MADRID — The old Davis Cup made Viktor Troicki the man of the moment in Serbia: feted in Belgrade and beyond after winning the decisive match of the 2010 final.
The new Davis Cup left him sitting in a courtside chair with a towel on Friday, covering his face as he wept at failing to give his friends and teammates a shot at another triumphant ending.
“God gave me once the chance to be the hero,” Troicki said later. “Now he took it away. I’m really disappointed with myself, really.”
Some players and captains in Madrid have argued that this new version of tennis’s oldest and most prestigious team competition should no longer be called the Davis Cup, that it is too different in form and tone to carry the name forward.
“This is not the Davis Cup anymore,” said Fabrice Santoro, the former French Davis Cup player, who was against the radical reform of the event. “It’s another competition now, one that is trying to find its way.”
But the emotions at least seemed familiar on Friday. Davis Cup has had a cruel streak since its founding in 1900.
After a wealthy American Harvard student, Dwight Filley Davis, came up with the concept and bought the silver trophy, a team of British players spent nine days on a boat crossing the Atlantic Ocean, only to lose in a hurry to the Americans at Longwood Cricket Club in Boston.
Tennis is an individual sport at its core, and the transition to playing for a team and a broader cause has not been for every champion. Jimmy Connors barely and grudgingly played Davis Cup. Bjorn Borg won it once and then never played again, which is the same approach Roger Federer has taken since helping lead Switzerland to its only title, in 2014.
While players from 18 nations have gathered for these Finals in Madrid, Federer and the young German star Alexander Zverev have been playing to consistently bigger crowds on an exhibition tour in Latin America.
Federer’s timing, for a change, was not excellent. This Cup, fighting for attention on a crowded calendar, needs all the help it can get.
And if the competition can generate tension and tears, as it did again on Friday, there is still something worth fighting for.
Novak Djokovic’s presence helped give the event credibility, and despite the accumulated fatigue of a lengthy season and a busy final stretch, he won three singles matches in Madrid.
His 6-3, 6-3 victory over Karen Khachanov of Russia on Friday tied that quarterfinal at 1-1. Whichever team won the doubles would advance. Djokovic rarely plays doubles and has a losing career record in it, but he is also one of the best returners and singles players in history.
With the quarterfinal on the line, he took a 30-minute break and returned to the court to partner with Troicki. Their younger opponents — Khachanov and Andrey Rublev — have played a lot more doubles together lately than Troicki and Djokovic.
But both teams rose to the occasion, coming up with clutch serves and timely poaches, with much of the action — this being modern-day doubles — happening on the baseline.
Djokovic knocked a ball into the stands in frustration at one stage. Troicki quaked with rage at the chair umpire, James Keothavong, after an overrule. Djokovic got treatment for his troublesome right elbow, on which he had surgery in 2018.
But after more than two hours, the Serbs were poised to close out the victory in the third-set tiebreaker.
On their first match point at 6-5, Troicki served to Rublev and missed a tricky half volley into the net. On their second match point at 7-6, Rublev poached and made a sensational, angled backhand volley winner.
Then came the Serbs’ third at 8-7. Troicki had both time and opportunity, but knocked a manageable forehand volley long from a position of strength near the net.
He and Djokovic both looked shaken, and after Troicki missed a backhand return into the net two points later, the Russians had a 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (8) victory and were heading to a semifinal on Saturday against Canada.
Djokovic consoled Troicki, but he needed some comforting of his own. The emotions were still raw as the Serbian team soon arrived at its news conference.
“Of course it hurts; it hurts us really badly, me personally as well,” Djokovic said. “There’s not much to say. These kind of matches happen once in maybe forever, and that’s it. The season is done, and we’re turning the next page. Next morning is going to be different.”
Djokovic was red-eyed, and before the conference ended, Troicki and Filip Krajinovic, who lost the opening singles match to Rublev on Friday, were in tears again. So was the captain, Nenad Zimonjic, the imposing former doubles star who was on the winning team in 2010 with Troicki, Djokovic and Janko Tipsarevic.
This was Tipsarevic’s last event before retirement, and the team had wanted to send the former top 10 player off in style.
“It was very emotional because it was Janko’s last,” Zimonjic said, breaking down as Djokovic tried to help by patting his leg.
After composing himself, Zimonjic explained that it was not so much the defeat that hurt but the end of an era, one in which all of Serbia’s “golden generation” chased the Davis Cup together after becoming tennis stars in the shadow of the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia. That the era ended on neutral ground in a stadium that was, again, far from full did not strip the moment of its meaning to the players.
“A few of the guys apologized to me,” Tipsarevic said. “I don’t accept those apologies, because none of them let me down all over these 20 years. I disagree with you, Viktor, that God took this away from you.”
For Tipsarevic, the achievement and emotions of 2010 remain untouched. Only time will tell if the new Davis Cup can have the same staying power.