If It Ain't Broke. . .
Two housekeeping notes first:
I was remiss in not announcing last week that Heidi's computer blew up and she was unable to produce a Deuce Club OT post. Fear not, she will be back in action tomorrow, and PLEASE - if you have a photo of yourself, your house, your cat, your stick-shift auto, send it along to our social director (Heidi), and fell free to copy me.
Second, for those of you who have agonized over ESPN's decision to drop coverage of the upcoming US Masters Series events, you'll find relief coming your way via Fox Sports Network's decision to up its stake in tennis.
And FYI, I predict that ESPN is going to make a serious run at securing coverage of the U.S. Open, but not for at least another year.
Meanwhile, we have Davis Cup just around the corner and we'll be focusing on that in the coming days. One of the most irritating tropes that comes up in discussions about the state of the game is the idea that Davis Cup must be changed. Usually, the reasons given are that nobody watches, understands, or covers it, and that the (maximum) commitment of four weeks is just too much of a burden to lay on the shoulders of the top players.
The first of these reasons is almost exclusively a US-based complaint that is losing resonance in direct proportion to the decline of American might in tennis. It isn't DC's fault that sports editors at newspapers and television stations either don't have a clue about the significance and history of Davis Cup, or parrot their colleagues in dismissing it as a minor event. And does anyone really believe that if they held the entire Davis Cup competition in, say, Buenos Aires, over a two-week period, those same editors would suddenly assign reporters and columnists to cover it?
The second complaint is one that has more universal appeal, partly because as tradition-minded and compliant a player as Roger Federer has employed it to explain his decision to put less emphasis on Davis Cup than on majors and ranking points.
But the operative word here is "emphasis." What it really comes down to is the relative importance players assign to Davis Cup. In that regard, it hurts the competition that no rankings points are awarded for Davis Cup performance, and that the event is relatively liquid - you may know when you play next, but you don't necessarily know who you play, or where, and on what surface. Federer is particularly hurt in this regard, because he still lacks a reliable singles stablemate - something that would be less of a problem if the surface and identity of potential competitors would be written in stone.
So the real issue is, are we asking too much of the players to X-out those Davis Cup weeks on the calendar? Let's take a look:
This week is the first round of Davis Cup; in terms of the actual play, it takes place 12 days after the end of the Australian Open. The only singles players who have fewer than two full weeks of rest (unless they chose to play last week) for the competition are Jo-Wifried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic. Andy Roddick, the team leader of the defending Cup holders (US), has had three weeks to prepare and think about Davis Cup; James Blake, the US No. 2, has had almost as long.
The second Davis Cup week begins April 7th (and keep in mind, there is no play at all until the final three days of each Davis Cup "week"). This is a tough DC weeks, because it comes right on the heels of the two big US hard court Masters events. Some of you will remember how the US "Dream Team" of 1995 dealt with this issue, at a time when the top two US players (Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras) were just entering the greatest phase of their rivalry.
Neither player wanted to play Davis Cup, especially if the other did not. Yet both men knew that skipping the Davis Cup would make them look selfish and indifferent to the mission of carrying on the great US Davis Cup tradition (You may notice that even some resolute Davis Cup bashers demand that the playeres make themselves available, and are the first to protest when they don't). So, together with Third Man Jim Courier, they got together in a hotel room in Indian Wells and essentially decided: If none of us wants to play, the only fair thing is for all of us to play. . .
And so it was: Sampras and Agassi were selected to play the singles. Shortly after Agassi beat Sampras in a classic, 7-6 in the third Miami final, the two men hopped on a private jet and flew to New York. They caught Agassi's new girlfriend, Brooke Shields, on Broadway in Grease, stopped by the dressing room to say hi, and the next day continued on to Palermo, Italy. There, they made short work of an overmatched Italian squad.
The third Davis Cup week begins Sept. 15, under conditions almost identical to those that characterize the first week. But for the US Open finalists, the players have a full two weeks of rest (although taking full advantage means missing lesser tournaments). First week losers in New York have a full three weeks, and remember, by this time we are down to four teams - meaning eight singles players, plus the odd-man substitute or dead-rubber player.
The Davis Cup final will be on November 17th, which will be the toughest week of all for any DC hand who also qualified for the Shanghai ATP Masters final. By this time, the players are running on fumes. Wherever the final is played, it's unlikely to be anywhere near Shanghai. A DC player who needed to secure his place in the Final 8 is coming off the demanding and debilitating European indoor circuit. The good news is that the ATP will be leaving Shanghai for London in 2009, which at least will solve that problem.
So, all in all, is Davis Cup such a big ask? I don't think it is, physically - at least not for the bulk of Davis Cup players. What does hurt the bulk of Davis Cup players is the hit their rankings might take if they miss the point-gathering opportunities on either side of a DC week. Yet the bulk of those players support Davis Cup more reliably than many top stars, and their "real" schedules. Of course, in terms of actual matches played, it's the stars who do most of the heavy lifting and experience the fatigue that comes with the job.
I'd like to see every eligible player decide that Davis Cup duty ranks right behind Grand Slam booty in the grand scheme of things. X-out those DC weeks on the calendar, and be prepared to hustle and flow if, by some chance, Davis Cup turns out unexpectedly.
Just as important, I don't see any quick fixes for the competition in sight:
1 - Bonus ranking points? - They wouldn't be fair to those who didn't make the team, or those whose squads lost early in the competition, denying them a chance to rack up further points.
2 - Adopt and one-place, two-week tournament-style format? - Crazy. It eliminates so much of what is great about DC, and disproportionately favors the haves over the have-nots (it's a safe bet that the DC tournament will never be held in Brno, Czech Republic). Besides the Fed Cup engineers once thought this one-time, one-place approach would be their salvation, but the results were discouraging.
3 - Stretch the competition over two years? - No matter how you look at it, this amounts to down-sizing. And who's to say the players wouldn't cite the same reasons for skipping it, except twice instead of four times a year?
4 - Re-institute the "Challenge Round" - Okay, nobody floats this idea. But it's worth re-visiting this discredited approach (the format, in which the winner sat out until a challenger fought his way to the final, was used until 1972; the format was then altered again in 1981, with the advent of World Group play). The main advantage of having a Challenge Round is that it rewards the champ. You could also give a bye to the losing finalist, reducing that squad's work load the following year to three matches, while the other contenders battle out under the present structure.
A Challenge Round approach might seem to equate with a "rich get richer" scheme, but its unlikely that anyone in today's robust environment would sit back and knock off one challenger after another, year after year. It would also ensure more of a horse race leading up to the final, although that is not currently a problem for Davis Cup. The wealth has never been more broadly spread. At the end of the day, though, I don't see this option as substantially altering Davis Cup.
So, since there is no logical and easily supportable alternate to the current format (or none that doesn't essentially change the nature of the beast), I fall back on the old bit of folk wisdom: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.