Challenge Round: Davis Cup Alternative in the Works

Friday, November 05, 2010 /by

The International Tennis Federation may not have to worry about fending off Davis Cup “reformers” for much longer, but it may have to come to grips with an even greater problem—a direct challenge to the status of Davis Cup, posed by a similar international, nations-based competition for the pros.

This one, while retaining many features of Davis Cup (zone-based competition [in the Americas, Europe and Asia] and home-and-away ties in preliminary rounds), would also feature signature changes that many reformers have lobbied for: An expanded format of seven matches—rubbers, in conventional Davis Cup patois—featuring both men and women pros, and a compressed, two-week schedule, culminating in a four-team grand finale played at the home ground of the defending champion.

“We love Davis Cup and respect what the ITF has done with it,” says Butch Buchholz, an architect of the event and the driving force behind the hugely successful ATP/WTA combined tournament in Key Biscayne. “But they want their way, we want ours…So we’ve started down the path to making this happen because we’ve become convinced that the constituents of the ITF (the 205 member nations) and the managers of the Davis Cup don’t want to change.”

This new “World Cup”-style event, which Buchholz and his associates hope to launch in 2013 and (probably) play every other year, is the brainchild of blooded tennis insiders—veterans of the growing pains tennis experienced as it entered the Open Era in 1968. There’s Mike Davies, who has been working on reinventing the Davis Cup for nearly a decade. He’s a pioneer of the pro game and worked for Lamar Hunt, founder of the original pro tour, World Championship Tennis.

Then there’s Buchholz, one of the original “Handsome Eight” who signed pro contracts with Hunt. He is a former Davis Cup player who was often ranked in the U.S. Top 10 before the advent of computer rankings. Over time, Buchholz became one of the most passionate, ardent and innovative advocates of the advancing pro game.

One sure sign of the plan’s credibility is the allies that Davies and Buchholz have quietly solicited—both the ATP and WTA are aware of their plan, and have given it the stamp of approval. This is partly because the promoters want to make the tours’ pension funds a beneficiary of tournament profits. “The reaction in the locker room has been very positive,” Buchholz says. “We feel this has to be driven by the tours and the interest of television broadcasters. The toughest thing would be clearing the weeks on the calendar. But I think the players are ready, and television is ready so we feel it can be done.”

Buchholz believes that international broadcasters will like the combined format, and the “final four” approach to the finals. It will allow them to cherry-pick the matches—singles, doubles and mixed doubles—and ties for a broad range of domestic and foreign audiences.

Buchholz says Davies took the plan to the ITF many years ago, only to find himself rebuffed, reciting the same litany as many other activists who have floated plans for streamlining Davis Cup. Top players often decline to play Davis Cup because the alternating-site format and scheduling placement makes it difficult for them to plan their season, or be in top competitive form for the event. But those features are holy to the ITF.

Francesca Ricci Bitti
ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti, a staunch supporter of Davis Cup, says the competition is doing quite well as it stands. (AP Photo)
The response from the ITF has been measured. “We are open and we listen to everybody,” ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti told me via telephone from San Diego yesterday, “We have heard rumors of this kind. We discussed this plan with Mike Davies about seven years ago and followed the talk up with a letter, asking them to please be in touch with us. But there was no more communication.”

The reason for the breakdown in communication is that the ITF has four non-negotiable elements in its vision of Davis Cup, and Davis and Buchholz say they recognize that their plan would never win ITF approval. The four pillars on which the ITF insists are:

1. Maintenance of the alternating-site format, which ensures that teams take turns hosting ties when they meet. This feature not only takes Davis Cup, and some marquee names, to places where they might never otherwise be seen, it also levels the playing field between the tennis haves and have-nots. A final four approach, hosted by the reigning champion, cuts at the heart of that concept.

2. Annual competition. The ITF is committed to having a Davis Cup tournament every year, even though it means the defending champion may be knocked out just months after winning the previous year’s title. Many reformers feel that Davis Cup ought to be held every other year.

3. Nomination by federation. One way that the various national federations retain some power (and, according to the ITF, are able to grow the game at the grass roots), is the rule that stipulates that the federations (like the USTA, or the French Tennis Federation), choose the players for every match, or tie. This theoretically strengthens the relationship between players, especially top players, and the domestic establishment from which they emerged.

4. Adherence to the rules of tennis. This is a bit of a catch-22, in that the ITF wants to retain the present ground rules, which calls for a best-of-five match format, and a team featuring as few as two players.

“Our member nations are very happy with Davis Cup,” Ricci Bitti insisted. “They like the atmosphere created by the alternating site format, and the commercial success of the event has been good. Davis Cup actually is in better shape than many tournaments, as you can see from the numbers of people in a stadium at any Davis Cup tie.”

As for Buchholz’s belief that Davis Cup would benefit from a more television-friendly format, Ricci Bitti said: “Our ambition is not to be ‘commercial,’ but to help grow the game of tennis at the grass roots through many things, including the excitement of Davis Cup. My mission is not to make the most money for the ITF, it is to promote the game of tennis to all of our member nations.”

Ricci Bitti likes to point out that in soccer, national teams play six or seven matches per year as part of the qualifying regimen for World Cup. “With the exception of the teams that make it to the Davis Cup final, most Davis Cup players participate for two weeks. The average for Davis Cup players is 2.3 weeks of competition per year. When you look at the success World Cup of soccer achieves, and what Davis Cup has been and can be, we feel that any problem we have is not because we are asking the players to play too much.”

Of course, perception is reality, and the theme that Davis Cup asks too much of the players—at least, the top players—is one of the most common ones to haunt the competition.

“We’re really in our infancy with this,” Buchholz says. “But I believe an event like the one we’re planning could be the biggest event after the Grand Slams, with the greatest amount of prize money.”

Peter Bodo is a senior editor for TENNIS.

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