The Davis Cup is the oldest and most prestigious competition in men’s tennis. Named after American Dwight Davis, who, among other things, successfully captained the American’s to victory in the inaugural Davis Cup and donated the iconic silver sterling punchbowl trophy, the competition was born in 1900 as a continental challenge between Great Britain and the United States.
By 1905, the Davis Cup had expanded to include Australasia (a combined team of Australia and New Zealand), France, Belgium, and Austria. Other nations quickly followed.
To date, the most successful countries in this beautiful tournament are the United States (32 titles) and Australia (28).
After several format changes, the Davis Cup evolved to become the competition as we knew it (i.e. up until the conclusion of the 2018 season) in 1981.
A tiered group system was formed where the 16 best nations in the world compete in an elimination knockout World Group tournament, and all other nations would attempt to qualify for the World Group the following year by competing in regional zones.
Ties between countries were played over four weekends spread throughout the year and would consist of five best-of-five-set rubbers over three days. Uniquely, the location and court surface determined by the host country created an us against them cauldron-like environment for visiting teams generally subject to their least favourite surface and a boisterous home crowd.
I was in absolute awe of the Davis Cup from an early age. Growing up in a country that had been so successful, with an abundance of past champions lifting the Cup for Australia, it was an easy thing to do.
Why? Because Davis Cup tennis is simply not just tennis. Ordinarily, tennis lacks the camaraderie and purpose that most team sports enjoy. However, when playing in the Davis Cup, one is not merely playing for themselves, they are playing for their country; their land, and their people. The pressure must be extraordinary and is evidenced by frequent David v Goliath type upsets.
Some of my favourite sporting memories as a child are centred around the Davis Cup.
To this day, I get goosebumps thinking of Lleyton Hewitt, coming from two sets and a break down against then World Number 1 Roger Federer in front of a packed Rod Laver Arena to send Australia into a home Davis Cup final in 2003.
Highlighting the importance of, and his passion for, Davis Cup success, after his improbable victory, an emotional Hewitt told Chanel 7’s John Alexander – himself a former Davis Cup champion – “this beats the hell out of winning Wimbledon or the US Open”. That statement says everything you need to know about Davis Cup tennis. This isn’t about personal success. It’s about playing for a bigger purpose, for your team and for your country.
Likewise, my father fondly remembers his own Hewitt-like Davis Cup moment.
It was 1986 and the Davis Cup final was being held on the grass courts of Australia’s home of tennis, Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club. Led by a 21-year-old Pat Cash, Australia was severely undermanned and hosting the mighty Sweden who, despite not having Mats Wilander available due to his wedding preparations, boasted four top twenty players to Australia’s none.
After defeating Stefan Edberg in the first rubber and clinching the doubles with John Fitzgerald on day two, Cash faced Mikael Pernfors in the fourth rubber with immortality within his grasp. However, the man in his way was fresh off his first grand slam final earlier that year at Roland Garros and had comfortably beaten Paul McNamee on day one.
Entering the match on the cusp of being Australia’s hero, Cash lost the first two sets before famously storming home to win the Davis Cup for Australia in five gruelling sets in front of an adoring home crowd against the world number 11.
Cash would later recall that victory as perhaps his greatest moment in tennis.
In recent years there have been a number of special Davis Cup moments. Not least among them is Philippoussis winning the 2003 Davis Cup against Spain with a torn pectoral muscle in the 5th set against Juan Carlos Ferrero; and Groth and Hewitt coming from 0-2 down to defeat Kazakhstan in the 2015 quarter-finals – a once in 77-year feat.
Nowadays, the current format of Davis Cup bears little resemblance to the beauty and brutality of the previous best of five home and away format. Following significant (and controversial) investment from Kosmos, the Davis Cup finals (i.e. the World Group) is now hosted over 10 days in three European cities at the end of an exhausting tennis season, with 18 nations vying for the now crowned ‘World Cup of Tennis’. Ties and rubbers have also been shortened with both running best of three formats.
While the death of the traditional incarnation of the Davis Cup has been mourned since the 2019 revamp, the current model is all we have (save for the ATP Cup, but that’s a whole other story) and the traditionalists among us must learn to love it.
And love it we shall. Notwithstanding the new format, the passion to play for our national team remains strong. By way of example, most of our players have their official Davis Cup player numbers in their Instagram bio and some, like Alex De Minaur, wear the number permanently on their skin. To be a part of the Australian Davis Cup family evidently remains a lifelong ambition and the greatest honour available for our Australian contingent.
Equally, this week on our players' and the Davis Cup teams’ social media channels you can expect to see hashtags including #NoGreaterHonour and #OneTeamOneGoal. But don’t mistake that for clever social media work. These are mottos instilled within this group. The thirst to win for our country within our team is unmistakeable.
This year, we will be represented by Alex de Minaur, John Peers, John Millman, Alexi Popyrin, and Alex Bolt who will fly the flag as we face Croatia and Hungary in Group D.
The likes of Croatia’s Marin Cilic, Mate Pavić, Nikola Mektić, and Hungary’s Màrton Fucsovics will provide stern opposition. Yet, with the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Tony Roche at the helm, it’ll take some effort to deny this particular group.
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