Squad Goals: Are team-driven tennis events here for the long haul?

Squad Goals: Are team-driven tennis events here for the long haul?

With the launch of the ATP Cup and it being an Olympic year, 2020 is suddenly brimming with team competitions—set for January, April, September and November of this year.

Late last September inside the Palexpo, an arena on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland, a crowd of nearly 18,000 rose to its feet as one of the greats of tennis strode onto the court. It was Rod Laver, getting a hero’s welcome 51 years after he made history as the last man to win the calendar-year Grand Slam.

This wasn’t an anniversary celebration, however. It was the final day of Laver Cup—the Rod-inspired, Roger (Federer, that is)-organized men’s team event that made its debut in 2017 and spurred a heated discussion still reverberating as the sport hurtles into a new decade: Are there too many team events in tennis?

That may seem like a silly question considering that individual events overwhelmingly fill the nearly 11-month tennis calendar. But 2020 is the first year of the ATP Cup, a 24-team men’s-only competition that replaces the traditional Australian summer lead-up to the year’s opening major. This year also marks the first time both Davis and Fed Cups, the ITF-run team events steeped in tradition, will both adopt new, one-week, World Cup-style championship finals. The Laver Cup, in its fourth iteration, will return to North America for a Europe vs. World showdown in Boston.

With the Tokyo Olympics wedged into the middle of the season, tennis is suddenly brimming with team events, set for January, April, September and November of this year.

The dream doubles pairing of Roger and Rafa was made a reality in Laver Cup, which has attracted nearly every top player in men’s tennis. Once seen as purely an exhibition, the event is now sanctioned by the ATP. (Getty Images)

While the aforementioned question is being asked in press rooms, a different one has been posed in the board rooms that govern the sport: Is team tennis the sport’s next hot ticket? And, if so, how do we get in on it?

 “When I look at the team events, I love them,” former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said at Laver Cup in September. “I think we should have as many of them as possible as long as the players are making money. 

“I hope they all succeed. This is what tennis needs. This is what people need to see. Why not have more?”

But with more team events comes more change—a fractious process in a sport that typically moves at a glacial place. In what has been seen as a golden era in men’s tennis, trying to cash in from a sponsorship, TV viewership and ticket-sales perspective is understandable. Will these team events thrive, though, after those marquee names are gone?

It’s a question that was asked a few weeks after Laver stood mid-court in Geneva, flanked by Federer and team captains Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. The Laver Cup weekend was a beacon of success, with genuine competitiveness from the players and a rabid following on social media. But shortly after the competition, Federer, the star attraction wherever he plays, pulled out of the upcoming ATP Cup, prioritizing time with his family.

As a result, Switzerland was withdrawn from the event, as its second-best player, Henri Laaksonen, was not ranked high enough for the nation to earn automatic qualification.

 

It’s not the first time players have made choices that, while understandable, undermine the success of a team competition. Djokovic passed on Laver Cup; Daniil Medvedev, after a career year in 2019, withdrew from the season-ending Davis Cup, among other top pros.

“I think (team events) all bring excitement to the sport,” says Tennis Channel analyst and longtime coach Paul Annacone. “Unfortunately, they also bring more of a traffic jam to the tennis calendar. Team concepts seem to be very appealing to sports fans in this era of legends like [Rafael] Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Serena Williams. 

“In the end, I think these events will have to be fluid and adapt to different formats or timetables, or it will become a war of attrition.” 

As the ATP Cup hopes to usher in a new era for the men, the women have been left behind, as the WTA did not get included in the revamped format. The lone combined event in the Australian summer will take place in Adelaide. As for the mixed-gender Hopman Cup, the ITF hopes to bring it back in 2021.

In addition, for the first three days of the Brisbane International, a loaded WTA event taking place at the same time as the ATP Cup, the women—including world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, Petra Kvitova and Naomi Osaka—will be pushed to the side courts. ATP Cup matches will be given priority inside Patrick Rafter Arena, Brisbane’s biggest stage. It’s a likely PR nightmare.

“Tennis has a hugely challenging structure: federations, tours, governance,” says Annacone. “As a global individual sport with a continuous arm-wrestling match for territory, without streamlined governance and only so many weeks on the calendar, the issues will continue to confront us.”

Like Davis Cup last year, Fed Cup will condense its championship to a one-week final in 2020. The drastic change hasn’t been without its critics. “It was the last true Davis Cup,” French doubles specialist Pierre-Hugues Herbert said of the 2018 edition. (AP Images)

While excitement abounds around the various new, or revamped, events, for years the argument has been made that the tennis season is too long. As Annacone notes, adding events to an already-crowded calendar is doing a disservice to the rest of the tour—particularly the core of the ATP and WTA.

“There needs to be a much more sensible break from one team event to another, and an end to the calendar turf wars,” adds fellow commentator Mary Carillo. “Of all the cups, Davis Cup is in the worst part of a bloated calendar. I love this sport, but [by the end of 2019] I had deep tennis fatigue.”

What the cups, as Carillo groups them, have going for them is their intricacies. While the tours and the Slams have experienced trouble modernizing, all of the team events feature courtside coaching and interaction with a spirited team bench. Laver Cup has also pushed behind-the-scenes
access, leading to made-for-TV moments and celebrations akin to those seen during March Madness. 

Cue the unlikely Mr. Team Tennis himself, Nick Kyrgios, whose motivation has often been questioned on the main tour, where he mostly flies solo.

“I don’t think there is much more you can play for,” he said on court in September, at Laver Cup. “I feel like this is the ultimate event.

“I’m just out there trying to do what’s best for my team. If that’s me watching them play, standing out there for practice, I’m going to do whatever they need. I just love the team environment. I think it’s much more enjoyable.”

Kyrgios and Jack Sock have played some of their best tennis when they’ve competed for something besides themselves. (Getty Images)

Kyrgios believes the added enjoyment goes for both players and fans. 

But is it? Perhaps for the Aussie, who has also voiced his support for Davis Cup. But the worry is that too many team events will oversaturate the market, making the ATP Cup’s “for love of country” become more slogan and less impactful.

Could the team-event boom also affect the prestige of tennis at the Olympics? Suddenly, there are multiple opportunities for players compete for their countries. From 1988, when tennis became a medal sport for the first time since 1924, through 2012, when mixed doubles was added, Olympic tennis grew in stature. But with ranking points no longer available and players sometimes opting to play tour events over the Games—including Dominic Thiem in 2020—it’s an open question.

At the 2019 Laver Cup, Team World captain John McEnroe believed both Laver and Davis Cups should “be able to succeed,” but then noted that tennis suddenly had three men’s team events and “something’s got to shake out.”

Back when Laver Cup launched, in August 2016, Federer sat in front of a packed press room in a New York hotel and said he saw the event as a “no-brainer” for players to be a part of. 

“I would always say yes to that,” he said of the event he helped to create. But he added: “The future will tell.”

Pablo Carreno Busta, Roberto Bautista Agut and Nadal celebrated Spain’s victory at the transformed Davis Cup, held in Madrid. With sparse crowds, early-morning finishes and confusing advancement scenarios, the ITF says it will tinker with the competition in 2020. (Getty Images)

That future has arrived. Will tennis become a calendar of various playing formats, team competitions and cup clashes? Or will the tours maintain the stronghold over the calendar they’ve had for generations?

“There is room on the calendar, but I feel the smaller events will always be in jeopardy,” says Annacone. “It will take extremely creative, collaborative leadership to navigate the ever-changing sports entertainment environment we live in.”

In the meantime, we know what the 2020 season will look like. But what will it feel like? As in most teams, there will be a wide range of opinions.


Team Time: A Guide

What you need to know about this year’s team events.

ATP Cup (Australia, Jan. 3—12)
The inaugural staging of this men’s-only event will be held in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. The cities will host round-robin matches before an eight-team knockout phase in Sydney. With 24 teams battling in six groups of four, the nation-based event guarantees players multiple matches at the start of the season, and awards ATP points. 

Fed Cup (Budapest, April 13—19) and Davis Cup (Madrid, Nov. 23—29)
Originating in 1900 and 1963, respectively, these are tennis’ best-known team events. In 2019, Davis Cup’s four-round, year-long schedule was changed in favor of a one-week championship; Fed Cup will shift to that format this year. Eight nations will compete in the Fed Cup Final; 18 will compete in the Davis Cup Final.

Laver Cup (Boston, Sept. 25—27)
The brainchild of Federer and his agent, Tony Godsick, this team event pitting Europe against The World made its debut in 2017. Points increase with each day. The ATP sanctioned the event in 2019, though it does not award ranking points. While it has been a hit so far, Laver Cup hasn’t been tested without its founder, Federer, competing—which could be the truest barometer of its staying power. 

World TeamTennis  (United States, July 12  31)
Co-founded by Billie Jean King, the mixed-gender league enters its 45th season across eight cities. The format features a minimum of two men and two women per team, and showcases five different sets of tennis (men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles). Maria Sharapova, Sam Querrey, and the Bryan brothers are early commitments for 2020.