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Memorable Croatia-USA Semifinal Reminds Us Why Davis Cup Is Special

Matt Zemek

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Robert Hanashiro - USA TODAY

The quality of tennis was not remarkably good.

The stadium in Zadar, Croatia, was not fully packed.

Matches started when most of America was asleep.

And? So? What’s the point?

Purely as a television commodity, Davis Cup tennis does not move the needle in the United States the way Ryder Cup golf does. The Laver Cup tournament held next weekend in Chicago (the second iteration of the event) is trying to tap into a Ryder Cup-style flavor and feel, but it will need many years to build up that culture and identity.

You have heard or seen or read all the familiar complaints and criticisms about Davis Cup in America. Box-office clout, mainstream media sizzle, cultural resonance — they are all lacking on a broader level.

Here’s the thing, though: Not everything has to be a box-office smash. Not everything has to be about ratings or the topics — specifically, the superstar athletes — which drive pageviews.

No, Davis Cup is special on its own terms. It is special because of what it means to countries such as France and Croatia, which will compete for the Davis Cup championship in November, months after contesting the World Cup Final in July. Davis Cup is special because — even though it has been won this decade by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray — it doesn’t depend on superstars to make magic.

Davis Cup is where Steve Darcis (Belgium, 2015) and Federico Delbonis (Argentina, 2016) and Viktor Troicki (Serbia, 2010) can forge the memories and moments of a lifetime. Davis Cup is where out-of-the-way places can become embedded in the collective imaginations of sports fans within a nation. Davis Cup is where players who spend careers toiling in relative anonymity or frustration (or both) can taste supreme fulfillment.

Davis Cup offers a spacious place where more people are invited to the table, and can drink from the cup of victory. Those who don’t win — such as Frances Tiafoe against Borna Coric in Sunday’s deciding fifth rubber in the Croatia-USA semifinals in Zadar — still walk away with powerful experiences of sport in its drama, tension, its international variety and intensity. Tiafoe, being young, might also derive from his loss to Coric an awareness of how he can better manage his emotions on the ATP Tour, giving him fresh understanding of how he can improve.

Davis Cup pours out a stream of human encounters and challenges which are simultaneously part of the test of tennis and yet set apart from “normal” tour life. Handling pressure and emotions is inherent to the art of tennis, but handling pressure through a national lens, not a personal one, belongs to Davis Cup. (Laver Cup tries to filter these pressures through continental identity, as does Ryder Cup.)

So what if Davis Cup is not a media darling (unless it is punched at and kicked down)? Everything which makes it special was on display this past weekend, when Coric and Tiafoe took center stage, and Lucas Pouille of France added to his rich and growing Davis Cup legacy, and Julien Benneteau created one more precious moment in the late autumn of his career. Even Benoit Paire contributed to the cause for France.

This event offers a wide embrace to the community of professional tennis players. A wider embrace — beyond television’s sweet spot or the blogging business model’s preferred targets — should be welcomed anywhere sports are played.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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