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An American at Davis Cup in Oz 2016 Part I

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 9/03/2016 Lawrence Diller, M.D.

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The Davis Cup was held in Melbourne this past weekend. As a tennis player of more than five decades (my dad got me started when I was eleven years old) attending a Davis Cup competition anywhere close to where you live is an opportunity of a lifetime. This year, Australia's first round opponent just happened to be the United States of America. Having just been to the Australian Open in January, watching/participating (as a fan) in a Davis Cup competition with your country playing was the icing on my tennis spectating (sic) cake.
A little history: The Davis Cup began as a competition between four Harvard student players and their co-equals from Great Britain. The tournament is named after Dwight Davis who was one of the Harvard students and donated $1000 for a silver cup given to the winning country. Davis went on to become the Secretary of War 1925-29 and then Governor-General of the Philippines from 1929-32 (I think he must have been a Republican). America won the first competition in 1900. The Fed Cup is a similar international event held for women tennis players.
The Davis Cup is an annual event played over the course of the year. One hundred and sixty nations compete. The United States has won the cup the most times, 32. Australia is second with 28. Great Britain won last year. The U.S./Australian match was part of the world group zone of 16 countries. The other countries compete in regional zones.
The format of Davis Cup makes it unique and quite different from the Grand Slam Opens and satellite tournaments of professional tennis. Davis Cup is team tennis. All other tournaments are individually oriented. My tennis-playing buddies will know this and the following information. I hope they can bear with me while I explain to the general reader just a little of the scoring and tradition that makes this event so special.
There are potentially four singles matches and one doubles match. Each match is the best of five sets. Only the Grand Slam tournaments -- the Australian Open, the French Open (Roland Garros), Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open -- require best of five sets. I believe the final round at Indian Wells and perhaps Key Biscayne in the U.S. are also best of five. All other tournaments require only winning two of three sets. Therefore, the Davis Cup, like the Open tournaments is often, not only a test of skill, but one of fitness, endurance and nerves.
The first day of a tie (that's what they call a Davis Cup elimination round) two rubbers (an individual match is called a rubber) are played. I know this is starting to sound a bit arcane, but hang in there with me. I'm almost done with this jargon. Each rubber is worth a point. On the second day, the doubles rubber is played which is also worth a point. If one team has not won all three matches, then there's a third day of two reverse rubber singles to determine the winner of the tie.
There is a great deal of gamesmanship before the actual matches are played in terms of who plays against whom. A country with a single outstanding star may not win because, at the minimum, he would need support in the doubles match. Also the country cannot have the same players play against each other on the first and third day. I think this might be confusing but let me use the example from this particular American/Aussie tussle.
The Australians were hoping to field a team that included Bernie Tomic (ranked in the top 20 internationally), Nick Kyrgios (a 20ish very volatile up and coming hitter ranked in the top 30), Sam Groth, a solid veteran pro and John Peers, a doubles specialist who had won the Wimbledon Doubles Championship, with Jamie Murray (younger brother of top ranked Andy Murray). The Americans were bringing big serving John Isner (currently ranked 11 in the world), John Sock (another youngish up and coming player who has had some big wins recently but is not highly ranked) and the Bryan twins, Mike and Bob, who have been the perennially number one ranked doubles team of the world for the past decade or so. But they are now getting older (36) had slipped this year to number three.
But Kyrgios said he was too ill to play. He showed up for his team practice and was excused by the captain (Davis Cup teams have captains), Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt could be a whole Letter from Melbourne subject by himself. Suffice, at age 35, he's been Australia's top player for the last 15 years and just officially retired at the most recent Australian Open two months ago. Before Kyrgios's abdication, the line up was going to be Isner against Tomic, Sock against Kyrgios, then the doubles, and then if necessary Isner against Kyrgios and Sock against Tomic.
But with Kyrgios out, Hewitt had to come up with another line-up and use another player, including potentially himself. Indeed this is what happened. First Sam Groth was chosen as a type of sacrificial lamb to play Isner. Then Tomic would play Sock. Hewitt, himself, would join Peers to play the Bryan brothers. Then Tomic would play Isner and probably Hewitt again would play Sock. Hewitt hoped that Tomic would pick up at least one point beating Sock (he did in four sets). Isner beat Groth in straight sets.
The doubles the next day was key. The Bryan brothers had to be considered the favorites. They won the first two sets but then Hewitt and Peers won the next two. It came down to a fifth set and the twins prevailed -- America was up 2-1 against Australia with the third day to come. It was up to Tomic then to beat Isner. Otherwise the Americans would gain an insurmountable 3-1 lead and the last match wouldn't be played.
I'll end the suspense. Isner won in four sets. He served 49 aces! The American team moves on to play Croatia the international quarterfinals in July. I forgot to mention that Australia was higher ranked from last year's tournament so they were the "home" team for this round -- meaning the Americans had to come to Australia to play and Melbourne was chosen as the Australian city.
The home team also gets to choose the tennis court surface -- hard courts, clay (there are several types) or grass. Hewitt picked grass and old Kooyong stadium was the chosen venue as well, not Laver Stadium for a variety of reasons. Not the least of it was the Kooyong club was willing to install a grass court over a six week period on their stadium hard court. That just couldn't be done at Laver where the stadium is used for a variety of purposes.
In Part II of An American at Davis Cup in Oz 2016, read how our intrepid author becomes the center of a political storm and in the process gets to shake John Isner's hand.

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