Weighing the pros and cons of the ITF's roll-the-dice Davis Cup revamp

by: Steve Tignor | August 16, 2018

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WATCH—Jon Wertheim reacts to ITF's substantial Davis Cup changes:

The happiest in man in tennis on Thursday was a soccer player. Gerard Piqué, a 31-year-old center-back for Barcelona, was photographed celebrating at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, Fla. with his business partners. He had good reason to pump his fists: The ITF had just approved his company’s plan to run tennis’s premier team competition, the Davis Cup. For $3 billion over 25 years, Pique’s firm, Kosmos, will transform the Cup—or diminish it, depending on your point of view—from an event that takes place over four weekends each year, and is played at home-and-away venues, into a one-week, single-location tournament to be held at the end of each season.

To say that this has divided the tennis world would be...an understatement. While Novak Djokovic called it “fantastic news,” Jan Kodes said it “could be the most stupid decision in sports history,” and Lucas Pouille termed it a “death sentence.” The only thing everyone can agree on is that, in a sport not famous for bold moves, this was a bold move.

But was it the right move? I’ll weigh up the pros and cons.

*****

Pros

Money: $3 billion over 25 comes to $125 million a year; plus, Larry Ellison has pledged to invest in the event. The ITF says it will double prize money to $20 million, and its president, Dave Haggerty, told the New York Times that $25 million each year will go to the national federations. If true, some of that money will, hopefully, end up in smaller countries that haven’t traditionally been able to compete on tennis’ world stage. “It’s all about money,” has been a common refrain from traditionalists about this proposal, but the fact that most of the ITF’s smaller federations voted for it can’t be ignored.

Time investment: For years, top players have balked at the idea of committing four weeks of their seasons to a competition where they don’t make the same money they make on tour, and where, since 2016, they can’t even earn ranking points. Now they’ll have to commit to, at most, a qualifying tie in February and a week of team play at season’s end.

Home-and-away qualifying round: When the Piqué proposal was first announced, the biggest issue fans had with it was that it did away with home ties, and the passionate atmosphere they inspire. Now 12 home-and-away qualifying ties have been scheduled for February. That’s not the same as home ties all the way through, but it’s better than nothing.

2019 European location: At first, the idea was to hold the event in Asia, essentially on the other side of the world from most tennis fans. Now the first edition will either be in France or Spain, both of which are within traveling distance from many of the countries that will be participating. It will be essential that the Cup retain some semblance of the boisterous team-sport atmosphere for which it’s known, and which separates it from everything else in tennis. If Davis Cup ends up having the feel of just another tour event, it really will be dead. That’s less likely to happen in Europe—or the U.S., where Ellison eventually wants to bring it—than it would be in Asia.

Name: Initially, Kosmos called the event “The World Cup of Tennis,” which made it sound as if tennis had allowed itself to be annexed by soccer. At least now the name, Davis Cup, will remain the same.

*****

Cons

Money: What if the $3 billion doesn’t materialize? In 2000, the ATP rebranded its Super 9 events the Tennis Masters Series (the tournaments are now known as Masters 1000s), and signed what at the time was the biggest TV and marketing contract in tennis history with the Swiss firm ISL, for $1.2 billion over 10 years. The only problem was, after failing to sell TV rights in Europe, ISL declared bankruptcy a year later. The Masters Series has survived, and even thrived, without ISL, but that was in spite of the ATP’s initial deal, not because of it.

Lack of clarity: “Casual fans can’t follow the weird schedule”—that’s what we’ve heard for decades about Davis Cup. But is the new schedule any easier to understand? There are 12 qualifying ties in February, and then, 10 months later in November, a turbo-competition that pits 18 teams against each other over the course of a week. That’s not easy to follow, either.

Lack of home ties: As I wrote above, home crowds are the lifeblood of Davis Cup, and what makes the competition the most emotional and dramatic in tennis. If that emotion is lost at a neutral site, the Cup will be lost, too.

Lack of suspense: With its best-of-five-set matches, its long first day of singles, and its middle day devoted entirely to doubles, Davis Cup may have been slow-moving by today’s standards, but that pace allowed each tie to build suspense and drama. Now ties will be two singles and one doubles match, all of which will be best-of-three sets. And the whole thing will be over in a week.

Lack of tradition: With its archaic terminology, old-school scoring system, and insistence on the importance of doubles, Davis Cup is a link to tennis’s past that many of us cherish. That sense of continuity with the sport’s history, and with the great players who competed for their countries over the last century, will be hard to replicate in a new and mostly unrecognizable format.

Tradition isn’t something that should be followed just for its own sake; but change doesn’t need to be made just for the sake of change, either.

WATCH—ITF president David Haggerty on the historic Davis Cup changes:

*****

Davis Cup in its traditional form has flaws. Forcing the champions to begin their title defense four months after they’ve won it has always been absurd. And there should be a way for the ITF and ATP to come together to award ranking points to the players for their efforts.

But the competition wasn’t broken. Many have harped on the fact that the game’s stars, and in particular the Big 4—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray—weren’t regular participants. That’s not exactly true. Of the 26 men who have been ranked No. 1 during the Open era, 23 have been part of at least one Cup-winning campaign; that included all four of the Big 4.

Over the last five years, elite players like Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, and David Goffin have led their teams to the finals. The best American players—John Isner, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson—are committed. And the ATP’s Next Genners are just as interested in following in their elders’ footsteps and putting a Cup win on their résumés. The highlight of the opening round in 2018 was a showdown between Germany’s Alexander Zverev and Australia’s Nick Kyrgios. For many of us, the special thrill of Davis Cup is seeing the sport’s non-stars—Federico Delbonis, Steve Darcis, Radek Stepanek, Viktor Troicki, and dozens of others—take a rare turn on a big stage. I can watch the Big 4 for 10 months of the season; I don’t need to see them one more time in November.

Like the half a million fans who bought tickets for Davis Cup last year, and the 26,000 who packed an arena in Lille, France, for the final, I would have been happy to see the competition keep going exactly as it was.

Now that the old Davis Cup is dead, I can only say that the new Davis Cup better be good. It has some big sneakers to fill, and a century’s worth of tradition to try to make us forget.


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