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Davis Cup fights for U.S. attention

A final pitting top American players against Russia is a sellout, but is it a ratings winner?

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 25, 2007


The story line could hardly offer more appealing twists for an American sports audience - a showdown between old Cold War foes, the United States and Russia; a sold-out crowd in an event last held on home soil 15 years ago; even a dose of overseas intrigue swirling with rumors that one star player was poisoned and allegations that another gambled on his own match.

Yet even with all that, the question remains: Does America really care about the Davis Cup?

Welcome to the 2007 final of the premier international team event in men's tennis, taking place Friday through Sunday in Portland, Ore. The U.S. team last hosted the final in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1992.

That year, 10-year-old Andy Roddick was sitting in the stands - watching stars such as Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and John McEnroe defeat Switzerland - and dreaming of one day competing for America.

Now No. 6 Roddick and No. 13 James Blake, with top-ranked doubles duo Bob and Mike Bryan, hope to give the United States its first victory since 1995 when Sampras' three victories defeated Russia in Moscow. The 12-year drought represents the longest in Davis Cup for the Americans, who own 31 titles.

The Russians enter as defending champions, accompanied by controversy. One of their stars, No.4-ranked Nikolay Davydenko, is at the heart of an investigation into unusual betting patterns in a match during the summer in Poland, when he lost to Argentina's Martin Vassallo Arguello, then ranked No. 87.

On top of that, the International Tennis Federation is looking into charges that German ace Tommy Haas was poisoned last month before Germany's home Davis Cup match against Russia. Haas missed his match with what initially was thought to be a stomach virus, though a teammate said he was later told by a Russian manager that Haas' food was poisoned.

The event seems to call more for James Bond than James Blake, who laughs off the pre-final hype from the United States Tennis Association, billing the final as the biggest U.S. vs. Russia standoff since 1985 when Rocky Balboa battled Drago in Rocky IV, six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"I'm sure we all remember Rocky IV ... but I'm friendly with all the (Russian) players," Blake, a Tampa resident, said during a recent conference call. "We don't feel like it's a simple good versus evil type story. We don't need any extra motivation to get fired up for a Davis Cup final."

But will the average American sports fan get fired up? We offer the thoughts of four experts, trying to gauge just how much the Davis Cup matters.

James Blake

"I was excited to hear how quickly the stadium sold out in Portland, to hear they're putting up big screens to make it free for other people to watch. I think the rest of the country will notice. ... I think people get excited about an opportunity to cheer for America, whether it's the women's World Cup when they had so much success years ago. Even the men's World Cup last year. It's exciting to cheer and get patriotic like that. I think Davis Cup is a perfect opportunity."

Blake realizes the drawn-out international schedule makes it harder for casual fans to follow the early rounds, which began Feb.9, but sees this year's tourney as a possible step in bolstering interest.

"Maybe next year it will be much more highly publicized. We do hope this is going to be something that has a positive effect on American tennis. If there are some kids out there, like Andy was watching the Davis Cup final in (Fort Worth), that are inspired to play Davis Cup, we're proud of that."

Blake has some format suggestions to enhance interest - shorten the schedule, so it falls in a two- or three-week span at the end of the season, and hold the now-annual event every two years, such as golf's Ryder Cup.

"As tennis players, we see the Ryder Cup. We see the excitement in the air, the patriotism, the television coverage, how excited everyone gets over that. To be honest, I'm a little jealous."

The current "spread-out situation" of Davis Cup rounds each year makes it hard for fans to follow: "I don't think fans can feel that continuity as much as if it was in one place at one time."

Patrick McEnroe

The 38th captain of the U.S. team, who succeeded older brother John in 2000, sees the quick sellout of the 12,888-seat Memorial Coliseum as a sign that interest in the event is hardly waning. He says there is a direct correlation between the dedication of his players and a spike in interest that could extend beyond the host city.

"We have a group of players who are committed, passionate, eager, and (they) show that to the public," he said in an October conference call. " ... Over time that will pay off, whether it be in wins or in interest."

To McEnroe, his team's presence in the final serves as a rebuttal to the notion that American tennis is on the decline - and as a testament to the work his players have done since 2000.

"The interest level in this whole year for our team has been built over the last seven years. That's just a reality. It's been built over the many matches that these guys have played - wins and losses - because of their commitment and passion. People see how much they care. When people see that athletes care, they pay attention a lot more."

And what would a U.S. victory do for building tennis interest?

"I have a feeling tennis is on the upswing and that the interest level is coming back. ... This Davis Cup shows there's a huge contingent of avid tennis fans who are into it. Hopefully the rest of the country and sports media (will) catch onto that."

Bud Collins

The Hall of Fame writer and analyst says the Davis Cup has become a hard sell to Americans since the days of the U.S.-Australia dominance, from 1938-59.

"Wherever they hold it, they get the support they want and can drum it up in the local papers."

But it's a different story in the rest of the country: "I don't think it's on many screens of sports editors."

"It used to be the U.S. against Australia every year. It was like Ohio State-Michigan. You knew it was going to be either in Australia or the U.S. That monopoly got a little tiresome for the rest of the world, and those days are over. I think it was good they went to a world group so everybody felt they had a shot at it. But I think they miss a beat in not having the defending champion in a challenge-round position."

Collins maintains such a format, making the rest of the world take aim at the previous year's winner, would create drama and a sense of anticipation.

"You play the others to determine a challenger. That way you have all year to publicize it. This year Russia would be the one being challenged and it would become sort of a crusade to get to Moscow. I think it would build more interest. There have been various ideas like this, some very smart ideas. But the ITF is about as thick as a prison wall. Making any kind of change is not going to happen, I guess."

Tony Trabert

Fellow Hall of Famer Trabert - regarded as one of the game's greats and a past Davis Cup standout (27-8 in singles and doubles and 14-3 as captain) - agrees that the event faces an uphill battle to gain a foothold with average American sports fans.

"I don't think they're tuned into it," the longtime commentator said. "One of the problems we have is there is so much going on in our country and so many things for people to do. The Davis Cup has never been huge here like it has in every other country. If you play in Australia or Chile, or any of those places, it's the event. But you know, we've got pro football going on, and pro basketball and we just finished the World Series."

In fact, Trabert says the Davis Cup has traditionally struggled to strike the fancy of American fans: "It's been pretty much the same I think. If you have Sampras and Agassi playing and they're two of the top names in the game, you might attract a few more people. But they don't just knock the doors down. Being involved in tennis, we wish that were not the case."

What about the U.S.-Russia angle? "I don't think that resonates much at all. The interest comes from the people playing and if the matches are close. I don't think we have a burning desire to beat Russia just because we were once in a Cold War with them. We should have an advantage playing at home. And since you don't get it very often, it's much more intriguing than if it's here every year or every other year."

That said, Trabert would warn the players, given the allegations that Haas was poisoned in Germany during the round against Russia: "If I were captain, I'd be very careful where my players are and where they eat. And not leave drinks around, orange juice or milk, where somebody can drop a pill in it. With the rumor about the Haas thing, I'd be watching like a hawk."

Regardless of how the Davis Cup is viewed by Americans, Trabert - who helped the United States re-take the Cup in 1954 in Australia after losses in 1952 and 1953 - sees it as the ultimate event for the coaches and players.

"Regaining the Cup in 1954 was the best single thrill I've ever had in tennis, more than winning Wimbledon or the U.S. Open or French Open. Because you represent your country. Instead of saying Trabert serving, it's the United States serving. When we won it in Sydney, they had 25,500 a day, the biggest tennis crowd ever at the time - and they say if the stadium was big enough, they could have sold 50,000 tickets."

Still, the Davis Cup might always be bigger elsewhere.

"If you win it in Forest Hills, Americans won't drive through New York honking their horns and waving flags like they would in Argentina or Chile. That's a difference in what it means to other countries."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Dave Scheiber can be reached at scheiber@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8541.

FAST FACTS

U.S. Davis Cup comparison Russia

1900 first year played 1962

93 years played 42

265 (204-61) ties* played 113 (75-38)

26 (51-20) years in World Group 21 (24-17) (since 1981; including 2007)

31-time champion best finish two-time champion (31-29 in finals) (2-2 in final)

* Each tie consists of five matches



FAST FACTS

Davis Cup final

USA vs. Russia, Memorial Stadium, Portland, Ore.TV: 4 p.m. Friday, 3:30 Saturday, 4 Sunday, Versus