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We’ve had our (November) date for a long time, you should ask the WTA [that question], because they’re the ones who put their date (for the WTA Finals) in . . . We all need to get together to come up with a calendar so that everyone knows what’s going to happen. Billie Jean King, responding to a question about the absence of Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula from the U.S. squad that will compete in the Billie Jean King Cup finals in Seville, Spain, Nov. 7-12

It’s a pity—and a red checkmark—against tennis that the game’s officials cannot get together and help the sport’s premier women’s international team competition get greater traction as an event of global significance. The Billie Jean King Cup has cycled through a number of formats and titles, seemingly to little avail, in a quest for greater popularity.

While both Davis Cup and BJK Cup have had to navigate difficult times, the women’s version is worse off than the men’s event. Ask 100 people in the street what the BJK Cup is, and it’s possible that no one would know. The name of the event offers no clue: it indicates nothing about team play, international or otherwise. Ask those same 100 citizens when and where the BJK Cup is played, and you’ll probably get a blank stare. The ignorance is understandable.

The NFL’s Super Bowl has never undergone a name change, nor have other major team competitions like the World Cup, the World Series, the Stanley Cup. Ditto golf’s Ryder Cup, an well-known event that was most likely modeled on the first iteration of what is now the BJK Cup, the Wightman Cup (first played in 1923). The golf tournament built upon its brand without interruption since 1927 despite some format tweaks. But tennis’ Wightman Cup was renamed the Federation Cup in 1963, then the Fed Cup in 1995, and the BJK Cup in 2020.

Coco Gauff helped send the United States into the 2023 Billie Jean King Cup finals, but she won't be competing for her country in Seville, Spain next month.

Coco Gauff helped send the United States into the 2023 Billie Jean King Cup finals, but she won't be competing for her country in Seville, Spain next month.

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All that has been confusing, but the biggest obstacle to the success of the BJK Cup currently is the early November date. This year, it will start just two days after the conclusion of the season-ending WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. Iga Swiatek, who is also taking a hard pass on the event for the second year running due to the comparably tight scheduling, went as far last year as to say that the situation is "not safe for our health.”

Swiatek’s criticism led the International Tennis Federation, promoters of the BJK Cup, to vow to coordinate more productively with WTA officials, but that was clearly a doomed effort. As King noted, the WTA did not even officially announce where and when the WTA Finals would be held until early September. That isn’t incomprehensible, given that, while the WTA generally plays nicely with the ITF and its constituents, it is keenly aware of the threat represented by a strong ITF international team event—especially at a time when the WTA and ATP have joined forces to help create the early January United Cup. That event features both ATP and WTA stars, led next year by Novak Djokovic and Swiatek.

The squeeze is on Davis Cup and BJK Cup, which continue to labor with relatively unweildy formats that require multiple weeks of play spread throughout the years due to the number of nations in the mix. Sara Fornaciari, a veteran tennis agent and administrator who served as the co-chair of the USTA’s Davis and Fed Cup committee in the early 2000s, told me, “I don’t think United Cup can get the same resonance that Davis Cup and BJK Cup, but what is working for them is having the entire event played in one week.” (Actually, 10 days.)

Iga Swiatek and Jessica Pegula at the United Cup, a season-opening team competition with a more desirable time slot on the crowded tennis calendar.

Iga Swiatek and Jessica Pegula at the United Cup, a season-opening team competition with a more desirable time slot on the crowded tennis calendar.

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That “resonance” of the mainstay international team events is born of tradition rooted in the mystique of nation-on-nation competition, and the physical and emotional demands it makes of the competitors. King, a successful competitor or U.S. captain in all versions of the event now bearing her name, said of the unique challenge posed by Davis or BJK Cup: “Some [players] can really raise their level for their teammates and then there are people who can’t do it. . . Some would raise their game when it was for the country, others their games got worse. It's really all about the pressure of being on a team, playing for something bigger than the self.”

Also on the plus side: the team events provide young players striving to make their way in a lonely sport of individuals with the opportunity to bond with fellow players, even though they are destined to battle each other down the line. In this era of concern for the mental health of players, team play and the relationships it fosters can be a great asset. Fornaciari, who represented prodigy Tracy Austin well into her adult years, said: “I’ve been on the record saying we should eliminate all junior [tournament] events until 16-and-under, and make the lower-age ones all team tennis.”

Fornaciari also believes that adult international team events should also feature a junior competition. King is of a similar mind. She said that in the best of all worlds, young players progress smoothly from junior versions of the two main team events into ITF tournaments, the pro tours, and—ultimately—adult team competitions. It seems a worthy vision, but it’s unlikely to materialize under the present conditions.

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United Cup is an entertaining exhibition, a great way for all players to start tuning up for the first Grand Slam of the year. But nobody, including the players, really expects it to evolve into something like a combined (WTA/ATP) “World Cup” of tennis - with all the heft that the concept implies. So for now the BJK Cup is stranded. The proliferation of tour tennis and its myriad events has left both traditional team competitions in time slots that are fundamentally unappealing to the players, particularly elite ones.

The outlook for BJK Cup this year isn’t entirely bleak. Six of the world’s Top 20 will compete in Seville, including 2022 Wimbledon champion, No. 4-ranked Elena Rybakina (Kazakhstan), along with current Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova (her Czech teammate Karolina Muchova has pulled out of the WTA Finals with a bum wrist, making it unlikely she will appear as planned in BJK Cup).

Over time, the Czech players have demonstrated that representing their homeland in high-grade competition like the Olympic Games and BJK Cup supersedes all other concerns. The team has a sterling record (the Czechs have won 11 times, including six of the 10 finals played in the 2010s). Only the U.S., with 18 wins, has more.

“They (the Czechs) are willing to play a little bit longer (in the year) and compete for their country,” BJK Cup tournament director Conchita Martinez, also a former Wimbledon champion, said on the Zoom call. “They are amazing players and a great example for other players.”

So the BJK Cup hangs on, still searching for a better time slot and support from marquee players. The name of the event seems settled—for now.