It’s high summer and in the all-too-brief hiatus between Wimbledon and the start of the North American hard-court swing, there’s just enough time for the best tennis nations to go head-to-head in the Davis Cup.
In four far-flung parts of the world, they lock horns in the quarterfinals of a competition that could take them to national glory at the end of the year.
The big question, as the tie got underway, was: Could anyone stop the reigning champions and four-times-in-a-decade winners, the Spanish juggernaut? Their record against their quarterfinal opponents, France, suggested not yet: Spain hadn’t lost to the French since 1923.
But the beauty of the Davis Cup is that national support can add an extra impetus to the home team, an extra morsel of energy, an extra spring in the step—and in this case it was France who played at home.
Missing the world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who was both recovering from his exertions in winning Wimbledon and mapping out his schedule as he eyed the U.S. Open, the Spanish team was still a formidable proposition.
Most teams would be grateful for just two players from a group comprising Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, and Nicolas Almagro—all top 25 players, and with three more in the top 40 on the sidelines, just in case.
But then France isn’t too shabby in its pool of talent, either. They missed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but still had Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon, Julien Benneteau, and Michael Llodra—all top 35 players, and with three more in the top 50, just in case.
Well against all predictions, it was a French whitewash and the first time Spain had lost by such a margin since 1957. At least they have the consolation prize of the World Cup—and the Wimbledon champion.
At the other end of Europe, world No. 2 Novak Djokovic, also with high-quality backing in the form of Viktor Toicki and Janko Tipsarovic, led Serbia against a neighbouring Croatia comprising world No. 13 Marin Cilic and No. 13 Ivan Ljubicic.
Djokovic extended his perfect Davis Cup run for the year with two straight-sets wins against these classy opponents and provided the perfect platform for Serbia to take the tie, 4-1, and reach the semifinal for the first time
Across in Moscow, world No. 6 Nikolay Davydenko and No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny took Russia into battle against an Argentina missing its most famous son, Juan Martin del Potro—still injured—as well as their second string, Juan Monaco.
The Argentine chances looked slim, but that was to underestimate the charismatic David Nalbandian, who has played just four tournaments in the last year because of hip surgery and, more recently, a hamstring injury.
As is so often the case, he becomes super-charged when he dons the blue and white of his country. In what proved to be the tie of the quarterfinals, he recorded his 20th Davis Cup win in 24 singles rubbers to take Argentina into the semifinals. He pulled off the same trick in helping Argentina to the finals in 2008, also beating Russia.
It was an excellent four-set performance from Davydenko that ensured the tie went to a decisive fifth rubber, and an encouraging return to form for him after his own extended absence with a fractured wrist.
Meanwhile, way across the world in South America, Chile played host to the Czech Republic in what proved to be the least starry of the ties.
Both countries were missing their top players. The home team desperately needed the dynamic Fernando Gonzalez, the bedrock of the Chilean campaign, but he has been sidelined with tendonitis for 10 weeks.
The visiting side was missing Radek Stepanek with his own injury problems, and was also missing Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych. This was a squad that reached the finals in 2009, and even without their key players, the Czech team won this tie 4-1.
These, of course, are the elite teams, the World Group teams, and what they have in common is that they can each draw from a rich pool of talent.
And that brings us neatly to Andy Murray, and the sorry contrast between his role in the Davis Cup and that of the other top players.
While the World Group teams were galvanizing their respective nations, the group playoffs were also taking place, and amongst them the Great Britain team attempting to avoid the ignominious slide from the Europe/Africa Group Two to the bottom of the food-chain, Group Three.
Since the British team’s defeat by Lithuania in March, the knives have been out, and never far away from the war of words has been the name of Murray and his decision to opt out of the squad this year.
The loss to Lithuania marked G.B.’s fifth defeat in a row. The team has not won a tie since 2007 and has not won the Davis Cup since 1936. Murray stands, alone, a full 168 places above the second man.
Fred Perry must be spinning in his grave at the contrast between the 21st century team and the four-time winning team he led.
Yet, despite the odds against British success, Murray gets little credit for just how regularly he has stepped up to the plate. He has played Davis Cup every year since turning professional at 17, and he’s won 11 rubbers out of 17 played.
Nadal, a year older, has won 16 out of 21 rubbers. Robin Soderling and Tsonga, almost three years Murray’s senior, have, respectively, 11 wins out of 15, and seven out of eight.
Murray last played when Great Britain lost to Poland in September 2009, and won both his singles matches. As a result he aggravated a wrist injury that had forced him out of tennis for three months in 2007.
Nadal and Roger Federer have both opted out of their country’s July ties, and they make little secret of the fact that scheduling for the Majors is currently more important. And Murray is under constant pressure to win a Slam. So how often should he compromise his individual targets for what has become—for the time being at least—the lost cause of British tennis?
In the event, the British heaved a huge national sigh of relief as the current team comprising Jamie Baker and James Ward, with doubles pair Colin Fleming and Ken Skupski, defeated Turkey and avoided relegation.
There are other glimmers of hope. On the far horizon there is the prospect of some support from the junior ranks: Oliver Golding, a semifinalist at Wimbledon, and two British duos who fought it out for the Wimbledon doubles title. But it will be along road back to the World Group, and a long time until Britain has a squad strong enough for Murray to lead into the semifinals.
In the meantime, we have the prospect of some Grand Slam quality matchups when France face Argentina and Serbia face the Czech Republic in September.
But another interesting question lurks, not in the semifinals but in the World Group Playoffs. For that is where Switzerland, Sweden, and the USA will be fighting it out for their own survival amongst the elite.
So will Federer, Soderling, and Andy Roddick step up, hot on the heels of the U.S. Open, to save the day?