Davis Cup, Great Britain vs Belgium: ‘A rare local derby final’

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This year’s Davis Cup final between Belgium and Great Britain harks back to the early years of the team competition. But, as Chris Bowers explained earlier this year, the historical perspective serves as a trigger for looking forward to some possible imminent changes in the Davis Cup format.

Here’s a quiz question – which is the only country to have taken part in the Davis Cup every year it has been staged?

Most people would answer the USA. After all, Dwight Davis was the US nationals champion when he founded the competition in Boston, and the Davis Cup remained the property of the US Tennis Association until 1979 when the International Tennis Federation took it over.

But they’d be wrong. The only nation to have played every year is Great Britain, albeit until 1912 the Brits were known as the British Isles (a term coined in the days when Ireland was ruled from London). After losing to the British in the 1903 Challenge Round, the USA couldn’t afford the trip to Wimbledon in 1904. So the British asked who wanted to take the Americans’ place, and received expressions of interest from France, Belgium and Austria. Ultimately the Austrians couldn’t afford the trip either, so Belgium and France played the first-ever Davis Cup tie on British soil for the right to play the Brits in the final, a right won by the Belgians who were then hammered 5-0.

It’s worth remembering this, because while the British endured a notorious 76-year wait for their first Slam champion since 1936, a 77-year wait for their first Wimbledon champion since 1936, and now a 79-year wait for a first Davis Cup title since 1936, the Belgians have waited 111 years to avenge their drubbing by the Doherty brothers and Frank Riseley at the old Wimbledon courts in Worple Road.

Both the Davis Cup and the world are very different places now. The inclusion of new nations in just the fourth staging of the competition meant the Davis Cup quickly grew from an Anglo-American affair to an international team competition. And the genteel conviviality that characterised those early years disappeared long ago, in fact much of it evaporated in the 1930s when the British had their last golden age of tennis.

The leading figure was Fred Perry, an affable, jocular and extremely confident man from a working class background in the north of England, whose father was a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party. Perry was barely tolerated by many British tennis establishment figures that resented his determination to win. Before his death in 1995, Perry delighted in telling the story of how he overheard an official of the All England Club suggesting to Jack Crawford, whom Perry had beaten in the 1933 Wimbledon final, that the wrong man had won. Crawford may have been an Aussie, but he played by the etiquette Wimbledon expected, whereas Perry’s competitiveness reinforced the fact that he had gone to a state school, not a private school.

When critics say today’s British team is over dependent on Andy Murray, they overlook the fact that the 1930s British team was heavily dependent on Perry, despite the presence of an accomplished second singles player in Bunny Austin. When Perry turned professional at the end of 1936, Britain’s golden era ended, and the same may happen when Murray hangs up his rackets in a few years.

If the British can be labelled a one-man team, so can the Belgians. David Goffin has played the Murray role all year, and Belgium’s second-highest ranked player – Steve Darcis at 85 – is only 14 places ahead of Britain’s likely second player Kyle Edmund. That’s why Murray’s 6-1, 6-0 win over Goffin at the Paris Masters two weeks ago was such a shock to the Belgians – Goffin has to win his singles on day one, but with the chances of him beating Murray very low, he may well play in the doubles which Belgium has to win.

Unless Murray suffers some kind of injury or finds the transition from the hard courts of London to the makeshift clay of Ghent difficult, it’s hard to see anything other than a 10th British title, and an end to the 79-year wait. Murray would then have reset the British tennis clock in every respect, having won Olympic gold, the US Open, Wimbledon and the Davis Cup. His country should expect nothing more of him, and treat the remainder of his career as a bonus.

The Davis Cup itself may be about to change. The current World Group format was introduced in 1981 to reduce the Davis Cup commitment by the top players to a maximum of four weeks a year from the previous six. That breathed new life into the competition, but during the 16 years of Francesco Ricci-Bitti’s reign as ITF president, he had to fend off constant suggestions that the players were a bit half-hearted about Davis Cup. That’s somewhat unfair, most players love the honour of playing for their country, and a study commissioned by the ITF in 2009 suggested the Davis Cup generates an annual economic impact of $184 million worldwide. But with many marquee players picking and choosing their ties, there has been the perception of a problem.

Now Ricci-Bitti has made way for Dave Haggerty, an American who makes no secret of his fondness of the ‘final four’ format where the four semi-finalists meet in one city and play semis and final in one week. Haggerty is making all the right noises about the need to respect the magic of the home-and-away format, and the importance of the lower tiers to the growth of tennis in a number of countries, but he is clearly eyeing up a change in the Davis Cup’s culmination, which is the jewel in the ITF’s crown. He may find it hard to get all his changes through the ITF’s legislative process, and the earliest any changes would come into effect would be 2018, but the winds of change look set to blow through Dwight Davis’s 115-year-old competition.

It means this final may be one of the last in which one team is guaranteed to be at home. And with the British just a couple of hours’ train or boat ride away from the hosts, the 2015 final has all the makings of a rare local derby final.

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