WATCH: An emotional Andy Murray won his Davis Cup Finals match vs. Switzerland on the day of his grandmother's funeral.

It was 5-6 in the third set of a high quality tennis match between MacKenzie McDonald and Otto Virtanen. “Mackie,” a heavy favorite going in, faced two match points while trailing 15-40 against the unheralded 22-year old playing like a Grand Slam champion across the court. McDonald dismissed one match point, then the other, with bold, almost desperate tennis. As he reached the safety of deuce, broadcast analyst Chris Dennis shouted, “This is classic Davis Cup! This is what it’s all about! This is why Bob Bryan is still involved!”

The enthusiastic outburst, while no candidate for quotation immortality, is worth examining. Davis Cup is like base jumping—either you get it or you don’t. A substantial number of people—including the most important cohort, the players—do.

Nobody ever mistook McDonald for Novak Djokovic, nor Virtanen for Carlos Alcaraz (Virtanen’s ranking of No. 125 doesn’t even guarantee him a place in the main draw of a Grand Slam event). The setting for this pitched battle was not a great stadium or arena, but an indoor hall with a modest capacity in the multi-hall Arena Gripe, in Split, Croatia. The atmosphere was hardly supercharged. While the fans, especially the Finns, were vocal enough, they numbered in the hundreds, not in the tens of thousands.

Davis Cup, the world’s largest annual international team competition, has appeared to be on life support a number of times in recent years. That’s due largely to the unwieldy format with which it was saddled for so much of its 100-plus year history, and the International Tennis Federation’s efforts to modify the tournament in order to keep up with changing times.

The outcome of the latest ITF format alterations is up in the air, yet one thing remains the same: A tournament match pitting No. 39 ranked McDonald against a journeyman like Virtanen is for both the players and fans more like a pleasant Tuesday afternoon diversion than a life-or-death sporting spectacle. But when the umpire calls the score saying “USA” and “Finland” instead of the names of individuals like “McDonald” or “Vertanen,” it’s an entirely different experience.

When Virtanen (who went on to defeat McDonald, 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(7)) was asked in his on-court interview how he managed to pull off such an upset he replied, “It must be the t-shirt I am wearing. It says ‘Finland’ on the back.’” A newly-minted Olympic gold medalist could not have put it better.


The sense that a Davis Cup “rubber” (DC patois for “match”) is of crucial importance has always been one of the main reasons for the disproportionate degree of pressure on the competitors, and thus the number of upsets the tournament generates. That was something that Team USA ruefully demonstrated on Saturday at last week’s Group (round robin) Stage of the Davis Cup Finals.

The “tie” (DC lingo for a match between teams) between the U.S. and Finland would determine which team would join the eight-team field advancing to the late November knock-out stage in Malaga, Spain. On paper, the USA had the strongest team in the round-robin field: ATP No. 11 Frances Tiafoe, No. 13 Tommy Paul, McDonald and outstanding doubles specialists Austin Krajicek and Rajeev Ram. The round robin also introduced the new captain of Team USA, former DC stalwart Bob Bryan.

It proved a bittersweet start for Bryan, whose squad was 1-1 in ties going into the final day of group play. After Virtanen upset McDonald, Finland’s Emil Ruusuvuori, a 24-year old ranked No. 57, stunned Paul in a struggle of comparable intensity and skill, 7-6(1), 6-4. To add insult to injury, the scrappy Finns swept, taking the doubles rubber to punch their ticket to Malaga.

If you did not watch the matches, you might assume that the U.S. players were overconfident, or that their hearts weren’t in this effort. But that wasn’t the case. The result showed that no matter how many problems the Davis Cup tournament has faced, no matter how passionately bitter fans of the previous formats accuse the International Tennis Federation of despoiling its premier property, the tournament still remains the most unpredictable, electric fixture on the game’s calendar.


If anything, Davis Cup may have become even less predictable and more electric under the new, streamlined format that jettisoned the “alternating host” rule governing ties, as well as the old, five-rubber format (that one featured four singles and one doubles match per tie). Ties now consist of three rubbers, two singles followed by doubles. The complaint that the tournament is now more of a crap shoot is valid, but that may be the cost of keeping Davis Cup alive.

The elimination of home-field advantage in ties works against both haves and have-not nations. The changes in the tie format certainly help smaller nations (Finland’s population is 5.5 million), or those less with tennis, because in this era dozens of nations harbor at least few solid ATP tour-level players. Most of them are eager to answer the patriotic call, as are the veterans of long-past Davis Cup wars. Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray ... they all took part in the round robin.

The increased importance of doubles also looms large in the new format, although surprisingly few of last week’s 24 ties (just six, going into the final ties on Sunday) were decided by the doubles.

You might wonder what that much-decorated Davis Cup warrior Bob Bryan (26-5 in DC doubles and an Olympic gold medalist) thinks about that, but the new captain of Team USA had more pressing matters on his mind after his squad failed to advance to the knock-out stage.


“I know we lost 3-0, the scoreboard reflects a big loss,” Bryan said. “But it was close, just a couple of points here and there. Mackie (McDonald) played great and Tommy (Paul) really put his body on the line—sliding all over, getting bloody out there. And that’s all you can ask of a team, to give that much effort. You can’t hang your head after performances like that.”

The streamlined formula taught the rookie captain a valuable lesson. “There’s no room for relaxation in this format,” Bryan said. “If you come out a little slow, or sloppy, you will get beat.”

Things weren’t exactly that way in Bryan’s heyday. The Davis Cup is a different animal in many ways now, but in some vital ways it remains the same. It will probably do so until the back of the shirt bears a name, not the name of a nation.