Our sport will never be the most popular, but it should always be ours

by: Steve Tignor | April 12, 2018

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The ITF is planning to make some major changes to the Davis Cup. (AP)

There was much that was bold and surprising in the proposal to overhaul Davis Cup that the ITF announced this spring. The Cup’s schedule, which currently consists of four weekends staggered over the course of the year, would be condensed into a single week. Home-and-away matches, which have made the event the most boisterous in tennis, would be abandoned in favor of a neutral site, likely in Asia. Best-of-five-set matches, as well as best-of-five-match ties, would be reduced to best-of-three.

Would the 118-year-old competition, once the sport’s most prestigious, even be called Davis Cup anymore? Maybe. In press releases, the new event was referred to as the World Cup of Tennis. From the perspective of one of its creators, this made sense: it’s the brainchild of Gerard Piqué, a soccer star from Barcelona. To tennis fans, though, hearing the name of our sport’s best-known team event suddenly changed into the name of soccer’s best-known team event may have been the most surprising, and jarring, part of the proposal.

We should be used to it by now. There is a long, mostly well-intentioned tradition of trying to make tennis—by updating its Victorian-era rules rules for the modern world—resemble other, more mainstream sports.

Tough Call - Is the ITF going too far with proposed Davis Cup changes? 

You say six-game sets take too long? The Australian tennis federation looked at the success that cricket has had with a shorter format, and created something similar for tennis: Fast 4, where sets go to four.

Other sports have coaching? In 2009, the WTA began allowing coaches to visit their players on court.

Other sports let fans make noise during play? College tennis programs have begun to encourage cheering during points.

Other sports are organized into teams? From World Team Tennis to Laver Cup, promoters have tried to transform this introverted, individualistic game into a communal activity.

Other sports use a shot clock? Let’s get one on the tennis court.

I’m not against change. Where would tennis be if, in 1970, it had listened to the traditionalists and rejected the then-radical idea of the tiebreaker? I’m in favor of electronic line-calling, I like the shot clock, I enjoy listening to the WTA’s on-court coaching exchanges (but keep them out of the Slams, please), and, having played no-ad in college, I understand its winner-take-all appeal. And if there had never been a Davis Cup, I would welcome the idea of a one-week World Cup.

But tennis has had a Davis Cup, just as it has rules and traditions that have been appealing to new generations of players and fans since 1873—players and fans who like how tension slowly builds over a six-game set; how momentum sways back and forth during a long deuce game, and the patience those games force you to develop; how players rely on themselves to solve problems, and the resourcefulness that can inspire; how a dramatic hush descends on an audience before a big point, and the sense of theater that produces. There must be something to tennis’s old-fashioned customs: the most successful events of the last 30 years have been the game’s original Big 4, the Grand Slams. The most tradition-minded of them, Wimbledon, is also the most popular.

There must be something that today’s fans like about that other bastion of tradition, Davis Cup, too. Despite dire warnings of its imminent demise, more than 500,000 people bought tickets to see it in 2017.

Do we really need to destroy the Cup to save it? If so, then I hope the new World Cup of Tennis is a smashing success. I’d only ask that when the ITF votes on the proposal this summer, it keeps in mind what tennis fans want. Our sport will never be the most popular, but it should always be ours.

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This week on Tennis Channel Plus:

—ATP Houston Outer Courts (4/9-4/13)
Catch all the action from the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship with outer court coverage live on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Monday April 9 at 4 p.m. ET

—ATP Marrakech Final (4/15)
Don’t miss the Grand Prix Hassan II final live on Tennis Channel Plus Sunday April 15 at 9 a.m. ET

—ATP Monte-Carlo (4/15-4/22)
Watch first to last ball of the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters live on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Sunday April 15 at 7 a.m. ET 

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