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December 9, 2000

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For flag and country

Rohit Brijnath

What does the Davis Cup mean to men?

Leander Paes once told me an astonishing story that suffices adequately as an answer.

On a golf course in Delhi a year ago, I asked him a question that has stuck in the sub-conscious of most tennis-loving Indians.

How come, he, the Davis Cup player who beat Wayne Ferriera, Goran Ivanisevic, Henri Leconte and Arnaud Boestch (on clay in France), Jacob Hlasek, Jan Seimerink, was so incredibly inept on the circuit. When the umpire said "Game India" he was electric, when he said "Game Paes" he was tragic.

Leander Paes
Leander Paes
 
Let me give you two examples:

* In 1993, ranked No.197 he loses to the unknown No.238 Fernon Wibier in the first round of qualifying at Wimbledon, on his best surface, grass. Three weeks later he hammers No. 25 Boetsch on clay in straight sets in the Davis Cup.

* In 1994, ranked No.143, he loses in the first round of a Challenger to No.208 Louis Gloria. Four weeks later he destroys No. 13 Ferreira in straight sets in the Davis Cup.

This is what Leander said: "I judged myself on how I performed in the Davis Cup. On that Friday-Saturday-Sunday there were no limits in my mind,. If I believe strongly enough, it will be done. But I kept looking at the Davis Cup. Once a tie was over, I'd be looking three months down the road to the next tie. I just didn't care enough about the tour. But in India Davis Cup is the most important thing, and I love playing for my country."

Indeed, to watch Leander in Cup play, was to travel back in time to Rome where gladiators fought each other to a dusty death. I have seen him cry after Cup matches he lost, I have seen him weep after he won. To watch him on court was one of the most moving and spectacular things I have seen in tennis.

Yet people say the Davis Cup is out of date, that personal glory outweighs the flag.

For a 101 years, grown men have trembled walking out on court, knowing, as John Newcombe once said, "That you are one person playing for all the people."

So much for honour. A couple of American hot-shots, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi turn their backs on the Cup, unhappy with the format, and everyoneís in a tizzy.

Boris Becker
Boris Becker
 
But fiddling with a 101-year old tradition called the Davis Cup because of ranking points is a lousy excuse. So what, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, Pat Cash all sacrificed their careers for Cup glory? When last I looked, they did both pretty well.

Still, the moaning. Make it 2-3 weeks every year we're told, and hold it in one city. That's a good way to popularise tennis, ensure no one gets to see Cup. In the recent past, Jim Courier, Goran Ivanisevic, Henri Leconte, Yannick Noah, Miloslav Mecir, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, have come to India. You'd don't think there's a kid somewhere out there in India who wasn't moved to beg Daddy to buy him a tennis racket after that?

And what about home advantage. Like the annoying orchestra in the Brazilian crowd, the slippery grass in Calcutta which unhinged Marc Rosset in 1993, the Swedish clay that undid the Dream Team Americans (Connors/McEnroe) in 1984.

No, four times a year say the Yanks is too much of an interruption to their schedule. And you know, they're right. Four weeks often makes it eight, what with preparation and all. And you could be coming off a summer of grass court tennis in England and sent to El Salvador to play on clay, just when the hard court seasonís about to begin in America. Itís hell on the footwork, the confidence, the mindset, the works.

It's a reason; it's also not good enough. Next time Agassi skips into his private jet he should remember that the old Davis Cuppers travelled by boat. So it doesn't pay that good; well, it was worse in the 1950s, when Frank Sedgman got 5 shillings a day.

Somehow, playing for the flag is boring in America, right. Somehow Cash getting upset with his sponsors for printing a T-shirt that said Pat Cash in large print and Davis Cup, Australia in fine print was just silly symbolism.

Lleyton Hewitt
Lleyton Hewitt
 
The other day, while doing some research, I read that Sampras, who withstood cramps and Russian obstinacy to win the Cup for the US in Moscow in 1995, was peeved with the limp reaction his heroics received back home. A sort of no one cares, why should I. Precisely why he should. By his not playing the Cup will endure; but by his presence he gives it a further legitimacy.

But it's more than mere tradition, or chest-beating nationalism. It's value-system. For that one week your entourage can stay at home, your personal hairdresser not invited. Here you play for your team, for the man sitting courtside in a chair, and seven men in tracksuits similar to yours behind him. You learn to bond, you trust, you sacrifice (once Laver, Rosewall, and Newcombe arrived for the same tie, aware that one of them wasn't going to play). And when you win you get nothing, but you get everything. Which usually means getting kissed by seven unshaven team-mates.

In a self-centred sporting world, where allegiance means nothing (pay a soccer player a few dollars more and he's yours), the Davis Cup is even more important than it ever was.

So Andre Agassi wonít play. So, did you see Lleyton Hewitt?

The kid is 19, he can't breathe properly, is Spain's Public Enemy No.1, knows clay isn't his favourite surface, is playing in Barcelona, is down 0-5 in the first set.

And then is so excited after he wins in five sets over four hours that they have to 'beep' his on-court interview because his language is too colourful.

What does the Davis Cup mean to men? Well, to some men at least, everything.

Rohit Brijnath

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