There’s no denying that the rebranded Davis Cup provided plenty of excitement in its new guise as a week-long event for 18 teams gathered in Madrid for the finals. Three of the four quarter-finals went to a deciding doubles, as did both semi-finals, and it’s always good to see the doubles game given a lead role. The action frequently stretched late into the night and showcased high drama. It was rarely less than watchable, and occasionally gripping. And at the end, a tournament run by a Spanish company and held in Spain in front of thousands of partisan Spanish supporters was won by… Spain. Who’d have thought it, eh?
As the only country to feature two players ranked in the world’s top 10, it was perhaps not the biggest surprise of the week that the host nation triumphed, but it did have an air of inevitability about it, and here’s why.
A Davis Cup tie used to consist of five matches, or rubbers, each the best-of-five sets, played over three days. At one time it didn’t even feature tiebreaks, but even after their introduction a tie could be a gruelling test, physically as well as mentally. It was quite rare for one player to play the doubles rubber (which took place on the middle day) if he was also playing singles rubbers either side of that; not unheard of – Andy Murray, for one, did it – but it wasn’t common. Indeed, quite often team captains would switch a singles player on the final day of a tie as well, either for tactical reasons or to field a fresh player.
With the new format of three rubbers, each the best of three sets, it became routine for a player to play the singles (usually lasting around an hour and a half to two hours) then, after a short rest, to take to the court again to play the deciding doubles. Russia, for example, used Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev in all four of their matches for both singles and doubles. They seemed to cope comfortably, taking their country to the brink of the final.
What this has done, however, is increase the likelihood of a country winning the Davis Cup through the exploits of one top player. Having the best player, as Spain did in world No1 Rafael Nadal, is now exponentially more important than having a good all-round team. In three of Spain’s five matches, Nadal came onto court with his country trailing, but his ability to win both his singles and then, almost immediately after, the doubles meant there was rarely any doubt that he would turn the ties around.
Were Spain the best team in the competition? Possibly. They definitely had the best player, and that is what matters in the new Davis Cup. It’s ironic that a competition that the organisers were touting as the ‘World Cup of Tennis’ actually places greater emphasis on possessing a star player than it did in its previous incarnation.