Photo: Taylor Soule
The Davis Cup is the premier team competition in all of tennis, with the best tennis players from 137 countries being selected to compete for their nations.
The competition is divided into multiple groups, with the world’s elite players and teams in the World Group, followed by Group I, Group II and Group III. The rules at their most basic level are quite simple: Win and you move on to the next round. Lose and you are done for the season, facing the possibility of being demoted into a lower group.
Last summer, Drake junior Anis Ghorbel was selected as one of four players to represent his home country of Tunisia in a Group II match against Ireland.
“I’ve been on the Davis Cup team since I was 18,” Ghorbel said. “I was selected because I was playing really well in national tournaments, and I was the best in my age group at the time.”
Ghorbel’s first Davis Cup match was on July 18, 2008 against Slovenia. Ghorbel lost the match and Tunisia eventually lost the match 1-4 to Slovenia.
“It was tough because all the other guys were like seven years older than me with more experience,” Ghorbel said.
The Federation called upon Ghorbel once again in 2009 for a match against Morocco, and that time he competed in doubles for the first time. The loss to Morocco kept Tunisia in Group III for the start of 2010, but Ghorbel couldn’t partake in the competition. While Ghorbel was busy competing for the Bulldogs last season, the Tunisian team earned wins over Benin, Ghana, Cameroon and Algeria to move them back into Group II.
After losing a Group II match to Great Britain in March 2011, the Tunisian squad was set to play Ireland on July 8 to determine if they would remain in Group II or be moved down to Group III.
“I was at Drake in spring semester last year when I got an email from the Federation, like three months before the actual event, saying that I was selected to play against Ireland,” Ghorbel said. “And that I’m now the No. 2 player on the team.”
Tunisia’s top player, Malek Jaziri, has been a staple of the Tunisia Davis Cup team the past few years, as the current world No. 96 has played in 50 matches for his home country. Being named the second best player behind Jaziri was a huge step forward for Ghorbel in his tennis career.
Immediately after Drake’s NCAA tournament run ended last year, Ghorbel was on a plane back to Tunisia to begin practicing with his team.
The match officially began on July 8 at the David Lloyd Riverview Lawn Tennis Club in Dublin, Ireland. Ghorbel was in the first match of the day against then-world No. 110 Conor Niland.
Ghorbel actually earned a set point to take the lead in the first set, but Niland saved that to capture the first set. From then on, Niland’s superior conditioning and experience opened the flood gates. Ghorbel eventually lost 6-4, 6-2, 6-1.
“I felt like I was right there with him in the first set, but he was just so much more experienced in the end,” Ghorbel said. “The Irish crowd was just so loud, and he played better than me in the important points, but it was a big match for me to learn from.”
The day ended with the teams all tied up at 1-1, as Jaziri had defeated Ireland’s Barry King in straight sets in the second match of the day. On the second day, Jaziri and Ghorbel combined to play in the No. 1 doubles match.
“I had a long conversation with our coach before the doubles match, and he told me, ‘listen, you are playing really well, so don’t be stressed, just go play your tennis,’” Ghorbel said.
The advice must have worked because Ghorbel and Jaziri won their doubles match in straight sets against Niland and James Cluskey. The 6-4, 7-6, 7-6 win moved Tunisia to a 2-1 lead.
“I played one of the best doubles matches in my life that day because I just forgot about everything besides the tennis,” Ghorbel said.
In the third and final day of competition, Jaziri faced off against Niland of Ireland. Niland took out Tunisia’s best in three straight sets, 7-5, 7-5, 6-1, to level the match at 2-2. Tunisia’s Davis Cup fate now rested on Ghorbel’s racquet. If Ghorbel won, Tunisia would stay in Group II and Ireland would be relegated to the lower Group III. If Ghorbel lost, Tunisia would be back down to Group III.
Ghorbel showed no sign of nerves to start out the match against Ireland’s King, though, as the young Tunisian jumped out to a 5-3 lead in the first set. But Ghorbel was soon broken back, and he eventually lost the first set in the tiebreaker. After that, Ghorbel simply couldn’t keep up with the more experienced King. After two days of best-of-five-set tennis, his body had hit the wall.
“After losing the first set, my legs were completely gone, and I wasn’t in it mentally anymore,” Ghorbel said. “For me, it was just different, more than my body was ready to deal with.”
Despite the loss, Ghorbel’s teammate Jaziri had nothing but praise for the young Tunisian.
“He is a very good doubles player,” Jaziri said of Ghorbel. “He also has courage and likes to play for his country.”
When Ghorbel came back to Drake for this season, he immediately talked to Drake head coach Evan Austin about things he had learned from his Davis Cup matches and how he could incorporate new aspects into his game.
“I learned a lot from the matches against Ireland last summer because I realized I wasn’t far from their level of tennis,” Ghorbel said. “They had more energy on and knew they could grind it out on the court.”
Austin and the strength and conditioning staff at Drake began to work with Ghorbel before the fall season. The extra work started to pay off almost immediately as Ghorbel won the Drake Invitational and reached the finals of the ITA Midwest Regional.
“I was just ready in my legs for more matches,” Ghorbel said. “When you are ready physically, you are ready mentally too.
The loss to Ireland moved Tunisia back into Group III, where the Tunisian team will have to be one of two teams to move on out of the group’s round robin format back into the higher level of competition. This summer’s round robin will be against seven African teams, and the event will be in Tunisia. Ghorbel has once again been selected to play for his country, and he believes his success this year for the Bulldogs will help Tunisia move back into Group II.