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For self and country

  The philosopher Michel de Montaigne – seen here in a 1578 portrait by Dumonstier – believed you should “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” Was he a tennis player?

The philosopher Michel de Montaigne – seen here in a 1578 portrait by Dumonstier – believed you should “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” Was he a tennis player?

Well, thank goodness Davis Cup is back. Sports have been in a bit of a doldrums since the Super Duper Bowl and the Aussie Open. But the Cup – the men’s team competition, pitting nation against nation – has returned for another season, although as usual, the cast keeps changing.

Fed’s out this year, having added the Cup – the one trophy missing from his case – last year. On the other hand Nole’s back. And Andy, bless ’im, keeps rolling with it. Say what you want about Andy, but he’s one of the more consistent Cup players among the top 10.

The New York Times has written that the effect of this revolving door is that fans rarely get to see the marquee names in action against one another in Cup competition. That may be true, but I would argue that it doesn’t necessarily deprive the Cup of drama. Just when it looked like the Brits would walk along over us Yanks, the Bryans (Bob and Mike) took the doubles to keep American hopes alive for Sunday, March 8. And Novak Djokovic made a surprise doubles appearance for Serbia Saturday after winning his singles match a day earlier against Croatia. In the reverse-singles Sunday, he’s slated to face off against the player experts consider to be Baby Nole, “teen starlet” (that’s what CNN calls him) Borna Coric. Indeed, Nole teammate Viktor Troicki was supposed to be in the doubles match instead of Nole, but he was so drained from his five-set victory over Borna on Friday, that coach Bogdan Obradovic decided to go with Nole. 

"We wanted to finish the job today, to take advantage of the fact that we won the first singles and that was done," Djokovic was quoted as saying in the CNN article. Serbia – which won the Cup in 2010, a moment that foreshadowed Nole’s rise to the top – now moves on to the quarterfinals.

Nole’s and Fed’s different attitudes to the Cup this year suggest two different philosophical views on the question: What do we owe others in this world and what do we owe ourselves? It’s a question that drives  “Water Music,” the first novel in my series “The Games Men Play.” Tennis players Alex Vyranos and Alí Iskandar and swimmers Daniel Reiner-Kahn and Dylan Roqué play for God, country, family and, finally, themselves.  But they can’t help but wonder, How much is enough? 

For Roger Federer, the answer would seem to be “Enough is enough.”

Here’s Christopher Clarey writing in The New York Times’ article:

Federer fought the clock and a significant back problem to make it on court and help (the Swiss) beat the French in last year’s final. Now, less than four months later, he would rather save himself the hassle and the energy at age 33. He will instead play a lucrative exhibition match against Grigor Dimitrov on Tuesday (World Tennis Day) at Madison Square Garden.’
“ ‘I always feel there is so much guilt put on you from the (Swiss) federation or from the (International Tennis Federation), more so than anybody else,’ Federer said of the Davis Cup last week on his way to the title in Dubai. “So I’m happy I was able to finally tick that off and do it.’
“Federer made it clear that he played the Davis Cup from start to finish last season more to address his teammates’ wishes than his own. He also made it clear that it had been more of a burden than a pleasure through the years.”

Fed’s response reminds me of the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s dictum: “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” And while it may seem selfish, it’s pragmatic as you age in what is perhaps the most individualistic of sports.

Nole, on the other hand, tends to feed off the patriotic aspect of both the Cup and the Olympics, perhaps because Serbia has less materially than Switzerland. And his country in turn nourishes him. Or as CNN noted of his surprise Saturday doubles appearance, “He was cheered on by a packed and passionate home crowd at the Kraljevo Sports Center.”

I love Michel de Montaigne. (Who couldn’t love a man who retired young to spend the rest of his life thinking and writing in his library of 1,500 books?) And I’ve often suggested to people who are taken advantage of to consider his advice. But I think I prefer the saying on my Precious Moments’ plaque: “Those who give have all things.”