My biggest gripe with professional tennis is strangely not the injury-resulting schedule that the ATP puts its players through. It's with the average tennis fan who doesn't appreciate the concept of tennis being a team sport and countries battling it out with each other for glory.
Individual sports usually end up being a "me versus the other guy" scenario. It's about winning against the person that you're playing and disregarding everything else because eventually you take sole responsibility for your defeat and sole glory for your victory.
The Davis Cup doesn't change that in anyway, but it should (and dare I say does) have the ability to infuse a familial feeling among players under the same national flag.
When Harvard student Dwight Filley Davis lent his name to the trophy (it was also known as "Dwight's Pot") it was a contest exclusively between the USA and Great Britain. Some 100 years later in 2005, it had 134 participating nations!
And yet, there's a ubiquitous feeling of insipidity that accompanies every Davis Cup, which is often due to the absence of the world's top five or 10 players.
For this there is no remedy because the world's top-ranked tennis superstars are almost always from different countries, and the Davis Cup is a five-match showdown. One star player can help, but cannot win the entire match-up all by himself.
This might help explain why, at the semifinal stage of the 2010 Davis Cup, which gets underway on September 17, the only member of the current top 10 will be Novak Djokovic, and perhaps Tomas Berdych, who needs to return to a depleted Czech side that somehow cruised past Chile.
What's happened at the Davis Cup?
16 teams made the playoffs and played each other earlier in March.
Federer's Switzerland was drawn with Spain in what should have been a mouthwatering clash.
Only it wasn't.
Nadal and Federer were both missing and substituted by Nicolas Almagro and Marco Chiudinelli, respectively. After the Swiss No. 2 Wawrinka battled past Almagro in a thrilling five-setter, David Ferrer thrashed Chiudinelli and the Granollers-Robredo duo then clinched the doubles over Wawrinka and Allegro comfortably. The rest was a formality as Ferrer thrashed Wawrinka and Almagro finished off the dead rubber to make it 4-1.
The Germans ran into a strong French team with Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and meekly surrendered 4-1. Kohlschreiber and Becker (Benjamin not Boris) lost tamely to Monfils and Tsonga. They clinched the doubles through Llodra-Benneteau, and the rest was a formality.
The powerful Russians, weakened by the absence of an injured Davydenko, took care of India although the 3-2 scoreline makes it look like a tight encounter. Kunitsyn beat ex-Cavalier Devvarman in a tight four-setter, while stalwart Youzhny cruised past big-serving Rohan Bopanna. Though the famed Paes-Bhupathi duo pulled one back, the result was never in doubt, as Youzhny completed the formality.
A Robin Soderling-led Sweden faced off against Argentina and gave us the clash of the first round. Missing their hero David Nalbandian for the first singles, the Argentinians managed to remain tied one each as Soderling defeated Eduardo Schwank. Nalbandian returned for the doubles to give his country a 2-1 lead before Soderling leveled with another singles victory. Then it was up to Nalbandian who played a tight match under pressure to close out the rubber 3-2.
Big-serving Croatia, led by ace machine Karlovic and Cilic, whitewashed a weak Ecuador outfit while underdog Serbia upset the USA 3-2.
Twin towers Isner and Querrey failed in their singles ties, as Djokovic and Victor Troicki prevailed in tight matches. Isner then paired up with Bob Bryan to pull one back in the doubles but it was too little, too late, as Nole then defeated Isner in a marathon five-setter.
Spurred on by double Olympic Gold Medalist Nicolas Massu and Fernando Gonzalez, Chile closed out Israel 4-1 to proceed to a second round clash with a strong Czech outfit that beat Belgium by an identical score. Led by Berdych and veteran Radek Stepanek, the Czechs finished the tie in the first three ties and then played out the dead rubber.
What's happening at the Davis Cup?
The quarter-finals just concluded, and four countries now remain to battle it out for a spot in the finals.
Spain, missing Rafael Nadal but fielding David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco, were humiliated by a weakened French team without the services of an injured Tsonga. Monfils prevailed in a see-saw five-setter against Ferrer, while doubles specialist Michael Llodra upset a tepid Verdasco in four sets. The Frenchman then teamed up with Julien Benneteau to clinch the rubber against the Lopez-Verdasco duo. Not content with the win, Gilles Simon beat Almagro in two tie-breaks while Lopez also failed to win a set against Benneteau.
For a country that boasts of Nadal (1), Verdasco (10), Ferrer (12), Almagro (20), Ferrero (21), Lopez (25), Montanes (30), Robredo (36), and Garcia-Lopez (39), the 5-0 result is almost humiliating. As this decade's most successful Davis Cup country and two-time defending Champions, Spain missed the chance for a hat-trick but is still undoubtedly the powerhouse in the men's game with healthy players.
Russia and Argentina faced off with Davydenko leading a rejuvenated Russian outfit while veteran Nalbandian sniffed around for an upset. The latter prevailed over a rusty Davydenko in three tight sets while Youzhny levelled it at one a piece for the Russians. With the doubles going Argentina's way and Davydenko beating Eduardo Schwank it came down once again to David Nalbandian. The Argentine, in the running for the undesirable moniker of "best-to-never-win-a-slam," kept his cool and carved out a straight-sets win over Youzhny.
In the bottom half, the absence of Karlovic meant that veteran Ivan Ljubicic had to step up for Croatia against a hungry Serbian side led by a slighted Novak Djokovic. The Djoker dispatched Ljubicic in three while Cilic did the same to Troicki to level the tie at one a piece. The crucial doubles tie was another three setter going the way of Serbs Tipsarevic and Zimonic. Djokovic, not wanting to leave anything to chance, then clinically disposed of Cilic in three comfortable sets.
In the last quarter-final clash, a Czech Republic team without Berdych or Stepanek surprisingly had no trouble with an equally weak Chilean outfit, as they won 4-1. Ivo Minar crushed a listless Massu while Jan Hajek meted out the same treatment to Paul Capdeville. Hajek then paired up with doubles specialist Lukas Dlouhy to seal the rubber and send the Czechs in to the semifinals.
What will happen at the Davis Cup?
The semifinal line up ensures that the Davis Cup will see a new (but not first time) winner since nine years when a mercurial Nicolas Escude defeated an in-form Hewitt and Rafter to give France a stunning 3-2 victory over Australia in 2001.
On September 17, France will take on Argentina for a chance to repeat that feat. Fielding a blend of youth and experience, the French will likely miss the services of the injured Tsonga.
Nevertheless, in his absence, they still have 11 players in the top 100 (Tsonga (11), Monfils (17), Benneteau (32), Simon (33), Llodra (34), Gasquet (47), Chardy (50), Mathieu (51), Serra (62), Clement (71), and Stephane Robert (77).
France will start out as favorites on paper, but they face an Argentinian team that expects two singles victories from its Davis Cup hero David Nalbandian. With the absence of the Juans (Del Potro and Monaco), Argentina will likely stick with Schwank, Mayer, or perhaps even call upon Chela. Monaco's return would bolster the Argentinian attack and take some pressure off Nalbandia.
The French have played and beaten Argentina four times on clay, and with this tie being held in Paris, it would take a brave man to bet against a partisan Parisian home crowd. It's too early to call but once the squads are in, Argentina might stand more than a fighting chance.
Elsewhere in Serbia, the Czech Republic will start off as underdogs, unless Tomas Berdych gets back to full fitness. Playing on the strengths of The Djoker, the Serbs will choose an indoor carpet surface which could also be suited to Berdych's hard-hitting game.
The doubles tie could be more than crucial in determining whether Djokovic has a chance to seal the rubber by the second round of singles. If Stepanek makes the squad, the Serbs could be in for a tougher time. Otherwise, I'm not sure world No. 89 Jan Hajek can snatch a singles tie away from either Troicki or Tipsarevic.
The head-to-head stands at 5-4 to the Czechs and will be leveled after this tie. Hand this one to the Serbs as they look for their first Davis Cup.
The Davis Cup is the perfect setting to deliver the performance of a lifetime. Fresh off memory, over the past decade, a few stand out less for personal glory and more for the successful result of a collective effort.
One such performance occurred in the 2002 final at Bercy, when a peerless Marat Safin led the Russians in singles, and yet the rubber remained tied at 2-2 after Kafelnikov lost to Grosjean.
A young Mikhail Youzhny, replacing Kafelnikov, then promptly lost the first two sets in front of a raucous home crowd in the final rubber. His opponent, Paul Henri-Mathieu, could have never imagined what was to follow.
For the first and only time in the rich history of the tournament, a two-set deficit was overcome in a live fifth rubber and Russia went on to complete a fabled comeback for their first Davis Cup title!
Youzhny's legendary performance is now forever part of the tournament's lore.
That's what the Cup does. It's the chance for relatively unknown professionals as well as established superstars to dig in and find that extra something while playing for their country.
And it's a chance for countries to showcase their depth and talent to the entire tennis world.
Will you be watching?