BOSTON — Anthems play. Flags wave. Crowds scream. Globally, among all annual sporting events between national teams, the Davis Cup remains one of the grandest.
But as the competition kicks off its centennial today with the United States playing Britain in Birmingham, England, the one question being asked is, "Has David Cup tennis gone out of style in the US?" - the nation that invented it, dominated it, and popularized it?
Player apathy and a paucity of fan appreciation are being blamed for the diminished popularity of Davis Cup on the American sports landscape.
"If the Davis Cup had feelings, it would be insulted at the callous way it's being treated," says Todd Martin, the No. 1 player on the US team. "The individuals who don't play Davis Cup have lost sight of its importance."
That remark was a pointed reference to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, top American players who have decided to skip the event. The No. 1-ranked Sampras has said that playing tournaments and maintaining his ranking have priority over national duty.
Besides, he says, the American public has not responded enthusiastically to Davis Cup competition, and he cites the muted reception to the US win in 1995.
For Agassi, it's personal. His relationship with Harry Marmion, the recently replaced president of the US Tennis Association, became so soured that the Olympic champion vowed never to play for the US again.
Worldwide, however, interest in the Davis Cup has continued to grow. Last year 131 nations participated, 16 of them in the elite World Group. The other teams must win their way into that group.
The Americans, who have won the most Davis Cup titles (31), may face the ignominy of forfeiting their place in the elite group if they lose to Britain.
The British team has reason to be confident. It includes Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, ranked No. 7 and No. 11 respectively in the world. The US is represented by Todd Martin (No. 10), Jan-Michael Gambill (No. 46), and Jim Courier (No. 54).
Britain also holds the home-court advantage. Unlike at most tournaments, fans at Davis Cup matches are fiercely partisan and try to help their team to victory.
As the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of the tournament started by Dwight Davis, a wealthy young Harvard student, John McEnroe has emerged as the leading cheerleader. In a forward to the book "The Davis Cup," the former champion and tennis commentator writes:
"The Davis Cup offered me more immediate pleasure than almost anything else I accomplished in my career. My parents had brought me up to believe that it was an honor to be asked to play for and represent your country...."