For most of my professional life, I have worked in tennis, from a national federation to my current role as Executive Vice President of the International Tennis Federation. During that period, I have had considerable responsibility for the international team competitions of the ITF and for the Olympic Tennis Event. While I admire and enjoy tournament tennis, especially at the Grand Slam level, there is something about playing for your country that offers an athlete a unique and ultimately rewarding experience that can, and often does, shape their careers and their lives.
Tennis is not alone in this experience; the examples are everywhere. From football’s FIFA World Cup to golf’s Ryder Cup, emotions run high and, while no one would dispute that winning the Premier League or Wimbledon or the Masters offers countless reward, both personally and financially, I would argue that winning an Olympic medal, the World Cup or, in tennis, Davis Cup or Fed Cup, offers a special bonus as you are representing not just yourself but your country.
Tennis’s return to the Olympic Games in 1988 helped our sport to expand its international reach. The investment of National Olympic Committees in Olympic sport has given young tennis athletes financial resources to compete internationally. This growth is particularly clear in Eastern Europe and in Asia and we expect South America will follow with Games being staged in Rio in 2016. The International Tennis Federation itself has grown with a record 210 member nations, up significantly from the 141 nations who were members in 1988.
The Olympics took some time to be universally accepted in tennis; equally it took the Olympics a little while to understand the needs of a professional tennis player. While there were some players who embraced the Olympics from the beginning, players like Steffi Graf and Stefan Edberg, others were not convinced. The tipping point for this came at the Sydney Games with young players like Roger Federer and the Williams sisters declaring that they would make the Olympics a priority. In a sport where a Grand Slam title was the pinnacle, an Olympic medal has become a goal for every player. And, for most, just being an Olympian now means a great deal in tennis as players have come to realize just what it means to play for your country on this very largest of international stages.
Although tennis is an individual sport, the roots of playing for your country as part of a team run very deep. Dwight Davis, whose name graces the competition he founded and the trophy he purchased in 1900, was a contemporary of the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin. Both men had the foresight to see that adding the incentive of representing your country made all sport that much more difficult and compelling. The Davis Cup by BNP Paribas is 114 years old in 2013 and remains the largest annual individual team competition in sport. Played on every continent and by every great player who ever competed in tennis, Davis Cup provides a crucible to test the strength and commitment of each team. Because it is played on a home-and-away basis, spectators play an important role in every Davis Cup tie and this adds an extra level of pressure for the competitors.
The women’s version of the Davis Cup is 50 years old in 2013. Fed Cup was founded because the top women players of their day demanded the opportunity to compete for their country in international team competition. Players like Billie Jean King and Margaret Court wanted to represent USA and Australia, respectively, in the same way as their male counterparts. Half a century later, Fed Cup by BNP Paribas still offers women this chance.
All three competitions, and their junior counterparts, are tough and most will never have the opportunity to win. However, most of our players recognise that Pierre de Coubertin was correct when he said, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”
Switzerland’s Roger Federer did not win a medal in singles until London 2012, having played in three previous Olympics and winning a doubles gold in Beijing. He has announced he would like to play in Rio, in what would be his fifth Olympic Games. USA’s Serena Williams, winner of four gold medals, three in doubles and one in singles, has also stated a desire to play at Rio 2016. These two champions, two of the greatest of all time, understand well the differences between playing for your country and playing for yourself and have embraced the concept of Olympism.
In Davis Cup, more than 300 players have played more than 20 ties to become eligible for the Davis Cup Commitment Award, launched this year as part of the ITF’s Centenary Year. Some of these players have won the Cup but most have not and yet, year in and year out, they make themselves available to play for their country in Davis Cup. The list is a who’s who of tennis greats from the French Musketeers to Tomas Berdych who led Czech Republic to victory last year over the most successful team of this century, Spain. The picture in Fed Cup is much the same with players rewarded with the Fed Cup Heart Award for players showing special dedication and courage on court. Winners of this award include Daniela Hantuchova of Slovak Republic, Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, Francesca Schiavone of Italy and Petra Kvitova, who led Czech Republic to the title in 2011 and 2012.
There are some who would say that playing for your country, especially in a sport like tennis, is not relevant anymore. To them I would offer the examples above with final words from a few players:
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, part of the 2010 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas winning team:
“It was two days and two nights celebration. We definitely felt in some way what it meant for the people and what it meant for us in the end. It was an historical win, maybe once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play and win the Davis Cup at home in front of almost 20,000 people. It was just a different feeling from the feeling that you experience playing for yourself in any other individual event.”
2008 Olympic Gold Medallist Rafael Nadal:
“The win here is more than -- the feeling is a little bit more special, no, because I know in the tennis, the Grand Slams are a little bit more important than here. But here you only have one chance every four years, no? Probably for the tennis player are a little bit more the slams. But for sportsmen, the Olympic Games are more important than everything. I don't know what different feelings I can express. The thing is, win here, I feel like I win for all the country. That's more special, no? I win for a lot of people, not only for me.”
Flavia Pennetta, part of the 2010 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas winning team:
“I always think in Fed Cup you can beat everyone, you can lose with everyone. It's not easy to play for your country, to give your best all the time when you are on the court, because sometimes you can be really nervous and you can have a panic attack. But I really enjoy to play for my country.”
Three-time Olympic Gold Medallist Venus Williams on playing at London 2012:
“I fought so much to be here. There are a lot of people happy to be here, but I’m not just happy, I want to do something about it and play well for my country.”
By Juan Margets, Chief Operating Officer of the International Tennis Federation