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Even after three gloomy years, the Davis Cup spirit is very much alive among fans and players
Can the storied team competition go home—and away—again?
Published Feb 06, 2023
DAVIS CUP MOMENT: Marc-Andrea Hüsler (SUI) tops Alexander Zverev (GER)
The full stadiums, the chanting fans, the standing ovations, the waving flags: What was this globally beloved event that kept filling up my TV set over the weekend, and how had tennis kept it hidden for so long?
There was more energy and emotion in most of the matches—even the ones without star players—than there had been at the year’s first Grand Slam in Melbourne.
Finally, on Saturday afternoon, when Nicolas Mejia, the 253rd-ranked player in the world, brought a crowd of thousands of thunderously euphoric Colombians to their feet with a perfectly measured passing-shot winner, I knew what I was watching again. I had forgotten that old, wild, somewhat unfathomable Davis Cup feeling. After 120-odd years, there’s still nothing like it in tennis.
Before this weekend’s qualifying round, I wasn’t sure that Davis Cup was still happening at all in 2023. The latest news stories had been a grim litany of collapse. In January, the ITF canceled a 25-year contract with its promoter, Kosmos, after just five years. In response, Kosmos, which has yet to pay the prize money for the 2022 Cup, threatened to sue the ITF.
None of these developments came as a surprise. Since Kosmos changed the format in 2019, eliminating home-and-away rounds in favor of neutral venues, Davis Cup had mostly been a bust. The pandemic contributed to the troubles. In 2020, the event was canceled for the first time since 1945; in 2021, it was played without spectators. The $120 annual million fees that Kosmos had promised the ITF hadn’t materialized. Led by soccer player Gerard Pique, Kosmos had promoted Davis Cup as The World Cup of Tennis, believing that tennis fans from all over would travel to a neutral site for the finals, the way soccer fans do every four years. A nice idea, but not a realistic one.
By 2022, the storied men’s team competition felt like an afterthought—a relic. Laver Cup, with its elite players and viral moments, had succeeded in becoming what Davis Cup had hoped to be. United Cup had brought together men and women in an overdue step forward for the sport. I wondered whether young players would still have the same desire to travel to the ends of the earth to play Davis Cup for their countries, the way their athletic forefathers had.
I guess I shouldn’t have wondered. This weekend Tommy Paul, fresh from a run to the Australian Open semifinals, met up with his teammates in Uzbekistan and helped the U.S. to a 4-0 victory. 21-year-old Jiri Lehecka kept his own Melbourne momentum going for the Czech Republic. Cam Norrie and Dan Evans made the trip to Colombia, dueled with the locals on clay, and emerged victorious. Soonwoo Kwon lifted South Korea over Belgium with a win against David Goffin. Cristian Garin stirred up his Chileans. Alexander Zverev and Stan Wawrinka helmed the tie between Germany and Switzerland, and after two defeats, old man Stan came through with a clinching fifth-rubber victory.
“You can’t buy history with money,” Zverev said. “Sport lives from emotions, and Davis Cup was always the competition where you experienced the biggest emotions and the best atmosphere.”
The Kosmos deal was mostly disastrous, but it was also clarifying. In the years before it was made, many of us wondered how big Davis Cup could be. What would it be like if the schedule was less onerous, if the stars played every round, if it was held in one location and packaged properly for TV?
Over the last five years, we have found out, because Laver Cup did all of those things and became every bit as successful as we thought a major team tennis event could be. At the same time, we found out that those changes don’t work for Davis Cup. Now we know how much the home-and-away format, and the atmosphere it creates, means to the competition—it’s the essence of it. The crowds that came out this weekend didn’t need Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to be there. All they needed were players from their nations, wearing their colors, competing for them.
Davis Cup will continue with the Kosmos format in 2023. The finals will be played at four sites in Spain in November, concluding in Malaga. What should happen in the years ahead? This weekend showed us that, even after three gloomy seasons, the Davis Cup spirit is still very much alive with players and fans. It seems essential to try to keep that spirit going by bringing back home-and-away ties for the later rounds.
In the past, four rounds were spread out over four weekends, which was deemed too cumbersome for most top players. But with Federer retired, and Nadal getting there, it’s already too late to attract those legends. Can the sport be satisfied with Davis Cup as it was? In short, a competition that isn’t easily packaged for TV, and doesn’t often break through to a wider audience, but which still creates “the biggest emotions and the best atmosphere” in arenas all over the world?
I think that last sentence answers its own question.