On the weekend of December 4, 2009, the Czech Republic will battle Spain for the Davis Cup. Spain will be bidding for its fourth title. Almost 20 years to the day since their Velvet Revolution and eventual split from Slovakia, the Czechs will be trying to lock down their first title as an independent nation. (In 1980, while the Cold War still raged, the former Czechoslovakia won the Eastern Bloc’s first and only Davis Cup.)
Since 1900, when Davis Cup was first contested, the United States has won a record 32 titles. Australia has won 28. Tied for third at nine titles apiece are France and Great Britain. Just as you’d expect to see Japan at the top of the world’s Sumo wrestling rankings, you’d probably guess that wealthy countries with rich sporting traditions and a decidedly Anglo-Saxon cast would sit atop the Davis Cup leaderboard.
As this year’s finalists suggest, however, Davis Cup has changed. Like the game itself, Davis Cup has gone global. In 1980, just 51 countries participated in Davis Cup. In 2009, the figure was 125, including zonal group competitors such as Uzbekistan, Cuba, and Vietnam.
An important catalyst for globalization was the 1988 Olympics. At the summer games in Seoul, South Korea, tennis became a sanctioned sport, attracting interest—and investment—from national sporting federations such as the Soviet Union’s Gossport, which had long treated the pursuit of Olympic hardware as a geopolitical imperative.
“Being part of the Olympic movement ensured investment by governments and National Olympics Committees into the sport,” International Tennis Federation President Francesco Ricci Bitti explained in a recent email. “When, in 1984, tennis became a demonstration sport in Los Angeles, and shortly afterwards admitted as a full-medal sport, the effect was instantaneous, especially in countries which had no tradition of supporting tennis.”
In the 21 years since Seoul, rich countries have captured most of the Davis Cup titles, but their domination is no longer complete. Since 2002, Russia and Croatia, with per capita incomes equal to one-third and one-quarter of the U.S. average, have combined to seize three titles, clambering on to the scatterplot below.
A December victory by the Czechs (however unlikely) would further diminish the increasingly tenuous relationship between old world Anglo Saxon wealth and Davis Cup success.