The Drums of War
Davis Cup, World Group Playoffs and Semifinals
Which maniac’s idea was it to schedule the Davis Cup semifinals for the week after the US Open? Even in the best years the turnaround is cruelly brief, a situation roughly analogous to Europe’s after the Great War, when a continent that had narrowly survived the most devastating conflict in world history began tentatively to haul itself from the abyss, only to be dragged back down by an influenza pandemic a year later. I don’t think that’s overstating the case. It’s probably even worse for the players.
If anything the situation is more serious for tennis than it was for war-ravished Europe, since ridiculous Monday finals in New York ensure even less opportunity for recovery. (Rafael Nadal was still doing the media rounds in Manhattan even as his compatriots assembled in Madrid to rehearse Tomás Luis de Victoria’s great motet To Have Any Chance We’ll Have To Play Our Best. Given they were facing Ukraine, it somehow came off as even more ironic than usual.) It’s as though the signing of the Treaty of Versailles had to be pushed back six months, to ensure a spot on CBS’s Spring schedule. Although I cannot say for certain that the current situation will lead irretrievably to another world war, I can vaguely imply it. Rest assured I’ll wax pretty smug if it comes to pass.
Indeed, there are further intimations that global conflict is not far off. I’ve mentioned it before, but it is surely no coincidence that Australia defeated the United States in the Davis Cup finals of both 1914 and 1939. It is thus with a certain anxiety that one notes Australia’s return to the World Group for the first time in seven years, having ravaged a depleted Poland over the weekend. All eyes will be fixed on the draw for next year’s tournament, to see where Australia and the USA fall. It’s probably a long shot that they’ll meet in the final, though it isn’t an impossibility given the rate and apparent certainty with which Nick Kyrgios, according to his self-devised slogan, is rising. There’s also Bernard Tomic.
Tomic was Australia’s hero this weekend, inasmuch as heroism was required. He won both his singles matches, just as he had against Uzbekistan in the previous round, although this achievement will inevitably be downplayed. The cherished narrative of Tomic as feckless wastrel has by now become so established in its course that no number of Davis Cup victories will divert it. Recall last year’s World Group qualifying tie against Germany, when Tomic won Australia’s only singles rubber, in contrast with Lleyton Hewitt, who won none. The official line ran that Hewitt was a venerable warrior still giving his all for his country. Meanwhile every Australian tennis luminary with a platform took the opportunity to decry Tomic’s lack of resolve, from Pat Rafter and Tony Roche courtside, to John Fitzgerald back in the studio. If anything, Tomic is held in such low regard, even here in Australia, that his exceptional record when representing his nation actually blights the Davis Cup. You can imagine what will happen when he defeats Ryan Harrison in the fifth rubber of next year’s final, annulling the ANZUS Treaty at a stroke. Thanks a bunch, Bernie.
Anyway, Australia wasn’t the only nation to progress to the 2014 World Group. Spain managed it, to no one’s surprise, defeating Ukraine 5-0 in the Caja Magica. Sadly the clay was an uninspired red, but really they could have contested the tie on pink ice cream and it wouldn’t have affected the result. The Dutch squad inflicted commensurate misery on Austria, who ran out of players and were forced to wheel out Archduke Franz Ferdinand for the last match, bestowing new meaning on the term ‘dead rubber’.
Germany had almost as easy a time disposing of Brazil. There’s a complicated joke lurking somewhere in there. Given what’s coming, I won’t be surprised if they draw the Czech Republic in the first round next year. Great Britain is also through, mainly because of Andy Murray. If history is any guide, then a strong British team will be essential in the dark years ahead. Japan came from behind to beat Columbia at home, while Israel lost from in front against Belgium away. Amir Weintraub has made his name with desperately fought Davis Cup wins and losses. There something about the format that agrees with him. It could be the team environment, though it’s probably more the rare freedom that comes from having other people worry about sundry irritants like food and accommodation, not to mention access to a coach. He battled to an inspiring victory over Ruben Bemelmans on the first day, finishing 10/8 in the fifth. (It was a 10/8 in the fifth kind of day.) Sadly he lost the deciding rubber to Steve Darcis in a quick and decisive manner. Darcis, it must be said, was superb this weekend.
Meanwhile, the semifinals proved all over again that although the final score may be the statistic that matters most, beyond the result it can obscure as much as it reveals. Both victorious nations eventually reached 3:2 scorelines, but they travelled there along wildly divergent paths. The Czech Republic, cruising on a futuristic hydrofoil of uncertain origin, had pulled so far ahead of Argentina’s squad that there was no chance they’d be overtaken. Jaroslav Navratil’s mullet streamed out magnificently in his wake, flanked on either side by his chief enforcers: the stern-faced replicant Tomas Berdych, and the wizened homunculus Radek Stepanek. The remainder of the team were confined below-decks, working the bilges, before they were released on the third day and summarily tossed overboard as consolation prizes for the rapacious Argentines trailing astern. This was sold to Jiri Vesely as ‘experience’. Dead third days are the worst part of Davis Cup. For all that I’m not an advocate of wholesale change to the competition’s format, I pray that any change that does come addresses that problem.
Serbia entered the home straight trailing Canada, although there was no immediate reason to panic given Novak Djokovic was to kick proceedings off. He wasn’t facing Nadal – he hadn’t faced Nadal in days – and thus could be relied upon to win. He did. It thus all came down to Janko Tipsarevic and Vasek Pospisil. Either man represents a slender thread from which to suspend national hopes. But for all that Tipsarevic has waned sharply of late, while Pospisil is rising with even greater urgency than Nick Kyrgios, you’d suspect the Serb would see it through, given the not inconsequential advantages of superior experience, the clay surface and a home crowd. So it proved. Pospisil fought his heart out, although unlike his ankle at least his heart remained more or less intact. He fell heavily on the last point, stabbing at a desperate volley. Tipsarevic ran the ball down, put it away, and joined his opponent on his knees. It was a useful study in contrasts. Pospisil’s teammates rushed over to see if he was okay. Tipsarevic’s teammates rushed over and jumped on him. And why not? They’re through to face the defending champions in what will undoubtedly be the last peacetime Davis Cup final of the modern era. The fog of war descends, the drums of war boom forth, and the clichés of war are endless.