If the ITF board of directors has its way, the oft-criticized Davis Cup competition will be reborn as early as 2019 in a glorious one-week World Cup of Tennis. But a close look at the alternative format makes many wonder if the cure isn’t worse than the disease.
For years, reformers have complained Davis Cup is broken, largely because of its four-week format spread across the calendar year and unreliable participation by top players. The new proposal seems to hit all the reformist notes: It will be a tournament played over one week, in one location (not yet determined and possibly changed annually), featuring 18 teams competing in a combined round-robin/knockout format. Each tie will feature two singles matches and a doubles match, all best-of-three sets.
On the surface, it sounds nicely streamlined and manageable. “I’ve been for this kind of change for years,” U.S. Davis Cup team captain Jim Courier, an enthusiastic supporter of the plan, told ESPN.com.
But this plan to create what the ITF described in a news release as a “festival of tennis and entertainment” is festooned with red caution flags. Here are some of the conspicuous ones:
The makeover must be approved by a two-thirds majority at the ITF’s annual general meeting
In a vote taken at last year’s ITF annual general meeting in August, the member nations rejected a proposal to reduce singles matches to best-of-three sets. The ITF board of directors could not muster the required two-thirds majority required to adopt the resolution. The ITF is a one-nation, one-vote outfit. That means the vote of, say, Nigeria or Uruguay counts as much as that of Great Britain or the U.S.
Andre Stein, the head of the Belgian Tennis Federation, has already issued a statement declaring in part: “This formula is precisely what we do not want. We are absolutely against [the change] and will vote against it.”
Expert’s take: “The biggest holdup to change in the ITF has been the one-nation, one-vote rule. I agree that something had to be done about Davis Cup because the reality is clear — the top guys aren’t playing. But it’s hard to see this going through,” Stan Smith, a former world No. 1, multiple Grand Slam champion and Davis Cup hero in the early 1970s, told ESPN.com.
It’s not sitting well with some close to the game
The immediate response on Twitter and at other forums was wildly anti-reform. Disappointed and angry fans who condemned the move had plenty of support from tennis insiders and Davis Cup luminaries, including Greg Rusedski, Todd Woodbridge, and former Belgian pro turned journalist Filip Dewulf.
Some are not as turned off by it, including Rafael Nadal, who told the DPA news agency that Davis Cup needs a new solution. Others such as former pro Mardy Fish said he welcomes the idea, but thinks it would be even better if it were played every other year à la golf’s Ryder and Presidents Cup.
Expert’s take: “While it’s always hard to abide change, I respect [having] an open mind to improvement. In this case, I will have to see it to believe it,” Andre Agassi, a Davis Cup stalwart during his career, told ESPN.com in a text message.
The proposed date is awkward
One of the few things that already has been decided is the date of the World Cup of Tennis. It will replace the mid-November Davis Cup finals, which follows the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals.
Even if Davis Cup is pushed back by a week, will the players who qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals choose to play a demanding one-week, high-stakes event again so soon?
Expert’s take: “It’s a bad idea to extend the season longer than it already is. The Davis Cup already has four weeks on the calendar. I’d look at the alternate scenarios for the date,” Courier said.
The options for the venue are limited
Given the number of courts that will be needed, the new Davis Cup will likely be played outdoors, and it will almost certainly be played on hard courts, as are almost all the late-season ATP tournaments, including the year-end finals.
The ITF release said “several world-class cities” have expressed an interest in hosting the event, although ITF president Dave Haggerty has indicated the first edition would be held in Asia.
Chances are that the vast majority of the fans who create that colorful, raucous Davis Cup atmosphere will now have to travel far to support their teams. Davis Cup has a special atmosphere, and as Courier said, “The romance will take a major hit.” Others feel the change will make Davis Cup unrecognizable.
Expert’s take: “The essence of this historic competition is to play away or at home. I was the first to say we needed to reform it. But not to destroy it,” Nicolas Mahut, a member of France’s triumphant 2017 Davis Cup squad, said to L’Equipe.
Player participation is not guaranteed
The timing problem is obvious. Also, the appeal of playing for your country has always been the most powerful incentive for participating in Davis Cup. The further this “festival of tennis” departs from that basic script, the less desire — and pressure — the players will feel to take part.
The relationship between the ITF, the ATP and individual players has always been tenuous. And the bandwidth for international competition is being exhausted. The ATP has contemplated launching a new World Cup-type event, while Roger Federer and his management firm have the major stake in the Laver Cup (a new, annual competition that pits a Team Europe against a Team World), which made its successful debut last year.
The top players who choose Davis Cup will have their work cut out. It may be hard for them to avoid playing doubles unless their teams have already clinched 2-0. A player on the winning team may have to play six singles matches as well as some doubles. That’s a lot.
Expert’s take: “I always advocated for a two-week event, and with four weeks [previously] under control of the ITF, it should be able to do a little trading and secure a two-week window for this. Either way, I applaud this move. When you look at how the Grand Slams have grown, it’s clear that the Davis Cup has been underperforming for a long time,” Courier said.