It is hardly an uncommon sight to see teams being cheered for at sporting events, and indeed, teams are often the biggest draw for even the biggest of sports fans. That fervour only increases exponentially with the chance to cheer for one's country, a sentiment Indian cricket fans, in particular, know all too well. The IPL certainly has loyalists to each team " and strong loyalists at that, but come June, all those team rivalries will make way for just India once the World Cup rolls around. But for tennis, the most highly-regarded individual sport there is, alongside golf, the average sports fan's experience exists in a sanitised, quiet environment, one most familiar to attendees and watchers of Majors, Premier and Masters tournaments. The Fed Cup, however, is a different creature " one that is alive, full of energy, with fans raucous in supporting their teams, waving flags, and breaking into chants, cheers and songs in an environment that wouldn't be out place at a Premier League game.
Already granted stepmotherly treatment to men's tennis, women's tennis is often an afterthought to the common sports-watcher, unless one of a handful of players is on the court. Team tennis is its own behemoth, one more than worthy of its own spotlight. The premier event in women's team tennis, The Fed Cup has officially existed for the past 50 years, and most, if not all of tennis' biggest names, have been a part of it " Jelena Jankovic and Petra Kvitova, for starters. Still, somehow, it has not had the attention it truly merits.
The Fed Cup has this year, and in the years before it, brought women's tennis together in a way that transcends player loyalties, fandoms, and helps the sport shake at least part of its elitist tag, and that shake-up could significantly help its image entirely.
In a sport that is so focused on individual performance by the very nature of the game, country-based team tennis offers watchers of that sport the opportunity to support their country, and celebrate the very idea of a team. With bands, spectator chants and fans of all ages coming out in droves to watch each Fed Cup match, the environment is lively and pulsating in a way not normally associated with tennis. Billie Jean King once said "tennis is a very lonely sport" and indeed, when people look at the successes of Serena Williams and Roger Federer " and King herself, it might bring to mind the phrase "it's lonely at the top." All the pressure in the singles is on one person and then, the game becomes as much about your physical prowess as it does dealing with pressure. Team"oriented tennis distributes that load among doubles ties, and also gives players a positive, constructive environment with those from their own fraternity, those who also happen to be the people occasionally on the other side of the net, competing against them.
Many of tennis' top names have won the Fed Cup " and even for those who have had their individual glories already, the chance to win big for their country is a different experience altogether. Just ask Andy Murray, who was instrumental in 2016 in winning Great Britain's first ever Davis Cup title since Fred Perry had 77 years earlier. At the time, English media had erupted in celebration of Murray " and the team's win, and who can blame them? Closer home, a Paes-Bhupathi title, a Sania Mirza win and now, Prajnesh Gunneswaran's incredible rise up the rankings, has seen Indians cheer for one of their own. That sentiment, translated to a team, is a powerful one, one that channelled the right way, could do wonders for both player and team.
Some might perceive that the tennis being at a league level has meant that the quality of the game has been lower, which could not be further from the truth. The Fed Cup is not a Major, or a Premier Mandatory tournament, but it is the Fed Cup. Each of the ties last week " Australia vs Belarus, Great Britain vs Kazakhstan, France vs Romania " had top levels of tennis on court, each time from Grand Slam winners on at least one side of the net.
The past week has seen high-stakes tennis from among the best in the game, World No. 2 Simona Halep, and former No. 1s Victoria Azarenka and GarbiÃ±e Muguruza, and each of last week's ties made some big, exciting stories that were entertaining, dramatic and more " things one might not have expected from a tennis game. Former Roland-Garros winning-pair Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia, who have not been on talking terms for a few years, came back together for their country to steer France to a 3"2 win over Romania, and the chance for the country's first Fed Cup win since 2003 after beating the current World No. 2 Simona Halep.
Indeed, so many players have had the time of their lives, and played out of their skins on the court at the Fed Cup already. British No. 1 Johanna Konta was part of the GB attack against Kazakhstan, while up-and-coming talent Katie Boulter, once struggling with a back injury, was instrumental in winning Britain's tie and propelling them to the World Group for the first time in 25 years, with a theoretical chance at lifting the trophy once again. It also put the spotlight on Boulter, who proved her mettle on court against the best. Anne Keothavong, who played on Britain's 2012 Fed Cup team, returned this time round as their coach and captain " full circle in its truest sense.
With TV " and streaming " coverage strangely lacking, many tennis figures called for more attention. Is it merely the case that people are not interested? That does not seem to be the case, with large numbers present at the courts, talking about the tournament on social media, and cheering their teams on. It is key, then, to build on that love, that attention and those loyalties so players " and the sport " finds interest from an audience that it previously may not have had.
India, particularly, would do well to pay attention to the Fed Cup. While the Davis Cup still receives some attention, the Fed Cup " which features strong Indian talent in the form of Karman Kaur Thandi, Ankita Raina and Pranjala Yadlapalli, need that spotlight " as do our own authorities. Attention to the ties played in India would mean a necessity to consistently upgrade India's otherwise lacking tennis infrastructure, and bring much-needed attention to players who have fallen under the radar, and not for lack of talent, either.
Sport has always been about big stories, about comebacks and teams. Now, Australia " spearheaded by Grand Slam doubles winners Sam Stosur and Ashleigh Barty " have made their first Fed Cup final in 43 years, taking on a country that last won in 2003 with a completely different team. Are dramatic stories and big wins not a big part of why we, as humans, enjoy sport so much? The ability to watch trials, tribulations and big successes is as much a part of watching sport as the actual, physical gameplay " and the Fed Cup has had them aplenty.
Now, more than ever, it is important that the Fed Cup receives the attention it deserves. The Fed Cup truly does offer something for everyone: for fans, the chance to enjoy tennis outside a staid, sanitised environment and enjoy themselves as they may not be able to on another stage " and for players, the chance to play for something bigger than themselves.