The first weekend of February brings the most important sporting event to town since the Super Bowl. Davis Cup tennis is a series of matches between some of the best men’s players the United States and Brazil have to offer. For fans of world-class tennis, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Davis Cup matches are played in a best-of-five series over three days. The first-round match on Feb. 1 features two singles matches, in which Brazil’s No. 1 player will play the second-best American, and vice-versa. Feb. 2 features a doubles match between the two pairs. And Feb. 3? The 1s, then the 2s, square off in singles play. Watching this on TV doesn’t really do justice to the spectacle and the athletic accomplishment. As the saying goes, you just have to be there to appreciate it. Fortunately, 13,000 fans will be able to watch at Veterans Memorial Arena.
If you're a fan of great tennis or international competition, don’t just sit there. If you just watch it on the Tennis Channel, you'll regret your failure to act. Guaranteed.
For one thing, everyone who's anyone in the history of this great sport has competed. The most acclaimed American competitor: John McEnroe, who owns or shares 20 Davis Cup records. Rene Lacoste, whose shirts have filled my closet since the Ronald Reagan era, is just one of the many players who forged his reputation in international team play. Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Arthur Ashe — three more names even non-fans of the sport know — likewise distinguished themselves in Davis play.
Another great tennis player with Davis Cup experience lives closer to home. Ponte Vedra Beach resident MaliVai Washington competed in 1997 for the U.S. team when they last played Brazil, teaming with Jim Courier for a 4-1 win. Washington described visiting Brazil to play that formidable squad in front of a boisterous home crowd.
“Brazilians are very passionate about their football and their tennis,” said Washington, who founded the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation. “When I played against Brazil in 1997, Gustavo Kuerten was on the team. At the time, Gustavo was Brazil’s No. 1 player. The atmosphere of that Davis Cup tie was electric. That atmosphere is why I played tennis. It was different than any other experience I had in tennis. It helped that I beat Gustavo, and we won as a team that weekend.”
For those of you who thrill to such events as the World Cup, this is your chance to see the tennis equivalent of that level of competition, but like any play on the highest plain, it comes at a price. Washington replaced Agassi in 1997 at a low point in Agassi’s career, but it turned out to have career implications.
“In 1997, I replaced Andre Agassi on the Davis Cup team in Brazil. I proceeded to injure my knee in Brazil, which turned out to be the beginning of the end of my career, as I never fully recovered from the injury.”
Despite the consequences of that injury, Washington wouldn’t trade the experience.
“I thought playing Davis Cup made me a better player. It made me more mentally tough. I felt that if I could play and succeed in Davis Cup, it would carry over into the rest of the year. I wish I could have played more.”
Courier, the ageless constant as a former player and the captain of the current team, receives nothing but respect from Washington.
“Jim was my teammate in 1997 in Brazil. He had a great work ethic then, and Jim is able to bring that to the team now. He has a lot of experience to draw on for his guys. He has accomplished everything there is to achieve in professional tennis and that can be so valuable in Davis Cup.”
Last week, Courier announced the U.S. roster for the matches vs. Brazil: John Isner and Sam Querrey along with brothers Bob and Mike Bryan — the most prolific men’s doubles team in Grand Slam men’s tennis history.
Washington offered a message to this year’s squad: “Play your heart out. Representing the United States is very special, and it’s an opportunity that most players will never get. Enjoy the moment and win.”