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Croatia Wins The Last Davis Cup — And Tennis Looks At An Uncertain Future

Matt Zemek

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Croatia just won the last Davis Cup.*

* = For now.

Do we really know this is the last Davis Cup — in the traditional format which marks the event as “Davis Cup”? No, I won’t refer to Gerard Pique’s event as “Davis Cup,” because it is something utterly different and distinct. There won’t be a “new” Davis Cup. There either IS Davis Cup or there isn’t. For now, there isn’t. That era might not be gone forever, but it has ceased to exist now that the 2018 Davis Cup Final has ended.

The end of this Davis Cup was not that different from the endings of previous Davis Cups this decade. An ATP player with a major singles championship to his name was part of the winning team. Marin Cilic, who lost a two-seat lead to Juan Martin del Potro in a potential Davis Cup-clinching match in the 2016 final against Argentina, chased away that particular demon with two convincing wins over the weekend in Lille, France. He swept aside both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille in straight sets, answering every challenge presented to him and avoiding the untimely lapses which greeted other significant matches from his 2018 season.

Knowing what Cilic has gone through — at the 2016 Davis Cup most centrally, but also in other high-stress situations from the past year — made his victories and his share in this team championship that much more poignant to behold. Cilic was the individual person through whom much of this 2018 final was focused and filtered. If there was an especially sympathetic figure and a “triumph over doubt” centerpiece to this Croatia-France tie, Cilic was it. His ability to join other major champions on the Davis Cup victory stand represented a central storyline in this team competition, regardless of what anyone else might say or claim. To ignore that part of the drama would make an assessment of this weekend incomplete.

Yet, for all that needs to be said about Cilic — and for all that needs to be said about the idea that elite players DO play this event and DO care about it (just not to the extent they might care about their other obligations; there is a pronounced difference between those two statements) — it remains that this is a team event. The simple reality (on the surface) that Davis Cup combines team aspirations with the still-very-individual realm of singles competition gives way to complicated emotions.

Cilic might have won two points for Croatia en route to its 3-1 win in this tie, but the nation — not Cilic — claimed a second Davis Cup title, becoming the tenth nation to win multiple Davis Cups.

Borna Coric — whose defeat of Frances Tiafoe enabled Croatia to survive a 3-2 semifinal tie against the United States in September — bailed out Cilic two months ago. This is precisely the kind of detail which reminds observers that while Cilic had his moment in the sun in France, the collaborative efforts of team members put Marin in position to do what he did this weekend. Without Coric beating Tiafoe in the deciding semifinal rubber, and then winning his Friday singles match against Jeremy Chardy, Cilic would not have been able to hit the lob winner which nailed down Croatia’s Cup.

Team identity, individual identity, national identity — Davis Cup tugs at different heartstrings. It is not so easily shoehorned into any one silo or basket. Some will say this is a bug, but those who appreciate Davis Cup recognize it as a feature.

One doesn’t have to diminish the individual feats of Cilic in the pursuit of magnifying the team accomplishment… or vice-versa. Both parts of the drama — the solo athlete’s excellence under pressure, as demonstrated by Cilic, and Croatia’s collaborative feat — can be cherished. This is a both-and moment, not either-or.

Yet, the conflicting emotions and thoughts which Davis Cup elicits are thematically appropriate. Why? They reflect the tensions which run through tennis at a time when the sport — as usual — can’t seem to make up its mind about what it wants to do and where it wants to go with its international competitions and other important issues.

What will happen with all these new “Cups” in the next few years, whether the Pique Cup or the ATP Cup or the Laver Cup? We all have our own opinions, but we don’t know what the power brokers or the stakeholders will do in response to these crosscurrents, whose impact — in isolation and in combination with other forces — cannot yet be known.

The end of Davis Cup is sad… but the prevailing feeling in contemporary tennis is not sadness, but uncertainty. It’s not a happy and excited uncertainty, no, but it’s not an “end of the world” uncertainty, either… because tennis fans and commentators are used to seeing the sport mess around in ways which don’t put fans (or athletes) first. This is nothing new, even if the Pique and ATP Cups ARE new.

Maybe the quick demise of one or more of these new “Cups” will bring Davis Cup back into existence several years from now. Maybe top players — with their decisions — will harm these novel creations to the point of killing them off…

… which neatly brings us back to Cilic and the reality of top ATP players winning Davis Cups this decade.

It might seem incongruous to point to individual achievements in a team event, but the whole point of these new “Cups” is to try to lure top players and create a showcase with box-office clout, when in fact Davis Cup has had its share of star-laden championships this century.

The team concept makes Davis Cup different from true singles competitions. The idea that Davis Cup is “just another box to check on a resume” does Davis Cup — and the nations which compete in it — a great disservice. However, it is an enormously satisfying PERSONAL moment to win a Davis Cup if you haven’t won it before. That magnifies the individual catharsis and pride Cilic is feeling right now, shown in his celebration on Sunday after winning the final point against Pouille.

The coexistence of powerful team-oriented and individually-centered dynamics has consistently made Davis Cup complicated. The point of the event is not for an individual to win it — it’s for a team and a nation to win — but individuals unavoidably focus an observer’s sense of drama. Cilic was that focusing agent this weekend.

The Davis Cup has not been a magnet event in the United States in terms of media coverage and publicity — I won’t claim to speak about other nations — and for that reason, a number of commentators and writers have felt that something had to be changed. Yet, any sportswriter or commentator also knows that part of the power of events lies in their tradition and their cherished place in the public memory.

The World Series didn’t start as an American institution. It BECAME one. The same is true for the Super Bowl, whose first iteration in 1967 was played before tens of thousands of empty seats in Los Angeles.

The NBA Finals were not a huge part of the American sports scene in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t until the 1984 NBA Finals between Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Lakers) and Larry Bird (Boston Celtics) that the NBA took off in the American sports fan’s consciousness. The Finals and other American sports showcases BECAME big over time. They didn’t become a big deal just because they existed. They all had to earn their place in fans’ hearts.

Davis Cup — for all its limitations — has done that among tennis fans. Creating a new Cup or two won’t make those new Cups automatic destination events fans will care about.

The conflicting emotions created by Davis Cup might strike many people as unpleasant. I prefer to view them as unavoidable complications which don’t have to be viewed as critical flaws.

It is precisely because other people DID view them as critical flaws that we have these new Cups… and why Davis Cup has ceased to exist.*

* = For now.

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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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. skip schwarzman

    November 25, 2018 at 8:41 pm

    Nice, Matt, but if the ITF ever reverts its annual international team competition to the format whose last iteration we witnessed today, or anything truly comparable, I’ll eat my hat. That’s just now how things go in the world. Change them in a wholesale manner, in this case Davis Cup’s format, and the change’s failure might force a retreat, but it’s never to what was before, only to some modification of the changed version.

    Perhaps that will happen, and the re-do will be worthy of being called Davis Cup. Maybe. But it will not be exactly the same. Better? I can only hope.

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