It's a heavy sports weekend. You'll be watching or betting on or calling a 900 number for the results of: the Masters, the cruiserweight championship fight, the Santa Anita Derby, the NHL playoffs. What a bonanza of events! Titans clash! The Dodgers versus the Braves, Twins-Blue Jays, Celtics-Sixers, Lakers-Trail Blazers, Zimbabwe-Cameroon, Peru-United States, Hong Kong-Iraq. So many choices, so little time. What's a sports fan to do?
Unless you're related to Tom Gorman or Bud Collins, you probably don't have the foggiest idea that the second round of the 1988 Davis Cup is being played this very weekend in such places as Norrk‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áping, Guayaquil, Abidjan and Damascus. Typical home-surface advantages will include the likes of clay, carpet, grass, textile, felt, shell, cement and cow dung; the last is occasionally what India's Davis Cup courts are made of. The second-round survivors will reassemble in July at the same sort of faraway places. Then the Davis Cup takes a five-month break before holding its championship just before Christmas—a time carefully calculated to guarantee the event the least attention possible everywhere in the world.
In case your interest is being piqued just an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny widdle bit, the Davis Cup will confuse you totally by calling every competition between contending teams a "tie." Not a match. not a series, not a game but...a tie. Most dictionaries have anywhere from 25 to 40 definitions for the word tie. None of them describes a Davis Cup tie. This leads to tennis variations of the who's-on-first routine:
"Let's go to the tie between Bangladesh and Chinese Taipei in the Asia/ Oceania Zone Group II."
"Sure, what's the tie score?"
"It's 2-1, Taipei."
"But you said it was a tie."
"Right, between Bangladesh and Taipei."
"But they can't be tied at 2-1."
"Right, they won't be tied in the tie unless Taipei loses the first match of the reverse singles."
"Oh, then they'll play a tiebreaker?"
"Of course not. The only place in tennis they don't play tiebreakers is in Davis Cup ties. But if Taipei wins the last match, it wins the tie."
"Taipei wins if it's a tie?"
"Of course, it's a tie."
"It is? What's the tie score?"
"I told you. The tie is 2-1, Taipei."
But seriously, folks: Despite regularly shooting itself in the foot fault, the Davis Cup remains the grandest annual competition between nations in sport. Only the quadrennial Olympics and World Cup stand above it. There's no telling how magnificent the Copa Davis could be if they got it right again, the way it was when Bill Tilden and the Musketeers and Fred Perry held the bowl high. Even today, though, even if you don't cotton to tennis or don't like foreign stuff, you have got to love the Tasse Davis because it is now backed by the Japanese—specifically, the Nippon Electric Company—who annually ship about 150 million yen out of Tokyo to help patriotic tennis players earn a few bucks for representing their countries.
•Yes, now that I understand that the Davis Cup helps the world's balance of payments, I would like to know more about it.
•Thanks, but I'm a hard-as-nails American sports fan, and even if you stuck an Uzi in my face, I wouldn't listen to another word about the stupid, panty-waist Davis Cup.
If you checked the first little box, read on in Davis Cup 101.
The actual cup, which consists of 217 troy ounces of silver, was made by the Boston silversmiths Shreve, Crump and Low. It cost about $1,000 and was named the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Trophy. Dwight Davis, a Harvard student who went on to become a secretary of war under Coolidge, conceived of the competition and donated the bowl. But because Coolidge never said anything, we didn't have a war for Davis to be secretary of, and he went to his grave in 1945 famous almost exclusively for the tennis competition that came to bear his name.
The first challenge went to London on Jan. 16, 1900, but apparently it was the British who broadened the competition to include any respectable nation, i.e. any land civilized enough to boast a tennis federation. Davis, who also helped lead the Yanks to victory in that first tie, would later express delight at how his little idea had grown. Shortly before he died, he said of the Davis Cup. "If I had known of its coming significance, it would have been cast in gold."
The original Cup—plus a tray and base—was recently valued at ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£ 123,000, and it resides each year wherever the "holder" (that's "champion" to you and me) chooses. Sweden is the current holder, having whipped India in December. More than 70 nations now compete for the Tazza Davis, so as the competition seeks greater recognition, it widens its constituency.
Few Americans have any idea what a Cup tie can mean to some little country, especially if a big, bad power like Los Estados Unidos is the visiting team. Because America has lost in the last quarter-century to Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico (twice), Argentina (three times) and Paraguay, it is fair to say that the U.S. Davis Cup team has done far more for U.S.-Latin American relations than anything the State Department has ever dreamed up. "It is unfortunate that the finals are only televised in three or four countries." says Philippe Chatrier, president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), "but it is fantastic that, in any one year, Davis Cup matches are on live for more than 700 hours."
Remarkably little about the tie's format has changed in 88 years. Each side nominates two singles players to do battle in endless best-of-five-set matches against each other. A doubles match, which may or may not involve additional players, is played on the day between the two sets of singles matches. This weekend in Peru the U.S. will use Robert Seguso and Ken Flach in the doubles, while Alex Agassi and Jay Berger will make their singles debuts, but nations commonly call on only two players for the whole tie. Indeed the great charm of the competition is that a lone stalwart, such as Bjorn Borg of Sweden in '75 and Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia in '80, can almost single-handedly bring the Cup to a small nation that has virtually no chance of winning any other international competition.
Until 1972 the holder could sit out the next year's preliminary rounds and play only once—and at home—in the Challenge Round. Before the Challenge Round was eliminated, only four nations had won the Cup: the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and France. Since 1974 four more holders have swelled the ranks: South Africa (if only by default in 1974), Sweden, Italy and Czechoslovakia. And Chile, Argentina, West Germany and India have reached the finals.
Still, each year only 16 nations qualify for the World Group and a chance to win the Cup. The other 50 or 60 countries are shipped down to the bush leagues. The proper Davis Cup word for this—to be employed if you know what tie and holder mean—is "relegation." (The other Davis Cup term you must know is "dead rubber." In the Davis Cup players keep playing even when the result is settled. Thus if Taipei takes an insurmountable 3-1 lead over Bangladesh, the teams go through the motions of the final match. And because it can't be a rubber match, it's a dead rubber.)
By virtue of losing to Paraguay and West Germany last year, the U.S. has been "relegated" to the bushes for at least 1988. The Americans must get by Peru in Lima this weekend, which is hardly a given, and then this summer beat the winner of the Argentina-Ecuador tie to return to the World Group in 1989. Some folks are horrified that Uncle Sam would suffer relegation, but it's really a good thing. Maybe the management of a team like the Atlanta Falcons would finally shape up if the Falcons were relegated to the Southeastern Conference for a season.
And they don't mess around in the Davis Cup—it is relegation-intensive. If you get relegated from the World Group to, say, American Zone Group I (where the U.S. is now) or Asia/Oceania Zone Group I or Euro/African Zone Group I and lose some more there, you can then get relegated down to the various and sundry Zone IIs, the veritable black holes of international sport. Anyway now you can understand why 700 hours of this stuff floods the airwaves. You can also understand why, even in the 1920s when he was winning 13 Challenge Round singles matches in a row, Tilden said the Cup had to be streamlined.
For at least half a century people have been suggesting that the Cup be held at one venue over a week or two, somewhat like the World Cup or the Federation Cup of women's tennis. But as efficient as this format might be, it would distill the most enchanting essence out of the competition. Home is where the heart is. Yes, Peru could indeed defeat the U.S. in Lima on high-altitude clay with llamas leading cheers. No, Peru wouldn't have a chance at some antiseptic site like Wiesbaden or Hong Kong. Last year West Germany had its back up against relegation because somebody named Sergio Casal of Spain, circa No. 100 in the world, beat Boris Becker in Barcelona on clay in the deciding match. This year Spain is threatened with relegation because Casal and 16th-ranked Emilio Sanchez, were both beaten in the first round of the World Group in Aarhus, Denmark, on Bolltex Carpet Premium, by the immortal Dane, Michael Tauson, circa No. 400.
Remember: Nothing is new and everything is relative. According to The Story of the Davis Cup by Alan Trengrove, after the underdog Americans swept the British in the first tie in 1900, the losers—who had been sent off from London by tens of thousands of well-wishers lining the streets—blamed their defeat at Boston's Longwood Cricket Club on the "abominable" ground, long grass, a net that was "a disgrace to civilized lawn tennis" and balls that "were awful—soft and mothery."
By 1914, when the first tie was played at Forest Hills, the Yank fans were viewed as being on a par with latter-day Paraguayans. The legendary Challenge Round of that year was played before an SRO crowd of some 14.000 of these American lowlifes. Fred Hawthorne of the New York Tribune wrote that they acted as if they were on, god forbid, "a baseball field." Norman Brookes, the peerless Aussie, became so infuriated that he "dropped his racquet...and...[placed] his fingers in his ears for a period of five minutes [while] there were shouts of "Take him off! Put him out!' "
The Pistons think it's tough playing in Boston Garden? In 1982, when the Soviet Union was at home against India, the Russkies scheduled the tie outdoors in October in the Ukraine. Moreover, they didn't give the poor Indians any heat in their hotel or any interpreters or other amenities. In Paraguay three years ago, Yannick Noah of France became so enraged at a local who screamed every time his teammate, Henri Leconte, served, that Noah leaped out of the stands and attacked the offender—who was a linesman.
Last year in Paraguay, the U.S. had it even worse. On the final day the crowd, which theretofore had been merely boisterous, intimidated linesmen into making egregiously bad calls against the Americans and hurled objects from the stands at the U.S. players. When the Yanks finally went down to defeat at 2:39 a.m. on Monday morning, they fled the court, literally afraid for their lives.
None of this was new to the U.S. captain, Gorman, who played second singles on the '72 team, which had seriously discussed defaulting after the first day's play in the finals in Bucharest. Gorman's opponent. Ton Tiriac, had intimidated the officials, led the Romanians in cheers from the court and was toweled off by the linesmen. As Pat Cash of Australia departed the court in Mexico City this February, he had to cover his head against missiles thrown from the stands, and his teammate, Wally Masur, was arrested on trumped-up assault charges. In Palermo on the same weekend, police, including imported Israeli security agents, guarded the Israeli team, which had to endure threats and pro-Palestinian demonstrations throughout its matches against Italy.
Davis and other turn-of-the-century WASPs had no idea the competition would become so raucous. Long before Italy's greatest Cup star, Nikki Pietrangeli, said it flat out—"A little cheating is expected in the Cup"—cheating had become a part of it. On the other hand, when the Cup becomes a caldron, the boldest heroes are forged. Stan Smith's performance in Bucharest in '72 may well be the most courageous ever given by an American athlete on foreign soil. Despite the outrageous line calling, nonstop chicanery by the Romanian players and rumors that the Black September terrorists would strike as they had during the Munich Olympics a few weeks earlier. Smith kept his cool. Playing on his weakest surface, clay, he upset Hie Nastase, the world's No. 1 player at the time, teamed with Erik van Dillen to beat Nastase and Tiriac in the doubles and then defeated Tiriac to clinch the tie. Though John McEnroe possesses a temperament antithetical to Smith's, he, too, loves representing his country in Davis Cup play. In fact, Trengrove wrote that McEnroe is "the man who...saved the competition."
The Cup lost favor when it didn't keep up with tennis in the Open era. The process was so unwieldy that it was once necessary to begin the competition in the fall of the preceding year while the current year's competition was still under way. McEnroe revitalized interest in the Cup in the U.S. and had some epic matches, including a six-hour 32-minute victory over Mats Wilander in 1982. Unfortunately, misbehavior by McEnroe and Jimmy Connors (in one of his rare Davis Cup flings) in the '84 finals in Sweden drove McEnroe out of the competition, because he refused to sign the code-of-conduct agreement demanded by Hunter Delatour, who was president of the U.S. Tennis Association at the time. McEnroe returned last July to lose to Becker in six hours and 39 minutes. It was the one match of any consequence in what seems to be the last years of McEnroe's career.
"It is sad that so many modern players do not want to play for their country," says Chatrier. "But many are simply scared and cower when they ask for another service ball and don't hear the referee say their name but their country: 'Advantage, United States.' "
The Davis Cup is always teetering between nationalism and sport. It looked the other way in 1933, when the Nazis booted Daniel Prenn, a Jew who was Germany's best player, off the team, and it allowed South Africa to stay in the Cup for more than a decade after the country was banned from the Olympics in 1964. A few weeks ago India, which does not recognize Israel, announced that it would default this weekend's tie against Israel in Tel Aviv. Funny, political principles didn't stand in the way of India's agreeing to play Israel last year, when the tie was to take place on grass in New Delhi and the Indians were heavy favorites.
The Davis Cup is like a little bunch of kids who build a fort out of pillows and want to believe they really could live there forever if their parents would just leave them alone. Again and again in the 1970s it was pointed out that the South Africans who played tennis were separate from South Africa. And largely they were, too. Cliff Drysdale and Ray Moore were not only two of the most popular players on tour but also sportsmen of the first water as well.
In the 1930s Baron Gottfried von Cramm of Germany created an even more profound dilemma. He was the ultimate sportsman. During the doubles of the 1935 U.S.-Germany tie, the umpire shouted "Game, set and match," for Germany, but von Cramm volunteered that his racket had ticked the ball before his partner hit the winning volley. Germany ultimately lost the match and the tie. A couple of years later, at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, many of the box-seat holders at the Pacific Southwest championship were going to walk out en masse as a statement against the Nazis when von Cramm appeared on court. But they froze when confronted with the grace and dignity of the man.
That same year, 1937, von Cramm and Don Budge had played what is considered to be the finest match in Cup—and possibly all of tennis—history on the neutral ground of Wimbledon. Because the holder, Britain, had lost Perry to the pros, the U.S.-Germany victor would almost certainly win the Cup. Just as Ted Tinling was to escort the players onto Centre Court, Hitler rang up von Cramm and exhorted him to win for the Fatherland. Budge came back from 1-4 in the fifth set. though, to return the Cup to the U.S.
Surely had von Cramm won that match, the Cup would have spent the war in Germany—and possibly been lost forever. Because von Cramm lost, his anti-Nazi views became even more hazardous, and he was soon jailed by the Nazis and then sent to the Eastern front as a private. Von Cramm won the Iron Cross for bravery, and after the war he played Davis Cup for West Germany until 1953, when he was 44.
For the Davis Cup, for us all, he remains the classic paradox in sport. Just as Davis had said when he donated the Cup, von Cramm did his all "to develop friendship, goodwill and peace among the nations through the medium of international tennis." By accident of birth, however, von Cramm was obliged to do it for a diabolical government that was diabolically opposed to all von Cramm—and Davis—stood for. In less distinct ways, that is what the Davis Cup must always try to sort out: Where does the athlete end and his nation begin?
Or are we better off not troubling ourselves to ask that question?