The modern athlete is a phenomenon of not just immense skill, but of endurance and unparalleled commitment to work. The events of the past week in the Davis Cup stood testimony to the ability of the top deck of tennis players to rejuvenate and refocus in frighteningly quick time. It is long understood that the ultimate test in tennis requires a uniquely demanding physical and mental preparation to enable athletes retain their best form and shape often living on the edge for two grand weeks.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic must have barely digested their celebratory gulp of champagne before taking flight for a distant destination to fight for the honour of their country. These are battle hardened warriors whose ability to call upon their best physical and mental faculties into duty day after gruelling day has reached almost insane heights. These are just specimens of an evolving species of athletes, who battle the limits of endurance and excellence with almost the same spirit as a warrior fighting for survival and freedom.
Some of top men in tennis transitioned from the exhausting effort at the final grand slam of the season to not only turn up but play key roles in helping their national teams inch closer to Davis Cup glory or restore its rightful place among the 16 elite teams for the next season. Tennis, as many other sports, is an intensely mental endeavour and no amount of words could adequately express the physical and mental fortitude needed to stay switched on after a demanding fortnight of grand slam tennis.
Stars like Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych, Radek Stepanek, Daniel Nestor and Milos Raonic joined the US Open finalists, brushing aside grand slam fatigue to launch themselves headlong into the Davis Cup barely days after ending their campaigns in New York. Coming straight off a triumphant run at Flushing Meadows, 13-time major winner Nadal honoured his team by offering to bend his back on national duty. The Majorcan played back-to-back matches on Friday and Saturday to give his team an unassailable 3-0 lead over their vanquished opponents from Ukraine.
After six weeks on the unforgiving hard courts of America, it was mighty impressive for the Spaniard to sweep his opponent off the clay court inside the Caja Magica in Madrid with unassuming ease. Interestingly, the last time Nadal played doubles for Spain was back in 2005. But the most dominant Davis Cup team of this millennium was hurting from their first round defeat to Canada. Alex Corretja’s men were eager to restore pride. In Nadal, they found a decorated soldier who was happy to throw his body on the line for national honour.
At Umag in Croatia, Murray showed off his love for the Union Jack with a verdant display of tennis over three tiring days to ensure Great Britain retained a place in the world group for 2014. The Scot might have also been driven by the desire to wipe away some of the disappointment of not defending his title at the US Open. And he did that in emphatic style, working his tail off to help the team win the three points needed for victory. A word of mention is also due to Ivan Dodig, who did the same for Croatia albeit in a losing cause.
Another shining example of a professional who set aside personal disappointment for the cause of his team was Stanislas Wawrinka. The Swiss was far from fresh after a stirring run to the semi-finals, though he must have been smarting from his second five set loss to Djokovic in a grand slam. But then, Wawrinka was quick to brush aside any agony, donning the colours of his team at Neuchatel in Switzerland. The world No. 10 won the first singles rubber, before joining Michael Lammer on Saturday to help clinch the decisive third point for his team.
The man who was born with war paint on his cheeks, Lleyton Hewitt travelled to Warsaw in Poland. And some of the old man’s spirit rubbed off on the youthfully wayward Bernard Tomic. The two combined to give their team the three victories needed to seal their spot in the world group for next year. The embattled veteran made light of his painstakingly marathon loss over Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth round of the US Open to help Australia get the better of their hosts.
Elsewhere on an even more important stage, Serbia was in a pitched battle with Canada for the right to earn a place at the table for November’s final. The reigning world No. 1 gave his team a rousing start in Belgrade, but Raonic in the singles and Nestor alongside Vasek Pospisil in the doubles brought the visitors back in the reckoning with thrilling five set victories. Djokovic, still raw from the disappointment of losing his 22nd match to Nadal, went about his business with customary cool.
After snatching the first set in a tie-break, Djokovic switched gears to leave Raonic smarting in defeat. The tie hung in balance at 2-2, needing Janko Tipsarevic to clinch the deal in the final rubber, but the effect of Djokovic’s presence was all too obvious on the Serbian camp. It is remarkable that Djokovic could, much like Nadal, come off a Monday final in New York to help his team win two vital points for a place in the final.
The other semi-final was telling evidence of the importance of these players for the survival and success of these teams. The defending champions, Czech Republic enjoyed the presence of sixth ranked Berdych and the US Open doubles title winner, Stepanek. Unfortunately, Argentina struggle to get the services of their biggest star. Juan Martin Del Potro had made himself unavailable for cup competition way back in January. And despite losing in the second round of the US Open, the world No. 7 did not consider offering his support to the team.
In the event, Stepanek and Berdych showcased the power of commitment – winning their singles ties on Friday before joining hands on the second day to clinch the doubles rubber and with it their spot in the finals against Serbia. In stark contrast, the Argentine team was left smarting from their second semi-final exit in as many years. The concentrated dose of Davis Cup action, coming right on the heels of an exciting US Open served as the perfect platform to showcase the virtues of dedicated effort. The result was a stream of shining light glowing through the strained sinews of some of the finest tennis athletes of our times.
As spectators of sport, we are a privileged lot. We are witness to an evolving species of athletes who retain their enormous hunger despite the mind numbing travel schedules and the lung busting toil on the court in the pursuit of their dreams. It is indeed heartening, when not all of it is self centred even in a fiercely individual sport like tennis. And it is utterly impressive that some of the most elite athletes have the stomach for a good old battle for the sake of national honour, right on the back of a multi-million dollar pay day.