The Stupidest Idea. Ever.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 /by

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by Pete Bodo

Well, it looks like all the Davis Cup bashers out there have reason to hope: Novak Djokovic has spilled the beans on a player-driven initiative to institute a competition that, if adopted, would amount to a death knell for Davis Cup. Big deal, Davis Cup is outdated and irrelevant, right? It's been around for over 110 years, which makes it almost as hoary and pointless as, say, the U.S. Constitution. The only people who care about Davis Cup are troglodytes and hopelessly out-of-touch old people. Who needs 'em?

Novak Djokovic was the point man on making this announcement. I guess his nose is really out of joint, now that Andy Roddick and James Blake have announced that they won't be traveling with the U.S. Davis Cup squad that plays at Serbia in March. Let him vent - getting things off his chest now can only enhance his chances at the Australian Open, and this is a guy who needs another big win (as in "major") as badly as anyone, save Andy Roddick. Besides, it wouldn't be fair to associate this proposal exclusively or even mainly with the Djoker. Apparently, it's the brainchild of the the ATP Player Council, which it means it's about boys trying to be men. Not that there's anything wrong with that - until you see what they've come up with.

So let's take a look at this dissident proposal.

The competition is conceived of as biennial, meaning every other year. That would certainly free up at least four weeks of the "off" year, leaving room for a longer off-season, although the outcry for a longer off-season sounds a lot better when it echoes out of the fall indoor season than the week before Christmas. When it comes to creating a longer off-season, all I can say to both players and fans is, Be careful what you wish for. Besides, wasn't it Roger Federer, who plays more matches than almost anyone else on the tour, who said just the other week that tennis players do just fine if they get the periodic two or three week breaks from serious competition?

If you're familiar with the law of unintended consequences, you can see how the most significant result of a longer off-season would be tennis falling down a six-week or two-month sinkhole when everybody but the diehard tennis addict forgets that the game even exists. I still haven't figured out why so many players seem hellbent on eliminating playing opportunities; it's like going in to your supervisor for your annual review and demanding a cut in hours and a commensurate cut in pay.

In tennis, we don't have any of those elements that keep other sports, already more popular to begin with, in the public eye - the NFL draft, pre-season training camps, post-season playoffs. Count me with those who think the last thing tennis needs is a longer off-season. We just need to be less alarmed and literal-minded when all those grouchy players begin to complain about fatigue near the end of the year. Smile, nod, say, "Of course, Novak" - and watch how quickly those guys suddenly want to start playing again, after a few weeks off.

Tennis is an interval-based sport, but feel free to destroy the model, fellas.

After I check on just how resonant and closely-watched biennial events are in other sports, I'm going to ask a simple question: Just who is going to pony up the dough for an event that threatens Davis Cup and will be even more costly to set-up and run than a new Grand Slam event?  The ITF has already issued a frosty press release in defense of Davis Cup (I can't find it yet on the ITF website, but it's bound to turn up there soon). The ATP?  It has enough to worry about, trying to find sponsors for things like its Masters 1000 series. Some angel of mercy sponsor, in the present world economy? Former pro Richey Reneberg has worked for mega-rich financier and convicted felon George Soros. Maybe get Richey on the horn. . .

There's always Donald Trump. He likes to make big statements, maybe the ATP can get him on board if it agrees to call this thing the Trump World Cup of Tennis. It may not have the same ring as, say, Wimbledon, or Davis Cup, but give it time, and hope (The Donald is patient enough to see if this event can get a broadcast deal with the BCN (Bowling and Curling Network). My guess is that nobody with the kind of money to stake this thing would go anywhere near it - at least not without the kinds of guarantees to which the players would never agree.

Then there's this: Roger Federer has said that the Grand Slam events and Olympic games are his top priorities. Why would Federer (or anyone who takes a similar position) decide to throw his weight behind this kind of start-up?  So he can sow seeds for future players who want to represent their nations, but don't want to do it under the present format? To heck with Grand Slam titles 17-23, I'm going to build something that my grandkids can watch on BCN.

One thing I've learned over the years is that when people say they really, really want to do something, only they just can't because this or that aspect of the job doesn't really meet their personal needs, they're really just saying, I'm not that into it. Players who love to play for their nations find a way to do it; those who don't find excuses. I don't have a problem with it, either way, although I know which side I come down on in the debate over Davis Cup.

Ivan Ljubicic was quoted in the BBC story I linked, and my only word of advice to the ATP is that it ought to stuff Ljubicic back into the closet, pronto, and try to get Roger or Rafa to throw his weight behind this project. Ljubicic is a good guy and a fine player, but do you think the marketing representatives of Microsoft, Donald Trump, or Macrohard are running to the phones right now to urge their CEOs to sponsor this Tennis World Cup because. . . Ivan Ljubcic says he'd play this, but not Davis Cup! 

Note to Novak: don't just control the message. Control your choice of messenger.

Wimbledon taught tennis a great lesson over the years, which is that you can survive and prosper, even beyond your wildest dreams, by building on what you have, provided that what you have is in demand and viable, if not perfect. As successful as the U.S. and Australian Opens have been after moving from the private club to the public park, they haven't threatened to overshadow the more traditional majors, the French Open and Wimbledon. They'e just added great variety to the Grand Slam palette.

The ITF is not going to dismantle Davis Cup just because a couple of players want to start some cockamamie new venture, featuring things like a 25-second time clock (nice dig at Rafa, Novak!) and forced substitution during matches (Novak has kid brothers who play, right? Connect the dots). Who needs this whole one-on-one thing, anyway? It's outlived its usefulness, like Davis Cup. Imagine how great a match like the Federer-Roddick clash at Wimbledon might have been if only the Swiss were forced to yank Roger and insert Yves Allegro in the middle of the fourth set!

The last I checked, some high-value names, including Nadal, Roddick and del Potro, don't appear to have a deal-breaking aversion to Davis Cup. Will the ATP attempt to force them to play in the Trump World Cup of Tennis? Maybe the ATP can use this idea as a way to get free of the ITF (something the player organization takes a run at doing every so often), but then it better start coming up with a better mousetrap than the Grand Slam events, which also happen to be ITF-affiliated productions, and, with all due respect to the Gerry Weber Open, have done pretty well.

Ljubicic said: "Maybe it (Davis Cup) was perfect 20 or 30 years ago, but now it's really too much for us - best of five sets, three days in a row - and for sure the week after you can't play, the week before you can't play. And it's a shame because I'm 100% sure that every player would love to play for his nation."

That's right, keeping something good going, through thick and thin, for a whopping 25 years is a little like continuing to drive that 1985 Datsun in your driveway. It's so-o-o-o- last quarter-century! But wait. Wasn't it just a few years ago that a USA vs. Spain final at their place attracted the biggest crowd ever to watch a sanctioned tennis match? Pure luck, right? It just so happened that nearly 30,000 Spanish folks had nothing better to do that day than attend an irrelevant, outdated international team tennis event.

I'll give my favorite bald Croatian this much: he's right about the demand of Davis Cup. Boris Becker also pointed out that each tie amounts to something like a three-week commitment. But remember that only two teams each year do the heavy lifting through four rounds. Half of the World Group's 16 teams are gone after the first week of play, which happens at time when most of the players are sitting around wondering where their next paycheck is coming from anyway. 

It's pretty simple: if you don't want to take on the burden of representing your nation in Davis Cup, don't sign up to play. Just shut your pie-hole and put your feet up that week, or go off to play the Guadalajara exhibition. And try to get the sponsor to agree to a forced substitution rule, to make sure nobody mistakes the result as meaningful.

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