Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) November 29, 2015
Of course, the Davis Cup for 2016 could be dead in the water. It will be interesting to see who wins the annual competition in an Olympic year, when the already-overloaded schedules of the top players will almost certainly rule out early firm commitment to next year’s Davis Cup.
But that’s all right with the promoters of the Davis Cup, the International Tennis Federation. The agency also promotes the Olympics. And a weak Davis Cup competition once every four years is a small price to pay for the increased attention that will be paid to Olympic tennis by players and spectators alike.
Hosting the tennis portion of the Olympics on the grass at storied Wimbledon in 2012 certainly boosted the credibility of Olympic tennis. So did the Cinderella story mowed into the lawns that year by Andy Murray, who won the singles gold medal for Great Britain.
Just as significant, Olympic tennis at Wimbledon was an absorbing competition at which the top players dominated. Rafael Nadal was the only Big Four player who wasn’t in the semifinals; he missed the entire event with tendinitis in his knees.
In past years, it hurt Olympic tennis when the medalists, at least in the men’s event, didn’t accurately reflect the true order of merit in the game. Nicolas Massu won gold in 2004 over Mardy Fish. In 2008, Nadal won gold over Chile’s Fernando Gonzalez, who lost in the only Grand Slam singles final he reached. Olympic tennis was seen by many as a sideshow.
Now, players who once shunned Olympic tennis have come to embrace it. Pete Sampras was a traditionalist; to him, tennis was all about the four Grand Slam events. He occasionally made room on his schedule for the Davis Cup. But the Olympics meant little to him.
Roger Federer, Sampras’ friend and successor, is no less a traditionalist. But the 34-year-old said three years ago that he definitely wants to keep playing until the Rio Olympics. Winning a gold medal in singles remains a bucket-list item for Federer — one that could prove difficult to check off on the hard courts in Brazil with the likes of Djokovic, Murray, et al, in the draw.
Djokovic, who hasn’t won a singles gold either, has also prioritized the Olympics. In a Web statement released by the organizers in Rio, he said: “One of the priorities of the next season is to try to get a medal for my country. I’m going to do everything I can possibly to achieve that.”
Is it mere coincidence that two of the most eager Olympic tennis hopefuls recently led their teams to Davis Cup triumphs? Federer and the Swiss won in 2014, and Djokovic led the Serbs to the title in 2010. That was the first Davis Cup championship for both of those teams. Great Britain’s triumph this year was its first in 78 years and nearly as sentimental and historic a moment domestically as Murray’s massive singles triumph at Wimbledon in 2013.
Interesting detail: The growth of the game, combined with a rigorous annual schedule, leads some of the very top players to skip Davis Cup duty with some frequency. As a result, the competition once dominated by the U.S. and Australia is now up for grabs almost every year. At least a dozen nations have enough quality players to challenge for the Cup (think France), and the nature of the alternating-host rule adds some intriguing playing-field levelers.
These developments have all enhanced the cachet of nations-based competition, and the Olympics has been a great beneficiary. It’s a shame the Olympics are held every four years, but a fifth Grand Slam every four years is better than no fifth major at all.