for Ljubicic and a colossal failure for Roddick. Ljubicic, battling injuries and cramps in the fifth set, defeated Roddick to move his country to the quarterfinals.
More than Roddick, this defeat leaves question marks regarding the coaching ability of Patrick McEnroe. All through the fifth set, Roddick rushed the points, tried to hurry his shots, and made silly mistakes against a guy who had very little left in the tank. It was almost like Roddick helped Ljubicic's cause by keeping the points short and giving several away on easy unforced errors. You would think that McEnroe on the sidelines would have a few words of wisdom for Roddick during that set. After all, that is one advantage of Davis Cup. The coach can intervene during play. But neither McEnroe showed the ability to guide his player in the right direction, nor Roddick showed his court wit to take a player mentally down that was already physically down.
In other ties, a Roger Federer-less Switzerland, without his automatic two wins, lost to Netherlands. Romania defeated Belarus in a thriller, mainly thanks to the home court advantage. On paper, Mirnyi and Voltchkov should have taken care of business against Pavel and Hanescu. But the home crowd helped the Romanians win five tiebreakers in singles matches vs. only one for Belarus. Russia took out Chile and Argentina and Australia blanked their opponents advancing to the quarterfinals.
The biggest surprise on paper after Croatia's win was the debacle of the defending champions Spain in Slovakia. However, after considering a couple of factors, it pales in "surprise" element to the U.S.' failure. First of all, Spain did not have the services of Davis Cup veterans Carlos Moya and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Second, the tie was played in Slovakia, indoors on carpet. Probably the last time Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez played on carpet was when they were little kids in their bedrooms.
There is heroism, choking, failure, and revenge on the ATP Tour. The Davis Cup offers the kind that is not available in ATP tournaments. In the Davis Cup, heroes and victims do not have the luxury of being selfish. Therefore, successes and failures are truly heartfelt. To steal from TNT's commercial line: "Drama is Davis Cup."