Home Away From Home

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

“It would be nice if it (Australia’s Fed Cup semifinal vs. Germany) was in Europe, I guess for my own selfish reasons. . . everybody else would also be heading to Europe.”—Sam Stosur, to reporters following the Australian team’s win over Russia last weekend.

The situation to which Stosur is alluding suddenly has me feeling like I can make a modest contribution to the development of the pro game. That would be a change in the Davis and Fed Cup rules governing choice-of-ground.

In both international competitions, teams take turns hosting ties, which includes the privilege of choosing the venue, surface, and the balls. The Australians have choice-of-ground for their upcoming semifinal against Germany. Yet the dates for the tie—April 19 and 20—present a logistical nightmare for everyone. The WTA players will have recently completed their American hard-court double (Indian Wells and Miami, both major, combined events), and will be firmly entrenched in Europe for the two-month long clay-court swing.

It would be onerous, to say the least, to interrupt this familiar ritual with what would amount to a 10- or 12-day sojourn Down Under, when you factor in practice and travel time. You don’t have to be a Fed Cup hater to see how incredibly awkward the situation is.

Which brings us back to my point. The nation with choice-of-ground is expected to host the tie. When a nation wants to choose a neutral site, it must get the approval of the ITF’s Davis or Fed Cup committee, as well as the blessing of the opponent. At a neutral site, the nation with the choice-of-ground retains the right to choose the surface and balls.

However, if the original “host” nation wants to play on an opponent’s turf (as the Aussies did last year in Switzerland), the opponent gets all the associated privileges. So if the Aussies want to play this next tie in Germany, the Germans will take over the choice of surface and balls.

Why would the Aussies want to wander into a lion’s den of fervid German patriotism? Well, the hugely popular Stuttgart clay-court event begins the day after the Fed Cup semifinal round ends. And Stosur, Australia’s best player, prefers clay. Staging the tie in Germany as a prelude to Stuttgart, or even somehow in conjunction with it, could also be a win-win-win—for players, promoters, and the public—at a time when tennis interest in Australia is anemic.

The current rules are too punitive for nations that want to exercise their choice-of-ground in creative or practical ways. “Choice” should be exactly what that word means.

If the Spanish want to host a tie against the Serbs in Glasgow, Scotland, why not? Having greater latitude to move ties around will not dilute the choice-of-ground rule’s intent to level the playing field. And given that both the respective Cup committee and the original “visiting” nation must approve any departure from the norm of hosting at home, there’s no room for hanky-panky.

Today’s best players are global brands. Each of them can play for Spain, Switzerland, Serbia, or any other nation on a neutral site (as in the Olympic Games), although the most appealing venues for any team will almost always be at home.

But allowing host nations to play a tie anywhere they please provides them with no competitive advantage they wouldn’t be able enjoy at home. If anything, it’s a liability. Yet playing at a neutral site, or even in an opponent’s country, could eliminate some of the shortcomings associated with Davis and Fed Cup. It would also help promote the game without compromising its most cherished traditions.

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