Is Home Court Advantage in the Davis Cup Gone?

One of Davis Cup's traditions is its format that allows one team to play at home and modify certain conditions within the rules in order to maximize its home court advantage. The first obvious advantage, of course, is the support. The ability to play in front of a partisan crowd makes the competition exciting, and opens the door for some possible upsets in every round. Just ask France's Davis Cup captain, Guy Forget, who had the comfort of playing every round up to the finals at home, and capitalized on it by reaching the final round.

Another big issue about the Davis Cup ties has been the modification of the surface by the home team to suit the play of its members. Needless to say, the decision is usually based on how well the home team players play on a certain surface, or how to choose the surface that is the least preferable by the visiting team. The speed and nature of the surface must, however, be in accordance with the guidelines and rules set by the ITF in order to avoid the extreme abuse of the privilege by the home team.

All the above mentioned came into play when Spanish Tennis Federation disputed the choice of the surface made by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for their quarterfinal round, to be played in July in Austin, Texas. The Spaniards claimed that the Indoor Hard Premiere surface chosen by the USTA was not on the list of one of the 91 manufacturers approved by ITF. They based their argument on the fact that ITF Rules required that a surface can be used in Davis Cup only if it was used in at least three ATP tournaments with prize money of at least $350,000. This was not the case of Indoor Hard Premiere.

Ultimately, their appeal was rejected few days ago by the three-member Davis Cup committee. The committee chose not to take into account the brand of the surface, but considered rather the material used in it, namely acrylic, and responded that the material was used in more than 30 other tournaments and two slams. The Spanish were right in at least giving it a shot. This was the same surface used by the Americans when they beat Spain back in 2007, also in the quarterfinals. USTA made it no secret that they will attempt to make the surface as fast as possible, probably to offset Rafael Nadal's game and suit the Americans' style better.

There was a time when such appeals would not have even seen the light of day. Until recent years, home teams had a free pass on any modifications to the surface, or choose any surface they desired. The unwritten rule was that if tennis was played at some point on a certain surface, that surface was fair game. The rules and guidelines that exist now, setting limits on the type of surface, did not exist for most of the Open era. Who can forget the example of Paraguay, who made it a habit of tilting the surface and other conditions in their favor, and as a result, produced few memorable upsets of Davis Cup giants in the '80s?

Lendl-lead Czechoslovakia arrived to Asuncion as a large favorite in 1983. The "favorite" stamp disappeared quickly as they stepped on the lightning-fast, wooden-parquet indoor floor in scorching heat. Let's mention in passing that the indoor arena did not have air-conditioning, either! It was a carnival-like atmosphere, and the crowd was hard to control, even for the experienced head umpire Bob Howe, who was also the tournament referee of U.S. Open at the time. The Paraguay Davis Cup team, led by Victor Pecci, who was beginning the downside of his career after having reached the final in Roland Garros in 1979, and little-known Francisco Gonzales, who lived in Paraguay only a few days a year, played college tennis for Ohio State, born in Germany and living in Puerto Rico, pulled the monumental upset and eliminated the Czechs.

In 1985, the French Davis Cup team, led by Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte, suffered the same destiny under the same conditions in Asuncion. Surface and the heat were only part of the reason as matches were started past 6 PM to avoid the heat and lasted well in the late hours of the night, finishing, for example, at 3:39 AM Saturday morning after the first two matches. The French called the three days "Hell” and were ousted by the same duo, Pecci and Gonzales. The crowd and the misery of the French trying to adjust to science fiction-like conditions deserve a whole another article; needless to say, that one major headline called what happened over the weekend in Asuncion "disgrace to Davis Cup."

Paraguay had one last trick up their sleeves in 1987. With the same duo Pecci and Gonzales, now well past their prime, helped by the young and unknown Hugo Chapacu in singles (one U.S. Davis Cup team member admitted reading about the terrible results of Chapacu prior to the match and laughing), managed to take out another giant, the U.S. team led by Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias, and the legendary doubles team of Flach and Seguso. This time, Paraguay dropped the enigmatic indoor parquet surface, and chose to play against the U.S. on extremely slow clay. Although Krickstein and Arias could possibly be called the worst that U.S. Davis Cup teams had to offer in the Open era, they were no failures on clay.

But with the unusually slow surface (even for clay), together with the kettle drums being played after each mistake made and coins and pebbles being thrown at them, not to mention some horrendous line calls by local officials, the Americans soon returned home following an excruciating defeat that left nightmarish traces in the members' minds well after it was over (Flach could not hide his excitement in 1989, when the chance to take revenge on U.S. soil presented itself, and Arias admitted to having nightmares where he was hearing drumbeats).

Paraguay's Davis Cup Team's success in the '80s was the extreme case of manipulation by the home team to modify the conditions in order to tilt them in their favor. Other similar examples were numerous, although none so extreme. Sweden and France have been known to build clay courts indoors when they faced USA. Australia had a grass court installed to play France in the finals several years back (it backfired). And Spain has played matches on temporary red clay courts built in bull rings.

But now it is not that easy. Since, 2008 surface speeds are subject to new rules and guidelines and as in the recent example of Spain, appeals are not out of the question for having the surfaces inspected. For example, the surface used in U.S. vs. Russia in the 2007 final would now be deemed illegal, surpassing the allowed court speed. ITF has ways of measuring the court speed and do meticulous tests prior to a tie on the surface of the court. When Spain was rejected, their captain Albert Costa was assured by the ITF that all proper tests would be done on the surface of the courts in Austin, Texas to make sure that USA would not benefit from an unfair advantage.

Having lived through and watched all Davis Cup encounters since the late-'70s, especially the ones mentioned above, I can't help but wonder why it would be such a bad thing to allow modifications by the home team and not put a limit on it. While I agree that the crowd should be controlled better, the surface and the surroundings of the court should be completely left up to the home team. In my opinion, it is in the essence of Davis Cup competition to allow the underdog who gets the advantage to play at home to modify the conditions as they see fit in order to increase their chances. It is not a neutral concept.

Although court surface remains the only condition subjected rigorously to guidelines, there is no guarantee that other limitations would not arrive soon. Gone are the days of Paraguay-like upsets; and that is acceptable to a degree. However, I do not desire to be forced into saying the same sentence about upsets in general because the never-ending addition of rules and guidelines may happen to ultimately neutralize any manipulations of conditions by the home teams.

Comments and Conversation

April 27, 2011

Enis Oksan:

Another history lesson on Davis Cup.

Had no idea about any of these court manipulations. Only recalled Paraguay had some significant upsets in the 80s, but that’s about it. “…the lightning-fast, wooden-parquet indoor floor in scorching heat” Are you serious? I wish I could see a rerun of those games. Sounds like even futbol on ice would be easier to play.

April 27, 2011

Mert Ertunga:

Enis I played an indoor wooden-parquet tournament two years in a row in the 80s.. I can tell you from experience that the ball speeds up even more when it bounces !!! It DOES feel like playing on ice (without the temperature).

I played against this big server and I had a tough time getting away from the ball just not to get hit (forget about returning it)

Mert E.

May 6, 2011


Great article Mert. This made me remember couple of other interesting Davis Cup venues.

I clearly remember Sweden playing India in 1987 on indoor clay. If I remember right, it was Nystrom-Wilander vs Amritraj brothers in the final.

When Spain played USA the in 2004 final (Nadal was an up and coming 18 yr old), they converted one end of the Sevilla Olympic Stadium into a clay tennis court to accommodate c. 30,000 people!

Finally, when Austria played France 2 months ago, they converted Vienna Airport’s Hangar No.3 into a clay court and still lost the tie!


May 10, 2011

Mert Ertunga:

Hi Selim,

You came up with a good one there (India vs. Sweden in 1987). Poor India Davis Cup team lost that tie before ever setting foot on the court when it was announced that it would be on clay. Amritraj brothers won a set in doubles but the rest of the tie no set was closer than 6/4. Two years earlier, in the quarter finals, they played in India on grass, and Sweden still won the tie 4-1 but it was much closer.

And the Sevilla Olympic stadium… Nice Selim!

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