One More Roar?

Friday, November 05, 2010 /by

53460934 by Pete Bodo

By now, I assume most of you have read the home page exclusive on the plans to launch a competitor to the Davis Cup—a plan that's been 10 years in the making (in the mind of Mike Davies), and may become a reality as early as 2013 if Butch Buchholz, that old lion of tennis politics and promotion, has anything to do with it. Which he does. Buchholz, who's stepped down as the promoter of the Key Biscayne event he created, must feel like he has one more resounding roar to deliver.

Actually, the roles (and intertwined fates) of the two point men in this "World Cup of Tennis" (my phrase; as of yet, there is no official name for this international, nations-based competition), Mike Davis and Butch Buchholz, bear noting. Whatever you think of this full frontal assault on the ITF's Davis Cup—a competition that I and many others really do hold dear—one thing can't be denied: Davies and Buchholz are tennis men, through and through.

We're not talking about a couple of guys who, say, made a fortune during the mortgage crisis and now want to get their faces on ESPN or NBC. Both of them are entrepreneurial tennis insiders, and each one paid his dues and helped drag tennis kicking and screaming into the Open Era. They are not just FRL (Friends of Rod Laver), but also godfathers to the likes of Steffi Graf, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Chris Evert, Rafael Nadal, Martina Navratilova and Roger Federer.

Davies, now in his late 70s, is a former British No. 1, a past doubles finalist at Wimbledon and a Davis Cup player who accumulated a 24-13 record. He's also the guy whom you have to thank for the optic yellow tennis ball. He didn't invent it, but he made sure it was used when he served as the executive director of what was certainly the most "professional"—and probably the most promising—of the early attempts to organize the pro game, World Championship Tennis.

There are still those (and I'm one of them) who feel that tennis might be better off today had WCT not been killed off by, basically, a conspiracy among competitors who feared that Lamar Hunt (who conceived WCT) would grow too powerful and make of tennis something like he created when he helped found the American Football League (which eventually merged with its rival to create today's not-exactly-struggling NFL).

Nothing like the fear of success, right?

Oh, did I mention that Davies is also a former executive director of the ATP? And, ironically, let's remember that as the ITF's General Manager in the 1980s, Davies utterly revitalized...the Davis Cup.

Buchholz, like Davies, is a blooded veteran of the tennis wars, and he emerged one of the big winners thanks to the tournament that he founded (Key Biscayne) and built into, arguably, the fifth most prestigious event on the calendar, behind the Grand Slams. Unless you've been living under a rock these past three decades, you know about Buchholz.

One anecdote that Butch told me when we spoke the other day remains vivid as I try to sort out how I feel about this potential challenge to Davis Cup. "Back in the 1960s, the ITF rejected the plea I and some others were making to allow professionals to play at all the major events, alongside the amateurs (before Open tennis, which began in 1968, only amateurs were allowed to play at the Grand Slam events). Then, in 1967, Herman David, the chairman of the All England Club (Wimbledon), said, 'I'll let you come back and play here as professionals if you show me that you can fill the stadium. If you show me that the public still cares about Rod Laver and the rest of you."

Buchholz and company took up the offer, organized a pro tournament that was held at Wimbledon (I think it featured an eight-man field), and packed the house. "After that," Buchholz remembered, "It was a done deal. David said he didn't care what the ITF said or did, we would be welcome at WImbledon."

Perhaps the ITF has to undergo a similar crisis when it comes to Davis Cup, although it's important to remember that we're not just talking about allowing people to play here—we're talking about profoundly altering the format of a century-old event that has produced some of tennis's most storied moments—right up to the present day.

Perhaps, in an ever-shrinking world populated by tennis players who essentially become international citizens the moment they begin to achieve noteworthy success, that wonderful choice-of-ground rule isn't quite as important as it once was. Maybe in the arena-era, the idea that site selection produces an exotic and compelling background is more nostalgia and wishful thinking than reality. Will the arena used for the final in Belgrade in a few weeks time really feel like a piece of Serbia in any regard other than the preponderance of Serbs in attendance?

Buchholz told me that his shadow Davis Cup has great potential as a television spectacle; the ITF president, Francesco Ricci Bitti, told me that his job isn't to make money for the ITF, it's to grow the game in the 204 member nations of the ITF, and that those constituents really like the present template. They feel it's the one that would give the largest number of them a shot at Davis Cup glory. It's pretty hard to dismiss that mandate as unworthy or irrelevant. And in all honesty, I don't hear many voices in Europe or South America demanding that Davis Cup be "fixed." As far as I know, they don't think it's broken.

I'll have to mull over all these questions in the coming days, maybe share some of the ideas and learn what y'all think. The one thing I know for now is that Davies, Buchholz, and their "reformer" allies (a cast of characters that includes Cliff Drysdale, as well as the brothers McEnroe) are neither gung-ho revolutionaries nor mercenaries. They are, quite simply, tennis guys. And it would be unwise as well as unfair to characterize them as anything but fellow travelers in the great, ongoing pro tennis journey.

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