This week the revamped and condensed version of Davis Cup, eagerly awaited by some, nervously awaited by others, debuted in Madrid. That may come as news to most sports fans in the United States. So far, only two of the competition’s dozens of ties—the U.S. team’s loss to Canada, and its win over Italy—have been televised in this country, and they appeared in a place where few tennis lovers would think to look, Fox Sports 2.
One thing is obvious even from across the Atlantic: After five days, the new Cup, the brainchild of Spanish soccer star Gerard Piqué, is having growing pains. Which also shouldn’t come as news. The chances that you can take a 120-year-old event, which has traditionally been played over four separate weekends and across dozens of countries, jam the whole thing into a single week, and have everything run perfectly, are exceedingly slim.
So far, it has been far from perfect. Empty seats, late finishing times, fans waiting in cold weather, a confusing format, sparse TV coverage, a controversy over a forfeited doubles match, withdrawals by several Top 10 players, Pique’s ongoing feud with Roger Federer: This is what has made headlines from Madrid.
“Honey, I Shrunk the Davis Cup,” is how Skip Schwarzman, a fan and player from Philadelphia who attended this week, described the feeling at the Caja Magica.
If you’re a longtime follower of Davis Cup, you might be asking yourself, “So what’s new?” The competition, once the sport’s most prestigious, has been plagued by a perceived lack of interest for decades. Piqué says he believed Davis Cup was “devalued,” and vowed to transform it into tennis’s version of the World Cup.
It’s too early to render any verdicts, except to say that the new Davis Cup has a ways to go before it fulfills Pique’s dreams for it. For now, let’s look at three common complaints that dogged the old format, and see if the new one has improved on them.
Old complaint: Davis Cup wasn’t TV-friendly
Ties were best-of-five matches, spread over a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Every match was best-of-five sets. All told, it could take 15 or even 20 hours to decide a winner. And when one round was over, the competition wouldn’t resume for months. This was not, to put it mildly, a TV programmer’s dream.
The new Davis Cup set out to solve those problems by reducing ties to best-of-three matches, and matches to best-of-three sets. Each tie is held in a single day, and the Cup is completed in a week. But as we have discovered so far, finishing three best-of-three-set matches, all at once, also takes time. This week, ties have started late and ended much, much later. On Wednesday, the U.S. and Italy played past 4:00 A.M., in the second-latest finish in tennis history. That might have been fine for Fox Sports 2, which was showing skateboarding on Wednesday, but it wouldn’t work for ESPN.
The obvious answer in the U.S. would have been to show it on Tennis Channel. But the asking price from Piqué and his company, Kosmos, was too high. Kosmos needs to make back all the money it can, obviously, but unless something changes next year, the new Davis Cup will have almost no presence in the sport’s biggest market.
Old complaint: The star players didn’t play Davis Cup
This was always a semi-valid objection. While the game’s biggest names didn’t participate consistently, virtually every top player of the Open era has been on at least one Cup-winning team. The issue, according to those players, was fitting four separate weekends, and four potentially long flights and changes of surface, into their schedules.
The new, turbo-Cup reduces the players’ commitment to a single week. So far, though, big-name participation has remained about the same. Yes, holding the event in Madrid helped rope in Nadal. And Piqué made a special effort to court Djokovic. But Federer, who has a (Laver) Cup of his own to promote, will likely never play; even worse, he’s staging a series of sold-out exhibitions in South America this week. Perhaps most worrisome is the absence of several young Top 10 players: Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Holding the event at the end of the year, and cutting the players’ off-seasons even shorter than they already are, has presented its own set of problems. It also doesn’t help that the men’s tour will kick off its own team competition, the ATP Cup, in January. This week Djokovic has talked about merging the two events and moving the whole thing to September.
Of course, September is when Laver Cup is held. It seems that the game’s Cups have officially runneth over.
Old complaint: Nobody could follow the schedule
The old Davis Cup began in February, and ended in November. There were months between rounds. Locations were spread across the globe. The champions were crowned at the end of one season, and began their title defenses just three months later—barely enough time to recover from the champagne hangover.
The new Cup was supposed to simplify things by bringing everyone together for one blow-out week. Sponsors, star players, and fans from around the world would all want to be part of it, and tennis would finally have the season-capping team competition it deserved.
And yet so far the format has been equally confusing. Teams from 18 nations are drawn into round-robin groups, as in World Cup, with the best performers moving on to the knockout stage. But as is often the case with round-robins, who advances and why can be murky. Many of us watched the U.S.-Italy tie without having any idea whether the Americans were still eligible to advance (apparently they weren’t).
Where the old Cup moved too slowly, the new Cup can move too fast. Spain finished its first tie in the wee hours on Tuesday, and had to be back on court by 6:00 P.M. the same day. Djokovic has talked this week about cutting the number of teams from 18 to eight, which seems sensible.
Something important has also been lost in the move to a single location: The home-crowd energy that was Davis Cup’s signature. Only Spain’s matches have been sold out this week, and there’s no way for fans to move from one court to another, or buy a ticket for a specific tie after it has begun. The U.S. and Italy played a thrilling three-set doubles match to an almost entirely empty arena on Thursday morning.
Even with all of its problems, most players loved to be involved in the old Davis Cup, and to represent their countries when they could. That patriotic passion is what kept the competition alive. Now the question is: Will it survive the event’s downsizing? To me, as long as the players continue to care about Davis Cup the way they have in the past, the event will be salvageable.
So far, there’s reason for hope. Schwarzman, who wrote about his experiences at the Caja Magica this week for Tennis Accent, mentioned the small crowds, 40-degree temperatures, poor TV coverage (even in Spain), and unworkable Kosmos app. He was even mistakenly assigned a seat in Italy’s rooting section for the U.S.-Italy tie. And yet he felt that the Davis Cup spirit remained intact.
“The attendees are enthusiastic, with a real DC vibe,” he said.
The Davis Cup has been with us for 120 years, and it has generated that level of enthusiasm among players and fans for a reason. Let’s hope it takes more than a format change to kill it.