The competition is still important, just ask Novak Djokovic
The Davis Cup returns this Friday with two of the world’s top four players back in action, in a competition often shunned by tennis' biggest names. Both Roger Federer and Andy Murray, whose participation in the tournament has been something of a rarity over the past few years, will compete again for their respective countries.
With the men’s game so strong currently, winning a major singles title is now harder than ever. The Davis Cup has become increasingly sidelined, with calls to revamp the competition resurfacing each year. But given that new world number one Novak Djokovic has drawn so much confidence from, and attributed much of his astounding success in 2011 to winning the Davis Cup with Serbia last December, could it be that Federer and Murray’s return to action might represent a shifting trend in attitude towards the Davis Cup? Or is it merely a case of the two continuing their flippant, pick-and-choose attitude towards the competition, but just for the same matchday this time?
|Novak Djokovic has shown the importance of Davis Cup Success (abc.net.au)|
Murray’s presence in the team certainly flatters Great Britain’s position on the world stage, and the Scot has rightly bemoaned the lack of support from his team-mates over the past few years. James Ward’s victory in the tie against Lithuania last March had been the first in thirteen years by a Brit in a live rubber in the competition other than Murray, Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski. For an aspiring grand slam champion and challenger to the likes of Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, there are enough valid reasons for Murray not to want to take part, for him not to want to play against, with respect, Turkey or Lithuania, when he has these goals to consider.
The world number four has repeatedly clarified his policy of being ‘selective’ when it comes to Davis Cup participation, but, having missed the last two ties, Murray had seemed to confirm how low in his priorities this competition truly was. So why is he back for this tie?
Part of the reason could be out of convenience. It is a home match, with Murray having spent the last month in the UK for the grass season, and it is on hard courts (albeit indoors), which does not disrupt the Scot’s preparations for the US hard court season too severely. This gives him the opportune moment to show some commitment to Team Great Britain. The reason could also be because Murray must play Davis Cup twice this year in order to be eligible to compete in the 2012 Olympics.
But I think that there is, or at least should be, an even greater motivational factor behind the British number one's return. He has made no secret of his desire to emulate not only the success but the attitude of Novak Djokovic, and wants to find that ‘extra few percent’ the Serb has added to his own game. Granted, Djokovic has become the world’s best through astonishing amounts of hard work over a long period of time. But, especially mentally, the Davis Cup has played a decisive role in his growth as a player. "After the Davis Cup win I was full of life, full of energy, eager to come back to the tennis court and win some other tournaments. I lost my fear”, the Serb has said of the experience.
Recently the Davis Cup has proven to be very powerful in making players stronger, particularly on the mental side. Before Djokovic, we saw something similar with Fernando Verdasco, who sealed the title for Spain in 2008 with a dramatic victory over Argentina. Like Djokovic, he directly attributed the experience of winning the trophy to his subsequent surge in confidence and form, which saw him reach the semi-finals of the 2009 Australian Open months later. It should be remembered that it took a marathon match and a stunning performance by Rafael Nadal to stop Verdasco, who was producing some truly world class tennis over the match and tournament.
On the one hand, the Davis Cup is seen, not just by Murray, as an extra burden to an already full and demanding schedule, at a time when players have to concentrate on their solo careers and push themselves to now unprecedented limits to compete with the best. Ties often involve an unwanted change of surface, disturbing meticulously planned schedules for winning majors, and are fitted in to the schedule where possible, often immediately after a major. Federer and Nadal have shunned Davis Cup commitments to preserve themselves for the bigger tournaments, and in today’s tennis climate, in terms of achievement, winning the majors is all that matters.
But on the other hand, success in today’s highly pressurised and competitive game is so dependent on mental strength, and this is the main attribute which separates Nadal, Djokovic and Federer from the rest of the field. For those playing with this mental barrier, preventing them from winning majors and challenging the top players, the Davis Cup could be the key to building confidence. It would not surprise me at all to see France take the Davis Cup title this year, and for at least one of their immensely gifted trio of Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (three classic examples of players with the talent, but not the mental strength, of the top three) to take their game to the next level because of it, and possibly win a major.
Meanwhile, in the case of Federer, a player I have long argued to surprisingly lack mental conviction (for a player as dominant and head-strong as the 16-time major winner can often seem), a good run in the Davis Cup, perhaps victory in 2012 (Switzerland definitely have a team capable of it), might give Roger his own surge in confidence and increased freedom to enjoy some late success before he retires. It would probably do the considerably talented Stanislas Wawrinka some good as well.
So, ahead of another weekend of the competition, we could be seeing, thanks to our new world number one, something of a revival of the Davis Cup in the minds of tennis’ elite. And if Andy Murray wants to take inspiration from Novak Djokovic’s Wimbledon win, then he too should think about how important the Davis Cup might be. Not that Great Britain will be winning it any time soon.