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Davis Cup Finals
Five questions for three U.S. Davis Cup captains ahead of 2021 Finals
Current captain Mardy Fish weighs in on the state of the recently revamped competition alongside former captains Patrick McEnroe and Jim Courier.
Published Nov 23, 2021
WATCH: Tennis Channel Live discusses Davis Cup alongside ATP and Laver Cup.
The remake of the remade Davis Cup competition begins on Thanksgiving Day amid hopes that it won’t be another holiday turkey. Following years of calls for a less awkward and time-consuming Davis Cup format, the International Tennis Federation launched a radical change in 2019. The format was streamlined, and the ITF and its promotional partner, Kosmos Holdings, inevitably wiped away many of the features that made Davis Cup unique, frustrating, difficult to promote, legendary, and—even to vocal reformers—beloved.
In 2019, the event was compressed into a 10-day tournament staged at a single site, Madrid. As a spectacle, it was an unwieldy, borderline disaster with poor attendance and a lack of the passion and fanfare for which Davis Cup was renowned. In response, the promoters made some key changes in the new format, and now the pressure to succeed is on. TENNIS.com caught up with the three most recent U.S. Davis Cup captains—current captain Mardy Fish, and former captains Patrick McEnroe (2001-2010) and Jim Courier (2011-2019)—to canvas their opinions on some key issues.
Editor’s Note: These interviews were conducted prior to Davis Cup’s announcement that ties held in Innsbruck would take place without fans due to Austria’s current COVID-19 lockdown.
Is the major format change made for 2021 (and beyond?) sufficient to ensure success?
This year, three different European cities (Madrid, Innsbruck, Turin) will host the round-robin group play portion, with the eight quarterfinalists who emerge then battling it out for the Cup in knockout rounds over five days—once again, in Madrid.
The organizers are hoping to eliminate some of the scheduling nightmares of 2019, and to recapture some of the pageantry and patriotic fervor of the old head-to-head format in which the “home-court advantage” was alternated each time two particular teams met.
Captain Fish: “In 2019, the guys were incredibly well taken care of by the organizers, but they were bummed out that we didn’t get the fans. They wanted something like what they’d seen on TV in the past, 10,000 people going crazy in an arena. It will be really exciting to play our first match against Italy, in Turin. You just want that Davis Cup atmosphere and, man, a lot of the time it’s even more fun when the crowd is against you. Hopefully, with these multi-cities, you will get that kind of energy back for a lot of the ties. There was something about that home-and-away format that made for a great atmosphere. If they can figure out a way to keep that going, it will be great.”
Courier: “I think the tweaks are good because there will be more opportunity to generate revenue by hitting regional sponsors in three different markets. It will also expose more fans, all over Europe. From a profit and loss standpoint, there’s a big benefit. Advertising in the three big cities will make people more aware of the competition. Also, having three regional sites doesn’t really change anything from a global, television standpoint.”
McEnroe: “I hope it makes a difference because the Davis Cup hasn’t exactly been thriving. But I will say the departure from the age-old format was a risk worth taking. There were years of complaints and too many challenges, including the top players' reluctance to make the time commitment required in the old format. I’m not as down on the new version as some people appear to be because, after all, people have been saying for years that something has to change. Give them some time to work out the kinks.”
Is this a make-it or break-it year for Davis Cup?
There are two issues in play here: spectator and media support, and financial viability. The former is more-or-less self-explanatory, the latter is complicated. Kosmos Holding Group pledged an investment of three billion Euros (about $3.4 billion USD) over 25 years to secure rights to the Davis Cup.
McEnroe: “I Wouldn’t go that far yet, because of COVID. There are lots of things everyone is trying to figure out. So, unless it’s just a horrendous failure, it would be premature to pull the plug now after this one. This is a weird time we’re all going through. There are lots of issues in pro tennis. In normal times, I’d say it could potentially be make-it or break-it, but given what we’ve lived through recently that just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Courier: “Honestly, it boils down to the finances of the Kosmos Group. If the event breaks them, and they have to get out, the ITF will have to scramble to figure out what to try next. But I’m not privy to what the books look like. I hope they are well financed to grow under this new format—which I like—in the long term. And, of course, COVID hasn’t helped that whatsoever.”
Fish: “I don’t think Davis Cup will go away, but you would think they have to be more successful commercially. As an example, I was bummed that no US broadcaster picked Davis Cup up in 2019. It’s paramount that it’s on something, somewhere and you can find it on the remote. The event had problems two years ago. For all the problems, the players stepped up and there were some very good ties—that nobody got to see.”
Are you surprised by the strength of the field—or lack thereof?
The bulk of the top players, including Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev (ranked No. 1 and 2 respectively), will be on hand. The injured list includes Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal—who led Spain to the title in 2019—Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka and, now, No. 7 Matteo Berrretini. The recent, late withdrawals by No, 10-ranked Félix Auger-Aliassime and No. 14 Denis Shapovalov were a blow but otherwise the only healthy, highly-ranked player who was determined to skip the event was No. 3 Alexander Zverev of Germany. He has said from the start that he doesn’t want to play that deep into the year.
Fish: “Novak has shown that playing for his country matters to him. That’s great for Davis Cup. I see that Russia and Italy are coming in with pretty heavy teams. Clearly, the format change won’t tear guys away.”
Courier: “This year probably feels longer than others because of all the bubbles the players endured, so it’s really impressive that so many guys are in. The fact that you have Djokovic and Medvedev is fantastic. If you count healthy players, you have plenty of star power. I’m not surprised by that, because there’s such prestige and honor in Davis Cup. The players realized they have a chance to do something they can carry with them through the rest of their lives.”
McEnroe: “I’m pleasantly surprised by the strength of the field. I think the players realize with all that’s been going on with COVID-19, the opportunity to play is not a given. It’s all about survival. The schedule has been up in the air. Some tournaments didn’t happen, but the world moves on. Maybe there’s a higher appreciation now for all kinds of events by the players.”
I’m not as down on the new version as some people appear to be because, after all, people have been saying for years that something has to change. Give them some time to work out the kinks. Patrick McEnroe
How does the advent of the ATP Cup and the rise of Laver Cup figure into the future of Davis Cup. Can all three flourish?
Fish: “People forget there was an ATP Team Cup (in Dusseldorf, German) for a long time. There’s certainly a world where two or more team events can exist. Golf has the President’s Cup and the Ryder Cup, each one played biennially so they don’t go up against each other. They respect each other’s turf. It would be nice if the Davis Cup and ATP Cup could co-exist and have a dialogue with each other. You have young studs who love playing for their country and being on a team, so there has to be a world where they can all exist, including Laver Cup, and build off and with each other instead of trying to kill each other.”
McEnroe: “All of them are good for the sport. One of our problems in tennis is that the sport is star driven, dominated by celebrity names. They’re the ones who sell the tickets at all but the major events. So, I think more team-oriented events, where everyone is succeeding, is great and I’m all for it. There's a lot of them at the moment but team events make things better. It’s going to come down to economic viability. Are they successful? Do the players and the tournament make money? The market will dictate how it shakes out.”
Courier: “I will be surprised if we are having this discussion in 10 years and all three events are going on in the same style, with the same place on the calendar. There’s certainly room for team events, and the new ATP Cup has been a smash hit, as has Laver Cup.
“Davis Cup is the one playing catch up now but they made some good moves. I’ve long advocated for a more compact Davis Cup, with fans able to see a tie start and end in linear fashion on the same day. Both ATP and Davis Cup demonstrated how exciting it is to have all three, best-of-three set matches (two singles and one doubles) in succession (note: previously, each tie lasted three days, and consisted of five best-of-five set singles and one doubles). I think it’s a really good format in that sense.”
Who do you pick to win the event?
At first glance Russia and Italy look particularly strong (especially if Berrettini recovers from an injury in time to compete). But the three-match format means that any team with at least one elite singles player and a reasonable No. 2 is in with a shot- especially if the team also has a good doubles team. So, don’t neglect to consider a team like, say, Croatia. That squad features former US Open champ Marin Cilic. Borna Coric, the No. 2 singles player, has won some big matches in the past. And the Croatians have one of the best doubles teams in the world in Mate Pavic and Nikola Mektic.
Courier: “The singles line-up the Russians can put out makes it hard to pick against them, with Andrey Rublev or Karen Khachanov as well as Medvedev. Look what they did at the ATP Cup (Russia defeated Italy in the most recent final). But I think Mardy choosing to bring both Rajeev Ram and Jack Sock was a master stroke now that doubles is one of just three matches. That gives us knockout punch ability.”
McEnroe: “It’s hard to bet against Russia. With Medvedev and Rublev they have two great singles stars, and Rublev is also a damned good doubles player. That will be difficult to deal with.
“As far as the US and doubles goes, it is nice to have the options. Feel out the combinations. But sometimes in Davis Cup you can have too many options. The nice thing when we had our good run during my tenure was that everyone knew his role. The Bryan brothers were our doubles team. Andy Roddick and James Blake, sometimes Mardy Fish, carried the singles. It was pretty clear cut. If you have the talent, that sometimes it’s easier on the mindset of the team.”
Fish: “I think we’re going to win. To be frank, I think we have a pretty badass team, a nasty team that not a lot of other countries want to see on a fast or medium speed court with light balls. Now that the doubles is just as important as each singles match—three points, boom-boom-boom—there’s greater emphasis on doubles—and more pressure in the singles, where our guys can really make people uncomfortable with their power. We have the best doubles team in the world, in my opinion, in John Isner and Jack Sock. I don’t think it’s even close. That’s why I say our team is nasty.”