Keep off the Grass!
If those entering The All England Club’s hallowed grounds should know one rule, it’s that. Even after the most epic of victories, a football-style pitch invasion on the pristinely groomed Wimbledon lawns would never, and could never happen, under any circumstances.
With one exception.
In July 2000, Ecuador's Davis Cup team pulled off an unlikely victory against a heavily favored British lineup on their home court. A decidedly partisan crowd was aghast as the South American players and their extensive entourage broke with tradition and stormed the court in pure jubilee.
I was fortunate enough to witness the match first hand and, in all my years of watching top-flight tennis up close and personal, the passion and excitement I witnessed that day will never be surpassed. To see a team pile up on their players and dance around the court resembled more a European Champions League final victory than a tennis match.
The reason for this over-the-top celebration was simple. In the Davis Cup, a player is not simply representing himself, he is representing his country, and thus the joy of victory is amplified exponentially.
This sense of excitement is evident at every Davis Cup tie, where the fervent boisterous atmosphere is almost completely at odds with the "silence, please" feel of a traditional tennis tournament, and the sport is much the better for it.
As Andre Agassi eloquently put it in his International Tennis Hall of Fame induction speech, "Tennis is a lonely sport, probably the most lonely. You're out there with no team, no coach and no place to hide."
As the Davis Cup has shown, this need not always be the case.
Team tennis exists at every level of the game, and is far more popular than the individual version of the sport at the adult recreational level. At the competitive level, team tennis is nothing new. Intercollegiate tennis has been played in some capacity since 1883, the Davis Cup has been around since 1900 and World Team Tennis has been going strong since the 1970s.
With the ever-increasing physical requirements of becoming a world-class tennis player, the opportunities to break into the top flight at a young age are becoming increasingly limited, and as such more and more aspiring young players are playing college tennis in the United States before turning pro. The best example of this John Isner, who played four years at the University of Georgia before joining the ATP Tour and subsequently reaching the top 10 in the world.
Aside from the opportunity to attain an education and train for free, the lure of college tennis is largely due to the excitement of being part of a team. Being able to celebrate a victory collectively is far more rewarding than on your own. For the same reasons, more and more often pros are playing World Team Tennis after retiring, or in some cases, while they’re still on tour.
Simply put, playing on a team is more fun than playing on your own. It’s also more fun to watch.
The sight of Novak Djokovic and his Serbian teammates all shaving their heads on court after winning the 2010 Davis Cup, or American legends Pete Sampras, Agassi, Jim Courier and John McEnroe passing the U.S. flag from person to person for a victory lap after winning the cup in 1992, are unique to team tennis. On Friday, Djokovic and Serbia were tied 1-1 with the Czech Republic in this year's final.
These images are more expressive and emotive than those of many individual victors, who often must reserve their innermost excitement in order to be respectful to their opponent.
Unfortunately, while each Davis Cup tie is filled with passion and excitement, this momentum is quickly lost by the lengthy separation between each round, which is often as long as four or five months.
Equally frustrating is the relatively short time between the final, and the following year’s first round, which is often only two or three months. This doesn’t allow the victorious team to fully enjoy the sense of winning before having to start all over again.
So how can we capture the feel of Davis Cup tennis, bottle it, and develop it?
One idea would be to bundle the various rounds together to create a single two-week event which would allow teams an opportunity to bond into a cohesive unit, and allow the fans to fully engage in the competition in the same manner they would for a World Cup.
Considering the density of the ATP Tour calendar as it stands, the logistics of incorporating this option would highly problematic. However, there is an opportunity to do this.
Every four years, the ATP Tour carves open space in its summer schedule for the Olympic Games, often between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. This same time period could be opened up permanently, and allocated every other year for the Davis Cup, leaving a fourth year for a continental team competition, such as a European Cup.
Over the course of five years, this two-week period in late July or early August would look like this: Olympic Games, Davis Cup, Continental Cup, Davis Cup, then back to the Olympics.
By making the competition two weeks long, but every other year, you would increase the gravity of the competition. Equally, by having the competition at a single location, countries would have to bid for the honor of hosting. It could, essentially, become tennis’ World Cup.
One ever-present argument against change is tradition. However, upon closer examination, the second Davis Cup did not take place until two years after the first, and it wasn’t until the eighth installment of the competition that ties were held at different venues at different times.
So, in essence, what I’m really calling for a return to the tournament's origins. Just without wooden rackets.