US Davis Cup Debacle: A Full Play-by-Play (On and Off the Court)
Thanksgiving took an unexpected turn for tennis fans watching the Davis Cup. This year, it wasn’t their drunk uncle creating the chaos. We break down how the Davis Cup went so wrong for the American men — and how things got even worse when they started talking.
The US Team Line-Up
Captain Mardy Fish was under immediate scrutiny when the team was announced. Davis Cup allows each country to bring a team of 5 players. When the US team was announced, it included Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul and Jack Sock. At first glance, it seems like a great team: These 3 singles guys have all had career years, and Jack Sock is a multi-slam winner in doubles.
But there was one obvious person missing from the team. Rajeev Ram, someone who has stepped up for Davis Cup and Olympics multiple times, was left off the team. Ram ended his year in a flurry on the doubles court: Winning the US Open, ATP Finals and recently rising to number 1 in the world. With another spot on the team and Ram openly expressing interest, why would the US choose to take 4 players instead of 5? It doesn’t take an experienced Davis Cup captain to ask the question. Take into account that Ram and Sock have had doubles success together, and it’s even more puzzling. Fritz, Tiafoe and Paul have had career years, most of their success has been in singles.
This choice means that Ram wasn’t benched. He was left off the squad completely. A statement that they would literally have nobody on the team than have Ram as an option. It was an eye-opening decision to one of the best doubles players in the world.
Mardy Fish Addresses the Issue
As the Davis Cup finals week began, The Tennis Podcast’s Matt Roberts sat down with captain Mardy Fish. Fish, who is well-liked and respected for his openness with mental health struggles on court, addressed the topic. But his answer didn’t do much to end the conversation. He praised Ram and acknowledged his success on the team in the past, and then he repeated that he felt like he brought the right team with him. You can listen to his full, confusing answer starting at the 26-minute mark in this episode of the Tennis Podcast. His words didn’t offer much, and his quotes included:
“I love Rajeev, Rajeev has been a phenomenal player for us in the past. This is a different roster,” he said. “This tie we’re gonna go with a different team. The tough part about the job is trying to mesh that together and that’s the hardest part, having that conversation with Rajeev.
He went on to emphasize that he wants Ram for future ties, but just not for this one. “I want another doubles team on the court,” he concluded.
His answers certainly didn’t clear up the issue. In fact, it left people with more questions. If Rajeev has joined other teams and succeeded, isn’t that more of a reason to include him? The word “mesh” stuck out to a lot of people, especially since there’s no play-related reason for leaving him off.
It seemed that he was left off because of the team dynamic. He didn’t blend with the team. Ram is in his late 30s, significantly older than the rest of the team. The team seemed like the tennis version of a fraternity. And clearly, Ram didn’t make it when he rushed. This theory was only bolstered when Fritz started tweeting later in the evening (more on that later).
So the message seemed to be: The simple presence of Ram would actually hurt the team. It would make the team worse. They would rather have nobody than Ram. It was a shocking realization for most fans, who know Ram to be an easy-going, nice person who others enjoy on tour.
The US Team Opens Against Italy
The new Davis Cup format has the final 8 teams, who qualified earlier in the year, playing in a one-week tournament. The US started against a depleted Italy in the QFs. With Italy’s best two players out (Matteo Berrettini and Jannik Sinner), the US went in as favorites.
The team took a hit when Frances Tiafoe took a surprising loss to an inspired Sonego in the first match 6-3 7-6. Immediately, the doubles match was going to be in play, and Fish’s choice to not only put Ram on the bench but not even add him to the team would be put to the test.
Taylor Fritz, a confident, consistent player who broke into the top 10 this year, did his job. He won his match against Lorenzo Musetti 7-6 6-3. Fritz has had a banner year: Winning Indian Wells, making it deep at majors and reaching the SF at the ATP Finals a few weeks ago (a tournament Ram won in doubles).
Tied 1-1, we proceeded to the doubles. Jack Sock and Tommy Paul, who have little-to-no experience playing official matches together, would take on veteran doubles team Fabio Fognini and Simone Bolelli. The Italian team is good. They play doubles often and have a lot of success. They’re not one of the top teams in the world – they didn’t qualify as one of the top 8 teams to make the ATP Finals and didn’t make it past the QFs any of the majors this year. Still, they’re talented players who won the 2015 Australian Open.
Despite the opponents, Jack Sock was considered the best doubles player going into the match, and with it being played on an indoor hardcourt, the US team was expected to compete (and likely win).
The match was not as close as the 6-4 6-4 scoreline for the Italians. The result was never in question, and if the Italian’s took a few more of the opportunities, the score would have been more like a 6-2 6-3 scoreline. That’s how the match felt. They jumped out to a 15-40 lead in the opening game on Paul’s serve, and while they didn’t break in that game, they were the far superior team.
Paul and Sock were completely outclassed. Sock played a particularly rough second set, and Bolelli stood out as the best player on the court. Jack Sock hasn’t played a match since Laver Cup in September and hasn’t had a banner year in general. Combined with Paul, who clearly was the weakest doubles player on the court, they were no match for the Italians.
In the end, the Italians won two matches in straight sets to beat the US pretty handily 2-1 in the QFs. Considering the options the Americans had and the depleted Italian team, it was no doubt a tough way to end the season.
Captain Post-Match Comments
After the match, Mardy Fish spoke to reporters about the match and took full responsibility for the loss. He said “This is the team that I put on the court, and so if anyone has an issue with that, that’s on me.” Fair enough. But he continued, and that’s when things went south for him:
What? He’s saying that the Italians would have won with or without Rajeev? It was a shocking statement from an experienced player and captain. Certainly he knows that changing the dynamic (with a different, more experienced player) could have impacted the match.
The Italians played great, but they weren’t unbeatable. It wasn’t like they were slamming aces and winners on every shot. And unfortunately for Fish, it’s pretty easy to see that Ram has beaten the Italian team multiple times. In fact, him and his partner (Salisbury), easily beat the Italian duo at the Australian Open and US Open in 2022. He didn’t drop a set in those matches.
Simply Ram’s presence on court would have made the Italians remember those matches. And surely his experience against the pair would have been beneficial? The statement from Mardy, like his earlier comments, left many people confused.
The Players Start Tweeting
The day shifted away from the Americans after that. In fact, an enthralling tie with several high-quality matches followed as Canada edged out Germany.
But right after people likely enjoyed their second piece of pumpkin pie, the players started tweeting. They didn’t help their causes.
First it was Taylor Fritz, who started responding to negative tweets. He started defending himself and his teammates – fair enough. Then came this questionable tweet:
Inadvertently, Fritz confirmed what so many of us suspected: The players didn’t want Rajeev on the team. He wasn’t excited enough about their previous wins. Apparently he needed to kiss the ring for the players to be PUMPED for him to join. But since he didn’t? They wanted to leave him off the team.
Now it’s still Fish’s responsibility to make final decisions. But clearly the team didn’t want Rajeev on this team. While everyone can understand team dynamics and “meshing”, it looks like Ram wasn’t in the clique, and so they didn’t even want him there…even though he was clearly the most match-ready doubles player available.
Next was Tommy Paul’s turn. He decided to chime in with this:
Taking digs at fans interested in the Davis Cup? It’s an interesting choice after you just lost the final point.
Do most fans have experience captaining Davis Cup? No. Does it take a Davis Cup captain to know that it’s a good idea to bring a world #1 who won the last major? It looked like a strange choice from the beginning, and with time, it looks like the most obvious unforced error. People have the right to give their opinions. Just like he has the right to give his opinion on the World Cup:
I’m not sure of Paul’s experience with making FIFA soccer rules, but I bet he’s just a fan with an opinion.
Overall, it was not the Thanksgiving the US Davis Cup team was hoping for. But for those of us watching with our families at home (and then lounging after a big meal), it was a day full of great tennis. Next time, the Americans should try to get at least one win: Either on the court or in the press.