Let's start with the good news.
The U.S. Davis Cup team took a big step towards staying in the 16-country World Group for 2015 by winning its first two singles matches in a playoff tie Friday against Slovakia in Chicago.
Well, not actually in Chicago. In a suburb called Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
They played at the Sears Centre (do they really spell it that way?), 25 miles northwest of Chicago. It takes about 45 minutes when there's no traffic. When there's traffic – say, later on a Friday afternoon as people head out for the weekend, with a Davis Cup tie starting at 4 p.m., it's more like an hour and a half.
You would have hoped that the stands would fill up a bit for the second match, as people finally arrived. And it did get a little better. But not much better.
In case you missed it, American No. 2 Sam Querrey defeated Slovak No. 1 Martin Klizan in nearly-identical fashion – 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-3 – to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead, with the slam-dunk Bryan brothers set to take on the doubles Saturday.
While the muckety-mucks in the fancier seats behind the court did start arriving – they sort of have to; they know they'll be on TV and besides, the tickets are free – the situation was, on the whole, a little sad.
Without drawing any grand, overarching conclusions that the small crowd reflected the "current state of American mens' tennis" (insert your copyright icon here), it is the perfect storm of a number of things.
1) The U.S. Open is a huge event, a Grand Slam. And while it may not sell itself, it's still in New York City. And it's there every year at the same time. And regardless of how well U.S. men's tennis is doing, a Federer and a Nadal and a Djokovic will still be there most years.
The USTA, however, isn't all that great at marketing and promoting its Davis Cup ties. One of the reasons may be the unintended consequences of an overwhelmingly volunteer-based organization on steroids. Can you just see the volunteer U.S. Davis Cup committee handing off the job to the volunteer Midwest Davis Cup committee, who hands it down to the volunteer Chicago District Tennis Association with the mandate to get the word out to the grassroots and get everyone to come!
It's surely not nearly as "volunteer" as all that. But it's still the impression you get. If you polled the tennis players you know around the area, it's likely a lot of them never got the word. That's how these things tend to operate. And without a Federer or a Djokovic on the opposing team to sell the thing, they're in some trouble. This is the kind of stuff they do.
This isn't meant as a knock on volunteers – we're nowhere without them, in every single part of life. But this needs a lot more. The USTA was very, very late in confirming Chicago as the host city for the tie; there wasn't a lot of lead time, especially when everyone was so preoccupied with the upcoming U.S. Open.
2) The tickets were expensive – especially given the lack of a marquee attraction.
As in, really expensive.
It doesn't appear, from that graphic,that you could even get a single-session seat in the second deck, which proportionately would go for about $35. You had to commit to all three days.
That's a lotta lettuce – again, given the product on display. Maybe the fans have no trouble getting to the arena for Bulls games and Blackhawks games. But those are major sports and, besides, they don't start at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon.
As a comparison, the tickets for this weekend's World Group playoff tie in Halifax, N.S. (a tiny burg compared to Chicago) between Canada and Colombia were selling for $15-$50 Canadian ($13.50-$45 U.S.), and you could buy any single seat you wanted.
In Paris, where the World Group semi-final between France and defending champion Czech Republic was being held at famed Roland Garros, tickets for the regular people ranged from €32-€85 per day ($45-$110). Of course, they had the fancy loge seats with the open bar and all that, which were much pricier. But those regular tickets were cheaper – and they were for a World Group semi-final, with the winner playing for the actual Davis Cup, with the likes of Tsonga, Monfils, Gasquet and Berdych on the roster. In legendary Court Philippe Chatrier. Outside in the bright September sunshine.
The joint was jammed Friday.
As for Geneva, with its 18,400-seat arena set up to watch Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka against the Italians, the price of the tickets was immaterial. If you blinked when they went on sale, you were already out of luck.
3) Chicago might have a solid local tennis community, but its tennis-watching habit is long gone.
The city hasn't hosted Davis Cup since ... well, to give you an idea, Bill Tilden played two singles rubbers.
The last men's pro event, the Chicago Grand Prix, was played there in 1987. The last women's event, the Virginia Slims of Chicago (later the Avon Championships and the Ameritech Cup) left in 1997. Chicagoans are used to watching tennis on television.
4) It's tough to get excited about John Isner and Sam Querrey.
These two guys work hard. Both have had success. Both are very solid players. But even when they do something great, it's hard to get anything more than a grimace out of them. Most of the time, they just look mildly annoyed or slightly stunned.
Now, it's not their job to play up to the crowd and get them whipped into a frenzy. Davis Cup is supposed to do that all on its own. Their job is to win tennis matches. The days of McEnroe and Connors (who wasn't huge on Davis Cup anyway) are obviously long gone. But even Andy Roddick did a better job. As for the Bryan brothers, who are everything you could ask for in a pair of tennis players, well, that's doubles.
You wonder if there would have been an uptick, say, if captain Jim Courier had selected Chicago native Donald Young to play singles. At least it would have given them something substantial to promote.
It's worth noting, for the record, that Young is ranked higher than Querrey. So is Steve Johnson. Even Jack Sock, ranked No. 66, might have been able to raise the roof a little bit, because he's a shotmaker and a crowd-pleaser – for better and for worse.
But in the end, Isner and Querrey did their job. And the Bryans are likely to do their job on Saturday and clinch the thing. So regardless of the crowd, the U.S. squad is likely to leave Chicago knowing they got what they came for.
Hopefully, in the World Group in 2015, if the Americans get another home tie, they will get a marquee attraction that will make their marketing job easier, or choose a venue where they might have better success.
Hopefully, they won't draw Canada.