Cup of Sense

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We’re coming off one of the best long weekends of Davis Cup play in a long time, so I find myself wondering how many, if any, converts the event has won over. It isn’t an easy job, as I learned over lunch with my close friend and fellow writer, Glyn.

Glyn is a solid if not besotted tennis fan. He almost flew down to Miami just to see Roger Federer play, having decided that he really wants to see the all-time Grand Slam singles champ play, live, at least once before the Swiss retires. Glyn never made it to Miami, but he watched much of the tournament on television—including Federer’s loss to Kei Nishikori.

I asked Glyn if he also watched the subsequent Davis Cup tie involving Federer and he confessed that he had not. In fact, he didn’t know it was on, and wasn’t really sure what this Davis Cup was all about. While explaining it,  I recognized just how difficult it must be to recruit new fans to the competition when they’re accustomed to understanding tennis as a sport of individuals, hashing out their pecking order in the straightforward context of the tournament game.

The structure of Davis Cup in every respect is, if not exactly eccentric, then fairly complex. That’s both the strength and weakness of the event. It’s easy to understand why “reformers,” many of them tennis insiders and former Davis Cup performers, would like to see the competition streamlined and made more fan-friendly. But the major question is, would any or all of the proposed alternatives make the event better, or even more marketable?

This has become a legitimate and common subject for debate because of an unusual factor. The Davis Cup is a property of the International Tennis Federation, the umbrella group whose constituents, like the USTA, are the grass-roots of the game. They were also the creators and remain the owners of the Grand Slam events and some other competitions.

Neither the ITF nor its constituents are averse to making money, but their mandate is to administer and grow the game. The men and women in the highest positions in the ITF and the various national federations are amateur volunteers, not professional marketers. Politics often enter into their decision making. They can take a purist stance, as they do when it comes to Davis Cup, and that means they run afoul of many of the forces shaping the tennis market—tournament promoters, pro-tour schedule makers, broadcasters, player agents, the media, and even the players themselves.

In 1973, most of the top men boycotted Wimbledon because of the way the ITF (and Wimbledon) upheld the Yugoslav federation’s suspension for Nikki Pilic for refusing to take part in a Davis Cup tie. Later in the Open era, both Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe had issues with Davis Cup captain Arthur Ashe. 

In 2001, before Federer had even turned 20, he clashed with his Davis Cup captain Jakob Hlasek—who had been given his job by the Swiss tennis federation over Federer’s objections. That helped sour Federer on Davis Cup for some time. The Argentineans seem continually mired in Davis Cup politics. These and other instances amply illustrate the kinds of problems you run into when amateurs are given autocratic powers.

But these are natural conflicts that all parties ought to be, and often are, big enough to navigate. And as wide a target as we have in those Dudley Dooright tennis administrators, or the egomaniacs striving to enjoy a moment in the sun, the reality is that they aren’t doing it for overt profit, and they’ve managed to protect the integrity of the Davis Cup—something that counts for a lot.

Frequent charges to the contrary, it isn’t as if these folks are hidebound. They embraced a major change when they abandoned the Challenge Round and adopted the present-day World Group format in 1981. Reformers, of course, want more—in some cases, a lot more. What they really want, it seems, is to bring the Davis Cup up to date—even at the cost of destroying it.

Critics working the “marketability” turf often argue that the Davis Cup ought to be contested in one place (perhaps a different one each year or two), over a set period of time—much like a Grand Slam event. Commercially, this makes a lot of sense. The ITF and local promoters would have a lot more lead-time to advertise and sell tickets, and they would be guaranteed a first-class venue in a major market to maximize exposure.

The idea sounds good on paper, but the present alternating-host rule (nations now take turns hosting ties) would be a casualty. This rule levels the playing field, adds intrigue, and forces interesting strategic decisions and/or changes in every tie in every round. The quaint (for that is exactly what it is) rule also gives have-not nations a much better chance of upending a tennis powers, because host nations get to choose the surface and they also have the backing of a largely local, patriotic crowd. Do we really want to abandon that?

Besides, what makes anyone think that a two or even three week “Davis Cup major” would be successful? Be warned: Making it more “marketable” or even theoretically “better” has nothing whatsoever to do with making it successful. You have to wonder, does men’s tennis really need another mega-event, and will the public really support one?

The architects of the ATP World Tour calendar would gain four weeks to play with if the ITF agreed to do a Davis Cup major. But making tournaments shift dates to turn some of those isolated weeks into a single block would be a painful and difficult task. Also, the ITF would have to secure a broadcaster with very deep pockets to underwrite the event, because there’s no way on earth that the players would take part in a lengthy event of such magnitude without a huge payout.

Right now, the remuneration for playing Davis or Fed Cup is relatively modest. That’s partly because the ITF member federations are not for-profit institutions. That status, combined with the fact that the ITF has resisted pressures to make Davis Cup more commercially viable, gives the federations a measure of moral authority. No one can accuse them of hypocrisy when they ask players (top pros, anyway) to make a financial sacrifice in the interest of representing their nations and helping grow the game that feeds them.

Of course, the best-of-five set format and other essential features of Davis Cup matches would be anathema to broadcasters interested in a single-site Davis Cup major. Given the number of nations whose top players must play three best-of-five-set matches (two singles and a doubles) on consecutive days under the current format, the potential workload at a one-shot event would be enormous—far more grueling than that of a Grand Slam event. So naturally, the format would have to be altered. For the “good of the game.”

Of course! But how would you like a Davis Cup in which the matches are best-of-three sets, and the doubles is decided by a match tiebreaker if the teams split the first two sets?

Then there’s the matter of player participation. Would the players really support a Davis Cup major, even though they sometimes pay lip service to the idea?

Think of it this way: Would a Djokovic or a Nadal be happier compressing his Davis Cup commitment into a grueling two- or three-week span every year? Right now, even a full four-week commitment is spaced out at intervals, and that allows players to pick and choose when and how often to play. If anything, the flexibility of the current format encourages top players to take part. Personally, I don’t have a problem with top players skipping ties, or even entire years. It’s a cost of doing business the Davis Cup way.

Some parties suggest that Davis Cup ought to be played every two years, during the even-numbered years between summer Olympic games. Top players would be more likely to make the commitment every other year than annually, they argue. I disagree, and vastly prefer the week-by-week flexibility of the current format. In any event, it’s a sad day when you try to make something more appealing by giving people less of it. By that logic, the best way to popularize Davis Cup would be eliminating it altogether.

Here’s the main thing: I can’t see any reform of Davis Cup that would preserve the choice-of-ground rule and also leave the present format of the ties and individual matches intact. And to me, all the beauty and strength of Davis Cup lies in one of those two areas. The only change I’d like to see is the adoption of the fifth-set tiebreaker. Call me radical.

The Davis Cup is distinguished and precious because it has, remarkably, resisted to the siren song of marketing. It hasn’t changed with the times, and it pays a price for that in various ways, including player participation. But despite that, the event continues to flourish in most places. The only tragedy in this saga is that the cynical media that so often rails against commercialism has never really acknowledged and praised Davis Cup for being blissfully free from it.

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