Murray can be great, but needs to do it when people are watching

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"Yeah," he'd say in the ensuing years, "but I knocked 'em dead in Hoboken."

The story came to mind over the weekend as Andy Murray played Roger Federer in the Shanghai final. All year, we've watched Murray as a sad replica of his image, falling short at the majors while people wondered if he was some sort of head case. This lasted right through the U.S. Open. So he picks Shanghai -- tennis' answer to a champagne-and-confetti party on January 5 -- to give Federer a good thrashing.

Now the hype begins anew. Watch out for Murray at the Australian; he's really got it together now. And maybe he does. When he's really rolling, Murray gives the performance of a true virtuoso. Who else has the tactical eccentricity to throw Federer so noticeably off his game?

As little snippets of personal information come forth about today's athletes, there are things you just don't want to hear. You'd hate to find out, for instance, that your favorite quarterback has watched Ishtar a thousand times, or that some fearsome cleanup hitter can't decide between "Sugar Sugar" and "We're an American Band" as his all-time favorite record.

More than a couple of times, I've read that Murray is obsessed with video games -- like, all day long. Six, seven hours at a time. If that's true, I'll go public with a forecast that he'll never win a major. Zero. Lifetime. It would explain why his mind goes so far astray on court sometimes, because he spends way too much time being a mindless rockhead.

(Say it ain't so, Andy. Tell us you're actually studying films of Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad with Rod Laver.)

If Murray really wants to make a mark in this game, he'll have to do so when people are really paying attention. Who remembers the highlights of his eight career wins (against just five losses) against Federer? A far more vivid memory is this year's Australian, when Murray appeared to have Federer vanquished, only to blow some key shots and let the Swiss legend reassemble his game.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Murray's straight-sets win on Sunday was Federer's growing frustration. In the fourth game of the second set, Murray challenged a call in the midst of a point Federer thought he had closed with an overhead winner. It lead to a service break, giving Murray a 3-1 lead, and Federer said afterward, "It was a classic bad mistake by the linesperson. In the end, it's what maybe cost me the match. It happens all the time. You hope it doesn't happen in the finals against a great player like Andy on a break point."

Give Murray credit for a scintillating performance, and after the year he's had, he's not particular about the setting. It's just that he hasn't convinced everyone, including some of his most ardent supporters, that he's capable of winning a major. Until he does, there will be serious questions about his big-match mentality.

* * * * *

OK, now let's get everyone's feelings on the World Group Playoffs.

Sounds good, you say, but a quick question: What are they?

Herein lies the great dilemma of the Davis Cup, a once-great event that now only pretends (under the stuffy auspices of the International Tennis Federation) to be so. Even for those who understand the format, no discerning fan puts much stock in 75 percent of the Davis Cup results that come across the wire. Why would you even bother, when the best players are so routinely missing?

The ITF needs to abandon its hopelessly dated stance and address the crisis, explaining why Federer so seldom plays for Switzerland, why the fiercely patriotic Andy Roddick feels compelled to sit out, or why Rafael Nadal -- who carried the Spanish flag during the opening ceremony of a crucial tie when he was 14 years old -- doesn't always show up.

Actually, it's a simple answer: The commitment is far too demanding. The tennis calendar is too lengthy and complex for the top players to set aside several weekends, spread awkwardly throughout the year, for Davis Cup. One specific month, absolutely, but not repeated departures from the tour.

The discussion is especially pertinent now, for we're in the exact time frame -- October -- in which the Davis Cup should be played. It's silly to get too deep into the argument, because for all the talk about shortening the ATP calendar, it's not going to happen. Not in any significant way. It's not so much about the importance of the tour's lesser events -- everyone knows they mean nothing, in the largest sense, and could be tossed aside like old lettuce -- it's the locations.

It's one thing to talk about abandoning Buenos Aires, Bangkok or Stockholm, but there's too much money to be earned, too much exotic lifestyle to be enjoyed, too much expanding of the adventurous mind. This is a rich-people's sport, and they've set it up so it amounts to one fabulous, well-pampered holiday. I'm too distrustful of the corporate mind to believe that these tournaments are strictly about tennis, and I'm sure that goes for the players in many cases, as well.

Just imagine, as we blithely dream on, the tour stopping cold after the U.S. Open. The rest of the fall could be devoted strictly to Davis Cup, with nothing else on the calendar -- and I'm including the pompous but totally forgettable "year-end championship" tournaments on both tours -- until Australia at the turn of the year.

"I would love to think that by October, the season would be over," Mary Carillo told Inside Tennis. "That would help everybody. I understand why that can't happen, but there must be some way that things can get reconfigured. I'd love to see more players support the Davis Cup, which is such a great event, but has become in many ways a non-event. We need to try to get back its prestige."

It's interesting to note that Nadal and Novak Djokovic, members of the ATP Player Council, are behind a proposal that would model the Davis Cup after soccer's World Cup. I find that far more attractive than a mere two-week window, for that isn't nearly enough time to capture the gravity and appeal of the world's best players competing for their countries.

Give it a four-week run through the month of October, thus giving players adequate rest after the U.S. Open, and by all means, don't have it all in one place. The Davis Cup's greatest charm is a wild, hostile crowd going berserk for the hometown lads while a bunch of scrappy invaders try to spoil everyone's party. There isn't a greater test in all of tennis, and I'm including the majors, than winning a crucial Davis Cup match when it seems the entire world has aligned against you.

I'd like to see 16 nations designated for the competition each year. Forget the qualifying; simply base the entries on the rankings of their singles and doubles players. Set the field with plenty of time to spare, so the proper venues can be booked and the countries' respective federations can maximize the profits. If you're a legitimate tennis country, you're in. If you're fielding five guys named Zippo Netcord, try to get better.

I'm sure there were many good reasons why Patrick McEnroe left his post as the U.S. Davis Cup captain to devote more time to the USTA development program, but one of them had to be the growing irrelevance of Davis Cup.

"Emotionally, it can be exhausting," said Roddick.

"It's a reason why players get so tired, so early in the year," said Ivan Ljubicic.

"I need some time to relax, so I can finish the year strong," said Federer.

"We need something where the great players will play it more often," said Nadal.

And I'll leave it to Patrick's brother, John, who coached the U.S. team for a grand 14 months before quitting, to make the strongest argument of all:

"Nobody cares about the Davis Cup."

Once again, John, you've said it all.