This weekend, Belgium will play host to Great Britain in the final round of the Davis Cup. Dedicated tennis fans must forgive more casual viewers of ignorance regarding the event—it comes in the midst of the basketball, football and hockey seasons and rarely garners coverage in the United States, with the Tennis Channel as an exception.
The Davis Cup, a tournament in which teams compete by country, is often called the World Cup of tennis. This is a helpful comparison until one discovers the contrasts. First, the Davis Cup is played annually. American sports fans will rouse themselves every fourth year to see Clint Dempsey and the USMNT, but it’s hard to find the same fire for an annual competition. Also, the tournament lacks the build-up of World Cup qualifying. Instead, first-round losers in Davis Cup have to win a playoff to stay in the “World Group”—the best sixteen countries.
The fact that the world’s best players often skip the Davis Cup does not help its popularity on this side of the globe. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal often have opted out of Davis Cup, although Federer returned to help Switzerland win the championship last year. Davis Cup also does not always display the world’s premier talent. Novak Djokovic, the world’s best player, is not able to compensate for the three points (of five) that a team needs to advance—Serbia lost 1-4 to Argentina in the second round this year. Take as an example finalist Belgium’s lineup for its semifinal tie (Davis Cup-speak for a match) with Argentina in September: David Goffin (a top-20 player), Steve Darcis, Ruben Bemelmans, and Kimmer Coppejans. Half of the team is outside the top 100. Not exactly a star-studded team, and that from a potential winner.
Davis Cup also has undergone a historical evolution. In the early 20th century, before professional tennis was standardized and globalized, Davis Cup was the premier international tennis competition. Thousands gathered to see the American team take on France in 1928 at Roland Garros, which featured legends René Lacoste and Bill Tilden. Davis Cup finals were similar in prestige to World Cup championships.
Despite that the Davis Cup is annual, that the best players sometimes skip, and that it has lost prestige since the 20th century, most countries come out in full force for their side. For example, Australia is a country with a rich tennis heritage and strong national pride. See how invested the players and the spectators are in their tie with Kazakhstan earlier this year. Similarly, hear the volume in the stadium during Argentina’s tie with the Czech Republic from 2013. There is added purpose and motivation in playing for one’s country, and those emotions are on full display during Davis Cup ties.
Both finalists in this year’s competition should bring a similarly energetic fan base. Here’s a look at the 2015 Davis Cup finalists:
Last title: 1936
Road to the final: Defeated Australia 3-2 in Glasgow in the semifinals
Team: Andy Murray, Jamie Murray, Kyle Edmund, James Ward
Last title: None; runners-up in 1904
Road to the final: Defeated Argentina 3-2 in Brussels in the semifinals
Team: David Goffin, Steve Darcis, Ruben Bemelmans, Kimmer Coppejans
Prediction: Great Britain 3-2—the passion on display in the semifinals against Australia shows just how much a championship would mean to the Murray brothers.