Tennis, In Its Own Private Idaho

The Davis Cup can be one of the greatest and rowdiest tennis experiences out there. So why is the USTA so content to play it in front of tiny audiences?
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Were Sam Querrey ranked just one spot lower, the United States would have no men ranked in the ATP top 20 for the first time since computers have been used to rate the players. Even serious tennis fans might struggle to name three or four other American players of note. In short, it's not a good time for men's tennis in the U.S., and this weekend's quarterfinal Davis Cup match against Serbia and World No. 1 Novak Djokovic looks more likely to confirm that than anything else. More than that, though, the event looks likely to answer a different sort of question akin to the one asked about the sound of a tree falling in the woods—if a Davis Cup match is held in the tennis hotbed of Boise, Idaho, does anyone notice?

“The Davis what?” a waitress in Portland asked me in December 2007 when I was there to see Andy Roddick and the U.S. beat Russia, the first time the Americans claimed the cup since a Pete Sampras-led team did in 1995.

“The Davis Cup,” I told her. “It’s the international men’s team tennis competition, played between countries. It’s a great tradition, one of the oldest events in sports, and has been played since 1900.”

“Where are they playing?”

“In the Portland General Coliseum.”

“I thought there was a Van Halen concert there this weekend.”

“No, that’s in Rose Coliseum, next door, the big new arena. They are playing in the old arena.”

“That’s still there?”

“Yep, and if you go, you’ll see one of the most exciting events in sports, certainly in tennis.”

And I meant that, too. Davis Cup adds the team dynamic to the individual game, playing five matches over three days, with the long-forgotten art of doubles serving as the critical third point. And when a Davis Cup match is done right, with all involved all in, it's more like a rock show than the waitress might have guessed. Tennis decorum goes out the window, and rowdy home crowds, including some face painters and fans in costume known as the Net Heads, make a racket with noisemakers, air horns, and whistles; the stakes are raised, as well, as players have the burden of competing for teammates and country, instead of ranking, prize money and self. There's more than noise to the Cup's considerable home court advantage, too, since the home team chooses the surface. At its best, a Davis Cup match is a “volatile, exciting, beautifully, balanced event,” just as Tennis magazine’s Peter Bodo described it.

That is, if anyone shows up. In the U.S., Davis Cup matches over the past five years have been held in smallish arenas in smaller markets. After the Portland final in 2007, the USTA hosted matches in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; Austin, Texas; and most recently Jacksonville, Florida, where only 10,815 tickets were sold over three days. Only the hardest of hardcore tennis fans—like me—flipped back and forth between the start of the Super Bowl and the end of Querrey’s five-set win in the decisive fifth match against Brazil, which was played before a sea of empty seats in Jacksonville. Boise, lovely city though it is, fits into the trend of the incredible shrinking Davis Cup.

In 2009, I beseeched the USTA to do something creative in the hosting of the Davis Cup. I suggested that the organization choose a unique setting that might pull in TV viewers or land the event in the photo spreads in Sports Illustrated. Why not play on an aircraft carrier, or in Radio City Music Hall? Or set up a court in the end zone of Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, and let UGA alumnus John Isner strafe his unlucky opponent with serves as thousands of students cheer him on. But something else, please: anything else that might make the Davis Cup louder and more fun, more enjoyable for the fans around the court and more appealing to those watching from home. And which might, as a bonus, work on Novak’s nerves a bit. With all due respect to Boise, the 86th ranked market in the nation is not the place to grow an American audience.

Or, in this case, even one large enough to fill the grandstand. There are, as you might expect, plenty of tickets still available for this weekend's action. If you can’t make it to Boise, you can watch all the action on Tennis Channel—that is, if your cable provider carries it. Of course, there's always option three: to go on like so many other could-be tennis fans, not quite remembering that the Davis Cup exists, and missing out on one of the great and most mishandled spectacles in the sport.

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