We are the Davis Cup Preservation Society / God save two man teams, home courts and partiality / We are the Five Set Match Appreciation Society / God save tennis courts in all their different varieties
Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways, for me and for you. / What more can we do?……..
(with sincere apologies to Ray Davies. God Save The Kinks)
Like all sports, tennis has a bible of stock phrases uttered and memorized over the years by coaches and fans alike. “Keep your eye on the ball.” “You’re only as good as your second serve.” It’s not a break until you hold.”
It appears a new one’s been added: “We need to fix Davis Cup.”
Argentina’s historic 2016 Davis Cup triumph has done little to dampen critics of the event; one could argue that the Argies’ loss in the 2017 first round furthered the campaign for change. Does Davis Cup needs to be fixed? And why?
My answer is no. Mostly. Before continuing, however, it’s cards on the table time: I am old enough to remember the Challenge Round, and am a huge fan of Davis Cup. Advertisers swear millenials need snappy, short entertainment fixes, but I’m not one of them.1 I’m firmly convinced that not changing Davis Cup in any major way is a position that can be defended, and should be.
In no particular order here are 5 of the top items bruited about as reasons for change or as solutions to supposed problems, and my replies:
- Eliminate 5 set matches
- Play each tie over 2 days and not 3
- Standardize the court surface across the competition
- Change the format such that teams gather in one, pre-determined site that might well not be home to any of the teams in the finals or, alternatively the semi-finals, if the last 4 teams are brought together for the semis
- Davis Cup is not television friendly
Eliminate Five set matches: This has long been discussed across the tennis spectrum. Davis Cup is now one of only five annual tennis events with 5 set matches, the others being the Big Four Grand Slam titles.
Yes, a best of 5 match has the potential to last a long time. That is not guaranteed to happen, however. Of the 483 2016 Grand Slam men’s matches played to completion, all of which were best of 5, less than half went beyond 3 sets.
Tennis is an endurance sport. Or was. True, there’s a physicality to the modern game that wasn’t so prevalent 40 years ago, but Ivan Lendl and Thomas Muster were ready to go 5, on clay (and did), and tennis styles don’t come more physical than theirs. Best of three set matches against David Ferrer aren’t easy, but why should tennis be made easier? Doesn’t that take away an edge that some players have over others, their superior fitness?
A sloppy 5 set match that goes the distance isn’t compelling, we know that; you can find yourself thinking, “Okay, get it over and move on the next match.” Discontinue 5 setters, however, and we lose the amazing, incredible ebb and flow of truly epic contests. If you’ve watched an amazing 5 set match you know it’s as exciting a sporting event as any; Federer vs Cilic/Wimbledon 2016, Juan Martin del Potro’s maybe-the-greatest-comeback-ever2 over Dominic Thiem at the 2017 US Open or, more to the point, del Potro’s mammoth 5 set victory over Andy Murray in the 2016 Davis Cup semi-final.
Two or three years ago tennis was said to have become so physical it was impossible for players to avoid injury. The game has to be changed! Games have to go to no-ad and sets reduced to best of five. Or three!
Except now we’re all talking about the success of oldsters on both tours. Forget including Federer or Nadal in that discussion, they’re clearly aliens, but no one’s ever said that about 44 year old Daniel Nestor. Candadian, yes. But alien? No. Then there’s Feliciano Lopez, Venus and Serena both, Mariana Lucic-Baroni, and a slew of veritable kids getting ready to pass from their twenties to their thirties. Evidently players aren’t getting beaten up so badly by the strain of playing that careers are being ended left and right.
(Yes, without 5 set matches commentators would not be able to quote Boris Becker [yet again] about the 5th set not being about tennis, but nerves. You win some, you lose some.)
I’ve made my case; remind me, please, why Davis Cup has to go to best of three?
Play each tie over 2 days and not 3: Points in favor of this: a) easier scheduling of venues, b) minimally easier scheduling for players, c) it’s easier for television (more on this in #5).
Points against: a) one day’s fewer tickets to sell and therefore less revenue for tennis federations around the globe, b) less opportunity for surprise substitutions, and most importantly, c) this makes two man teams impossible. No team of two could possibly play 2 singles of any length plus a doubles on day one, and then the reverse singles on the following day.
Do we really want to deny the sport a chance to witness the over-the-top commitment of two man teams? Ivan Ljubicic/Mario Ancic 2005 Davis Cup run to the title, or Laver/Newcombe’s 1973 Cup win?
Allow me a (c)2 on this: if he’d had to play on consecutive days, could Steve Darcis have managed his astounding performance of the February 2017 ties when, as the 58th ranked player, he beat the world’s number 19 and 22? I think not.
I ask further for a (c)3: some nations might not be able to field a 3 man team, period. What do they do?
One of the greatest things about Davis Cup is how frequently the betting lines are worthless. Time and again, from World Group to Group III, lesser players, inspired by hearing the score called by their country’s name instead of their own, rise to heights with victories over their betters they’d never achieve on tour. Two day ties will make that even more impossible to do. We’ll be the poorer for it.
Standardize the court surface across the competition: It’s not hard to understand why, as an example, Spain doesn’t want to play Australia on grass, or the converse. The fact remains that many countries have court types that predominate in their local tennis world, and their players have naturally adapted a playing style suitable to that surface. A worldwide competition is not well-served by disenfranchising participants with rules that handicap them from the get-go.
Besides, homogenization of court surfaces leads to homogenization of playing styles; this is not a plus. It’s generally conceded that the best chance of seeing a fine match is when the combatants’ playing styles are different from each other. Contrast makes for a more interesting push/pull.
Change the format such that teams gather in one, pre-determined site that might well not be home to any of the teams in the finals or, alternatively, semi-finals if the last 4 teams are brought together for the semis: Versions of this include more than 4 teams, based on a round robin format that leads into a knock-out semi-final structure. Other suggestions are based on getting only the 4 semi-finalists in one location.
Naturally it would be easier to book and promote a venue well in advance for an event like that if where it took place no longer required a connection to any of the countries involved; Buenos Aires, for example, could be booked before the year’s competition began knowing that whichever 4 countries made the semis would go there. National associations currently have to find viable locations on relatively short notice; no one gets more than 4 or 5 months to ink a contract for a tennis site that has either dependable weather or a large enough indoor facility, and which is otherwise not rented out. Fans could book travel to the event well in advance, too, since they’d know where it was to be held irrespective of who makes the semi.
This is far more difficult to pull off successfully than it first appears.
It’s a big question if tennis fans would commit to such a scheme without knowing if teams or players they adore would be in the semis or finals. This is especially true of a competition based on nationality. How many Brits would buy tickets to Argentina at the end of the year (in our example) if they had no idea who’d be playing? I’m not sure many Brits would commit to going to Buenos Aires knowing that Team GB and Andy Murray might not be involved, with Murray instead on his couch watching tv and drinking Irn Bru. Selling more tickets under this plan is well short of being guaranteed.
Let’s point out, too, that no one’s yet said where in the ATP calendar they’re going to stick a new time commitment for Davis Cup. Yes, the plan frees up some time on the calendar (if only for the last 4 teams), but players will have to arrive to practice and acclimate before the first matches, adding a minimum of another 2 days. This plan calls for 6 days of competition plus one of rest. Add the 2 days for practice, etc., and it requires the teams in the semis to set aside least 9 days.
It’s unquestionably hard to fit Davis Cup ties into the ATP calendar. As long as the pro season continues to begin in January and end in November – a topic worthy of another discussion entirely – Davis Cup matches will never be convenient for everybody, every time.
Nothing is perfect, including Davis Cup, but the idea that the ITF is responding to players’ complaints, and only players’ complaints, is not accurate:
“I can tell you the players do not want to do that.” – Jamie Murray, ATP Player Council member, when asked about plans for the final to be at a neutral site.
A neutral site for the finals, or semi-finals, is far from being problem free.
Davis Cup is not television friendly: Now we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. Of those looking to modernize (sic) Davis Cup, there is one motivating force that comes through repeatedly: television, and its advertising revenue.
Tennis is a niche player in the world of sports marketing, like it or not. Compared to football, American football, basketball, baseball, the North American hockey league (NHL), and of course golf, tennis is small potatoes. As a whole tennis doesn’t come close to generating the advertising revenue of the other, more omnipresent sports.
It’s not a matter of participation; fans of team sports are not playing those other sports to any significant degree. American football amongst a bunch of 47 year olds? Doesn’t happen enough to rate a mention. Golf can boast of some 12 million participants worldwide2 (2015), but tennis can lay claim to 75 million participants around the world (2007). Tennis may lag in the advertising revenue department compared to other sports, but it’s not because there are fewer people playing tennis than those revenue-rich sports.
Last week, North Carolina won the NCAA tournament. Baseball season opened. Tiger Woods withdrew from the Masters. And—far and away—the big story was Tony Romo’s retirement and move to CBS Sports. For all the slings and arrows football absorbs, man, the NFL is still King. – Jon Wertheim, of Sports Illustrated and Tennis Channel, from his online Mailbag column of April 12:
TV hates nothing so much as topics it cannot broadcast in simplistic terms, and the unique nature of tennis’ scoring – plus no time limit on the length of matches – means tv producers live in fear that casual fans will be turned off by a scoring system then don’t understand, or a long, hard fought match.
“Sure, hardcore tennis fans will stick around, watching commercials and the advertising banners around a court,” they’ll say, “But modern television is all about holding eyeballs, keeping them excited so they don’t get bored and click the remote, looking for another adrenalin rush while our advertisers are ignored…..”
Similarly, they maintain that the Cup’s format works against efforts to build excitement; it’s a multi-nation tournament played out over the course of an entire year. Each tie is a three day affair – a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – with further complications of multiple zones and tiered competition across the globe. “Who can keep track of the bloody thing?”, they cry. “No one’s played Davis Cup for months.”
Much of that is true, at least the facts of how the competition works. But there is a lot that these complaints ignore:
• Every year, on the first weekend of Davis Cup, the 16 teams in the highest tier, the World Group, play an initial knockout round. It’s near impossible to find accurate attendance records (I tried), but Canada’s recent tie set a record for Davis Cup attendance with 5000 spectators each day so it’s safe to figure that at each tie there are 3800 attendees each day. That’s 91,200 tickets sold, worldwide, over 3 days.
Compare that to the record for one day attendance at the US Open: 65,797. If the ITF and ATP want exposure for live tennis, especially in places where there isn’t a pro tournament, they can’t ignore Davis Cup’s results in this regard.
• That’s just the World Group. Add in the lower tier Group I and Group II ties (a total of another 50 teams, or 25 ties played), use 750 spectators for each day’s matches, and you have another 56,250 seats filled without including the tiers below those. (For the entire Davis Cup structure see this page at daviscup.com)
Yes, tennis is a niche sport, but we’ve just tallied a minimum of 147,450 folks watching live tennis over 3 days for just the first Cup weekend of the year, not counting television or online streaming viewers,. That may be niche, but it’s not shabby.
• These matches’ revenues add mightily to national tennis association’s finances, especially in countries were there is little grass roots tennis infrastructure. Many tennis associations claim they can’t survive with that income, and it’s easy to believe them.
• Similar to competing at the Olympics, players tell of how different it is to have the score called out by country and not the athlete’s name. “Ad in, United States,” lends a meaning to Davis Cup that affects every player. Many pros have their greatest moments in Davis Cup competition, or their worst.
We feel for players who come up short, but are amazed by how often rank-and-file players punch far above their weight class for one day, one match. Sometimes they make a weekend of it: Last February, 58th ranked Steve Darcis came through huge for the Belgian team, defeating Germany’s 29th ranked Philipp Kohlschrieber and the 19 year-old phenom, 22nd ranked Alexander Zverev.4 It’s a safe bet Belgian news carried that story far beyond the dedicated Belgian tennis fans. And the Belgian news media were able to follow it up with Darcis’ exploits in April when the he beat Italy’s 37th ranked Paolo Lorenzi in Friday’s rubber. Even more emphatically, Andy Murray won both his singles and paired with his brother for the doubles win to clinch the Davis Cup in 2015.
Tennis should come to grips with the fact that it’s never going to challenge the truly major sports for tv time and advertising dollars. There’s little to suggest otherwise, however much the ITF, ATP, and WTA wish things were different. The numbers above illustrate that enough fans buy tickets to make us feel perfectly fine about tennis’ not being perfect for television.
As it is tennis fans get antsy with the pauses caused by medical time outs, bathroom breaks, and toweling off after one-shot points. Will tennis improve if tv gets to drive the decisions about how the sport is played? I think not.
As I said earlier, Davis Cup is not perfect. The changes the ITF Board of Directors presented to the Davis Cup Annual General Meeting (AMG) were not all accepted at the August 4th meeting. What did get a green light was:
- Davis and Fed Cup champions of one year will get their choice of home or away for the first match of the following year.
- Match court availability and practice court requirements will be lowered to reduce hosting costs for national associations, and
- Davis Cup pre-tie commitments for players will be reduced to a single function combining the draw, post-draw press.
Best of 5 sets remains the format, as does the 3 day schedule.
There’s room to change Davis Cup and make it better, which is to say make it more popular among players and the public.
- Final set tiebreakers, perhaps at 7/7? Sure.
- Figure out a way to free up players from complete dead rubbers without burning ticket holders? Why not?
- Reinstitute the Challenge Round so any year’s champions get to revel in their win for more than a few months? Of course, or maybe even find a way to give them a bye in the first round or two.
- Play it as a bi-annual event? It’d break my heart, but as a compromise it might satisfy the calls for change and increase Davis Cup’s profile.
- Tweak the ATP calendar so there’s a proper off-season? Now just hold on there…..
The fact is that, on the whole Davis Cup is pretty Fabulous, and I don’t use the F word often. Consider:
- In the past 3 years there have been 3 different Davis Cup championship teams, 2 of whom have been first time winners.
- The largest crowd in Cup history was recorded in one of those finals (Switzerland vs France, Lille, France 2014).
- 3 of the next 4 largest Davis Cup crowds have happened in the last 10 years.
- The number of nations competing is close to tying the all time record of 139 countries in 2001 (128 in 2016).
- During that 2014 tie in Lille, 14 million fans watched on tv, including a high of 3 million during the doubles (!). As Andy Murray played for the Cup in the 2015 final versus Belgium, BBC1’s coverage alone averaged 3 million viewers, a 22.9% share, and amazingly had an audience peak of 5 million at one point.
- An estimated 4000 Argentine Davis Cup fans attended last year’s final round tie, away!, versus Croatia.
I say that’s a description of a sporting event that takes in just about the whole world and posts strong numbers doing so.
There’s room for tennis to draw more people to the sport, and I’ve written about it elsewhere. In the end, however, broken is as broken does. The numbers simply don’t make a case for Davis Cup’s being broken.
As sports drama it’s unmatched if you like tennis, and that’ s the rub. Will a bigger event, more like the major sports’ structures, bring fans who don’t already love tennis to buy tickets? I seriously question that, especially without some empirical evidence. Will more existing tennis fans commit to travel to otherwise uninvolved cities to watch teams that aren’t theirs? Or, perhaps more to the point, will these changes get more people to sit down in front of their televisions?
The desire to change Davis Cup has more to do with jealousy over what other sports are, and what tennis is fundamentally not, than they do with questions about why Davis Cup doesn’t work as it is. Is Dwight Davis’ creation improve-able? Yes. Definitely. Exploring ways to increase Davis Cup attendance and visibility should be encouraged. As we’ve seen above, though, tennis has a special jewel in Davis Cup. We should be careful to protect all that makes it successful on its own terms, great and unique on the world’s sporting stage. At the risk of repeating myself: broken is as broken does. Davis Cup isn’t broken, far from it, but if we break it with changes there’ll be no going back.
There’s nothing like Davis Cup®.
This weekend, 15-17 September, the Davis Cup semi finals are being played: Belgium vs Australia, in Brussels, Belgium, and France vs Serbia, in Lille, France. You can follow the box scores and news at daviscup.com where you can also find live streaming or, without irony, on television depending on your local access.
Big tips of the hat to The Andrews; Andrew Burton (@burtonad) for pointing me to http://www.tennis-data.co.uk/alldata.php , where I mined the 5 set match data, and to Andrew Friedman (@toquelandandrew) for his invaluable Edward Bulwer-Lytton assistance.
1 Apologies to millennials, who I personally am not convinced need to be constantly mesmerized by ever-changing stimuli. It’s cited here as a common belief, it’s just not mine
2 Per Darren Cahill
3 If the embedded link has been problematic for you – it has been for me – copy and paste this link in a browser if you wish to see the source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/darrenheitner/2015/04/04/the-state-of-the-golf-industry-in-2015/#267176721871
4 This was Zverev’s ranking at the time.
Bigger Is Not Always Better When It Comes To The Davis Cup
The new Davis Cup format was unveiled at a week-long Madrid showcase. Read about how “first impressions are almost always the most lasting.”
Now that the “bigger must surely be better” version of the Davis Cup has concluded, it’s time to take a look at how the event itself has evolved over time. Initially, it was a clubby/chummy affair between the US and the British Isles, as Great Britain was known long before there was even a thought of Brexit. True, there had been international, country versus country tennis gatherings, such as England versus Ireland or England versus France, but that was in the 1890s. The “official” team competition wasn’t birthed until 1900 when the US and BI faced-off at Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, Massachusetts.
The visitors, who were supposed to be the creme de la crème of tennis because they came from Great Britain, were throttled by their upstart hosts, 3-0. One of the competitors on the winning side was a Harvard student whose name was Dwight Davis. Five years after the launch, Australasia (with players from both Australia and New Zealand), Austria, Belgium and France took part in what was called the International Lawn Tennis Challenge. Perhaps to downplay the seeming pompousness of the title, the competition quickly became known as the Davis Cup, a salute to the perpetual trophy donor.
In the beginning, the event was played as a Challenge Cup. The set-up allowed the winner from the previous year to sit on the sideline while the other countries battled for a spot in the final. The “wait and watch” was great for the title holder but the format proved to be an ultra-marathon for all the other participants. In 1972 a change was finally made, and play became a somewhat more sensible win and advance tournament.
Since then, the international competition grew so large that it became unwieldy and modifications needed to be made. None of the alterations has even come close to matching the Madrid extravaganza that was created by Gerard Pique and his Kosmos team, supported by Hiroshi Mikitani’s Rakuten financing and sanctified by the International Tennis Federation.
Before going further, it must be stressed that the “old Davis Cup way” was no longer working. But, bulldozing history to put up a new event demands an overwhelming amount of thought and even more insight. Thus far, it appears that a “too much, too soon” approach has been built on a foundation that isn’t exactly sand, but something nearly as tenuous. The set-up has a number of fissures. It is as if, Pique and his collogues were trying to create a Tennis World Cup. Perhaps the group borrowed pages from the wandering methodology that has plagued the Fédération Internationale de Football Association Qatar World Cup preparation.
It must be mentioned that the novel undertaking was bold and there are hopes for it to get better. Still, with all the pre-tournament hype and sensational fanfare, there needs to be an assessment of what actually took place in Year One, in order for the event to improve. Particularly, in view of the fact that “first impressions are almost always the most lasting.”
A few of the issues that lead the “Could Have Done Better” list include:
- Match scheduling (the US versus Italy finished at 4:00 a.m., just in time for an early breakfast. (Nearly every match contested was almost nine hours in length.);
- Plodding ticket sales;
- Improvements in communication, so there is more clarity for the fans, players and media. Keeping the information flow accurate and continuous so that speculation doesn’t enter the tournament arena.
With the old Davis Cup there often were gripping, edge of your seat, emotional contests in the “five matches, five-set” play. Home and away ties truly added crowd fervor to a tasty recipe of competition.
It’s hardly surprising that whenever Spain played on the Manuel Santana Center Court, with a capacity of 12,422, the crowd was raucous. The Arantxa Sánchez Vicario No. 2 Court, with room for 2,923 spectators, rocked, but only on occasion. From time to time, Court No. 3 was loud too, but that was due more to having a mere 1,772 seats in an enclosed space than a collection of rabid fans.
Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt admitted that the atmosphere lacked feeling because of the neutral setting. French doubles standout Nicolas Mahut brought up how much his country’s fans ordinarily helped their team, but few were in attendance. Support groups of faithful French fans stayed away to show their unhappiness with the decision to scrap the old Davis Cup format.
In his New York Times, November 19th article, Christopher Clarey quoted Ion Tiriac. “The Brasov Bulldozer”, who owns the ATP Masters event held in Madrid, candidly said, “It is a joke and a disgrace. They have ruined the jewel of tennis.”
Reducing a tie to three matches (two singles and just one doubles) made the matches Tweet-like. Instead of slashing the number of characters that could be used, the new look limited the essence of the product being proffered – The players and their teams. The confusion became more profound on the rules front when it came to “play or don’t play” the doubles, the tie-break and translating the results system. It seemed only those with a mathematics degree could make sense of the situation. Additionally, with18 countries participating, many ended up feeling they were meandering members of a “lost tennis tribe”…or they came to the conclusion that they needed a serious calculation class.
Another issue, (and this may be the most bewildering particularly to journalists who have a stake in promoting the game worldwide), was the accrediting process. Anxious to have the tournament touted, the tennis media from here, there and everywhere was encouraged to apply for accreditation. Yet, a number of accomplished writers were denied credentials while, at least, two publications that no longer exist were granted event access.
A soccer pitch is sizeable (75 yards wide and 120 yards long but it can vary). In comparison, a tennis court is a tiny 26 yards long and 13 yards wide (including the doubles alleys). The point – There were many comments about the need for trekking skills to traverse the architecturally pleasing Caja Mágica three court complex. Perhaps hosting such a colossal spectacle at a new location, combined with “never been there or done that” brought about those first experience jitters.
Looking at the big picture, the most staggering aspect of the “new” Davis Cup was the 25-year agreement with $3 billion dollars at stake. How do tennis fans put these “Monopoly-money” like figurers into any meaningful perspective?
The quarter-century commitment and pledged funding are difficult to comprehend . The years and financial “unreal” combination brings to mind 1999, when the staggering ISL (International Sport and Leisure) Worldwide-ATP marketing, broadcasting and licensing agreement for “elite” tournaments was made. It was a ten-year arrangement for $1.2 billion. Unfortunately, ISL, which also had close ties with FIFA, collapsed in May 2001. Oops.
Canada’s performance was stellar in reaching the final against Spain. Because of the “magic” that had been part of its success, “The Great White North” was looking to join Australasia, Croatia, Serbia, South Africa, Sweden and US each of whom won the Davis Cup in its debut.
Having won the tie five times since 2000, the home country was a prohibitive favorite to earn number six. That Spain closed out the inaugural Pique/Kosmos/Rakuten/ITF Davis Cup, 2-0, wasn’t surprising. As a result, the Canadian first-timers joined Japan in 1921, Mexico in 1962, Chile in 1976, Slovakia in 2005 and Belgium in 2017 as debut finalists and history’s runners-up.
With 24 more years to go, the new Davis Cup has real potential. Still, the tennis world is trusting that the future offers more than a quote from Bob Dylan, the 2016 Literature Nobel Prize winner who many have regarded as the world’s poet laurate. In 1964, he said, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”
From afar, the 2019 Davis Cup appeared to be a week-long exhibition. Through no fault of its own, Spain benefitted, but was that fair to the others? It actually seems like something was lost in the transition translation.
A Rude And Silly Reply From Nadal, I Am Waiting For His Apology
I asked Nadal an innocent question about his wedding; he took it so badly that he eventually burst into an offensive: “That’s bullshit”
LONDON – I was really surprised by Rafael Nadal’s reaction to a question that was quite innocent and totally legitimate. A reaction I consider unbecoming of him, rude and silly. I sincerely hope he will extend his apology for this behaviour. Respect remains paramount, no matter if you are the greatest champion or the new kid on the block. In front of everybody, Rafa disrespected me.
I hadn’t seen him since the Laver Cup in Geneva. And in the meantime,… he had gotten married. I had no intention whatsoever to ask a particularly original question or, as I have seen written in some tweets, to “show off”. And I certainly didn’t want to provoke him. Maybe the question did not come out the way I wanted: we always need to be concise during press conferences, and you cannot explain all the details, but what I wanted to ask was simply for him to explain whether the days around his wedding day had been emotional, different from the normal routine made of trainings, forehands and backhands. That’s all, no malicious innuendos, no desire to be irritating or original. I was just curious about what I considered a special moment in his life. Getting married is usually not like taking a walk in the park, even when it is possible to rely on a full team taking care of the arrangements – I assume that was the case for him – and there aren’t many details you have to worry about.
I am sorry I am forced to report such an ill-advised behaviour by Rafa Nadal of all people. He is a champion and, before that, a young man I have always appreciated, with whom I have had a good relationship ever since I saw him play for the first time in Montecarlo. He was just 17 years old, and one night he finished his match against Albert Costa very late, playing under the floodlights, in front of a scattered crowd, when most reporters had already left the Country Club to attend the traditional soirèe the tournament organizes every year at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club, next to the Jimmy’z.
This is the video footage of our exchange at the end of his English-language press conference, before the question time reserved for the Spanish press. Our dialogue starts at 10:50.
In essence, I asked Rafa if by any chance his wedding had been a disrupting element, albeit solemnly important, to his routine. This is the transcript of our interaction, with my notes in brackets.
Q. Tonight you were playing very short many times. I don’t know why, because you’re not used to that. I’d like to know, for many people to get married is a very important distracted thing (in the life of a man and a woman, it was implied) before the marriage, during the marriage, after the marriage. I’d like to know if somehow your concentration on tennis life has been a bit different even if you were going out with the same girl for many, many years (I was implying that it wasn’t love at first sight, I understand it didn’t turn his life upside down, but it still could have had some distracting effect, with the King of Spain being present and all… It wasn’t a small family wedding)
RAFAEL NADAL: Honestly, are you asking me this? Is a serious question or is a joke? Is it serious?
Q. It’s serious. (Off microphone.) Is not something that happens every day (at that point I had no microphone any longer so my retort was not captured by the official transcript), you can experience strong emotions, your parents, your wife, yourself…
RAFAEL NADAL: Okay. I surprise, is a big surprise for me you ask me this after I have been with the same girl for 15 years and having a very stable and normal life.
Doesn’t matter if you put a ring on your finger or not. In my personal way, I am a very normal guy.
Maybe for you was (did he want to add ‘different’) — how many years you have been with your…
Q. Wife 30 years this year.
RAFAEL NADAL: And before?
Q. (off microphone) 5 years
RAFAEL NADAL: Ah, maybe before you were not sure. That’s why (he smiles to the rest of the press room and he adds). Okay. Okay. We move to Spanish, because that’s bullshit. Thank you very much.
Unfortunately, due to some background chatter in the interview room I didn’t hear the “bullshit” word, I just read it on the transcript after a few colleagues made me notice he disrespected me. In fact, as soon as I went back to the press room, all colleagues, French, Swiss, even Spanish expressed their support to me because my question was perfectly legitimate, it was not engaging, mean, embarrassing or indelicate. So much so that when Rafa asked me whether it was a joke or a serious question, I immediately replied “It’s serious”. I was surprised he even had to ask.
The fact that Rafa has been together with Cisca, Francisca, Maria Francisca or Mer for 15 years does not imply that the days around his wedding, with 300 guests, friends, the King of Spain Juan Carlos ans other sporting legends were just like a walk in the park. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know whether Rafa’s parents, or Meri’s parents or some of their close friends cried, were moved to tears, experienced all those emotions that are normally coupled with weddings.
If Rafa did not experience any emotions just because he has been with the same woman for 15 years, that’s his problem. As far as I am concerned, maybe I’m just more romantic, or softer, but I thought it would be normal to get emotional in tying the knot with the woman of your life in front of so many people; an important, unforgettable moment. People usually live that day as a very special day. Rafa does not hold back expressing his emotions when he wins an important point on court – over and above his “vamos”, his jumps and his fist pumps – if his wedding day was a routine experience for him, but just the formalization of his union by exchanging rings with his fiancée… well, I am sorry for him. I don’t know what Xisca thinks about it. Judging from Rafa’s response, there should be no enthusiasm or emotion capable to upset his routine, when getting married after having been with the same woman for 15 years. He was even surprised when someone, like myself, asked him about possible emotions on his wedding day. I am stunned. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but I feel I should point this out because of the way he treated me.
To put it simply, I could not believe that even after dating the same woman for 15 years, the day before the wedding could be completely routine, without any emotional involvement. This is why I asked the question, without thinking it could be misinterpreted, or considered a joke, even less labeled as ‘bullshit’.
Perhaps Rafa was nervous because he had just lost a match (6-2, 6-4 without ever getting a break point) against an opponent he had always defeated before, Alexander Zverev. This could partially justify his behaviour, but he had not given any signs of nerves during the previous questions. I have always considered him an intelligent person. But sometimes even intelligent people make mistakes or say silly things. But they apologise afterwards. I hope Rafa is going to do it, sooner or later. If he won’t, never mind. But he will not make a very good impression to me or to all my colleagues, including the Spanish reporters from Puntodebreak and Eurosport who came to talk to me immediately after the incident.
I want to stress once again that my curiosity about how he may have reacted to an important moment in his life that I didn’t believe could be seen as a mere formality, was entirely innocent. He didn’t understand it, I hope someone will explain him, even if this for sure will not be an important moment in his life. Even if, in some way, we have been knowing and seeing each other for 15 years.
Article originally published in Italian on ubitennis.com
NOTE TO OUR READERS – In reference to the exchange occurred between myself and Rafael Nadal during the press conference following his first match, I have had a clarifying meeting after his win against Medvedev. We both have acknowledged the reasons that led to the misunderstanding and the subsequent exchange of unpleasant words, mainly due to our imperfect knowledge of the English language. This is it. We’ll turn the page, for everyone’s satisfaction, and Nadal and I maintain the mutual respect that has always been a cornerstone of our relationship. Our readers are naturally free to form their own opinion on this event, but at this stage any further comment would appear unnecessary. Thank you for your attention. (Ubaldo Scanagatta)
Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Month Significance
Annually, around the world, those who served in their country’s military are remembered for the commitment they made to insure freedom. Usually tennis players are feted for their success on court. Many of them have been heroes on other fronts. Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Month calls attention to those who have made a difference.
In 1954, Armistice Day became Veterans Day. It was a day to honor all the US military veterans who served their country. It should not be confused with Memorial Day, which recognizes all those who perished while safeguarding the nation.
Armistice Day had originally been called Remembrance Day. It was first observed in 1919 in the British Commonwealth, recognizing the armistice that ended World War I on Monday, November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is especially significant because it ended what had been thought to be the war to end all wars. Sadly, it wasn’t, but the day has been set aside to honor those who helped keep the world safe from tyranny.
An all-star collection of tennis players served their country during World War II. The Gestapo arrested Jean Borotra one of the famed Four Musketeers in November of 1942. He was sent to a German concentration camp and then to Itter Castle in Austria. In a battle for the castle, he escaped and played a role in the subsequent victory that was earned.
Stade Roland Garros was stained by having served, from 1939-40, as an “centre de rassemblement”, an internment camp for political dissidents and foreign nationals. Those euphemistically “housed” at the facility lived and slept in “the caves” beneath the stairwells at what is now Court Philippe Chatrier. Present day players have said they can feel their ghosts while waiting in the corridor to walk onto Chatrier to compete in their matches.
Yvon Petra was the last Frenchman to win Wimbledon and the last men’s champion to wear long pants in The Championships final in 1946. Becoming a Grand Slam singles winner is especially commendable since he was held prisoner in a German camp for two years after he was captured in 1940, in Alsace, France during the invasion. He seriously injured his left knee attempting to avoid capture. Ironically, because he had competed in Germany before the war, he was recognized as someone notable which resulted in a doctor being sent from Berlin to treat his injury.
Tom Brown spent WWII in a tank… with a tennis racquet. He never really said if the racquet was a constant reminder of his pre-war on-court success and inspired him at Wimbledon in 1946. But, having just traded his Army khakis for white tennis shorts, he was a Wimbledon semifinalist, losing to Petra 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 8-6.
Art Larsen, who was nicknamed “Tappy” because of his habit of tapping things for good luck, played tennis as therapy. A talented lefthander, he was mentally scarred because he had participated in the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day in WWII. After the war, he recalled the terror of watching US planes mistakenly bomb US troops thinking they were German forces. He admitted after surviving without a scratch, his behavior became even more eccentric because he had witnessed that terror. (Then they called it shellshock, but now it is referred to as PTSD.)
Of all the famous players who served with distinction, none could match Gardnar Mulloy. Mulloy was a naval officer who commanded a LST32 (Tank Land Ship) in the Mediterranean during WWII. In 2015, the year before he passed away, Mulloy received a French Legion of Honor an accolade for his involvement in the operations that took place in Italy and the Provence area in France. The recognition made him the oldest recipient of the order since it was created by Napoleon.
Robert (Bobby) Abdesselam, a great junior player prior to WWII, and later the President of the French International Tennis Club from 1993 until 2004, played a role in the landing of the Allied Forces in Algiers in 1942. As a member of the French Expeditionary Corps, he served as a liaison officer in the Italian campaign. His courage was rewarded when he received the Cross of War (1939-45) and a US Bronze Star.
It is impossible to adequately pay tribute to all of those who, over the years, have made their country better through military service. In early September, the US Open took a monumental step by recognizing those in the services by celebrating Lt. Joe Hunt Military Appreciation Day. (Hunt was the 1943 US National singles champion who lost his life when his Navy Hellcat, a WWII combat aircraft, went into a deadly spin on a training flight off the Florida coast in early 1945.)
But, there are so many others who have been overlooked. Individuals who put their lives on the line around the world in places like Korea, Vietnam, in the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan to name but a few of the conflicts since WWII. So many were killed but even more have slipped back into civilian life unsung and unrecognized, forced to ignore the scars that often don’t show. Anyone who served his or her country should be recognized every day, because they are the reason we can breathe free.
They deserve much more than one day a year gratitude. Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Month Honorees are among us twenty-four/seven. They should never be forgotten because they sacrificed so much so that we can remain free.
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