DAVIS CUP: THE END OF AN ERA
By Adam Hassan
In March 2018, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) announced their proposal of a new ‘World Cup of Tennis’ to replace the Davis Cup. The ITF later released details of their proposal: the creation of an annual season-ending Davis Cup finals in Europe, and a new 24 team home-and-away qualifying event in February. These reforms were voted on in August 2018. The ITF needed a two thirds majority in order to pass the reforms; they achieved 71%.
The season-ending finals will feature 18 teams: 4 of these teams will be the semi-finalists from the previous year, 12 teams will be qualifiers from the February event and two of the nations will be wildcards. All matches will be best of three tie-break sets. Ties contested at the finals will consist of two singles matches and one doubles match. The qualifying round in February is still going to be played as four singles matches with one doubles match in the middle, albeit best of 3 sets.
Felix Auger-Aliassime, an 18 year old Canadian up-and-coming star, said in a statement released after the reforms were passed, “One of my biggest dreams as a kid was to one day play a Davis Cup final in front of my home crowd. Sadly, I’ll never have the chance to experience the Davis Cup like I grew up watching it. I still hoped tradition and history would win over money but I guess that’s where we are now.”
The home-and-away aspect of the Davis Cup is very popular, because people love being able to support their team in places where there normally isn’t any tennis. For example, Great Britain play a lot of their home matches in Glasgow. The current Davis Cup is a great chance to watch tennis locally and affordably.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that there is something problematic with the current system. So many top players, including Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka won the Davis Cup once (Serbia in 2010, Switzerland in 2014) and then stopped playing it, because there’s no money and no ranking points.
The fact is, on a local level, the Davis Cup works; it’s exciting in those two countries, it’s great to be in the stadium. But the rest of the world hardly takes any notice of it, and that is a massive problem. In the UK, only British ties are shown on TV, because broadcasters don’t want to pay the rights fee to cover a team that is not their own country, and that’s one of the biggest selling points about what they’re trying to do next year.
When asked about the new Davis Cup format, Roger Federer said, “I highly doubt that I will be playing. I don’t think it was designed for me.” He thinks it was designed for the next generation. However, Alexander Zverev, one of the biggest stars from that next generation, said, “Making a tournament at the end of November is crazy. By the end of the year we’re all tired.” Novak Djokovic agreed, saying, “I just feel the date of Davis Cup is really bad.” That is already three of the biggest players in the sport saying that they’re probably not going to play the competition.
On the other hand, Marin Cilic, who this year, playing for Croatia, won the last ever edition of the Davis Cup in its current format, is strongly in favour of the proposed changes. He said, “The news that the format could change and that we could have everything in a one week tournament, I think it’s just incredibly good for tennis. I think it will bring even more attention to Davis Cup ... the tournament is going to be played in best of 3 sets, so I don’t think it will be that demanding on players.”
The big concern is this potential head to head clash between the ITF’s Davis Cup finals happening in the third week of November and the ATP’s World Team Cup happening in the first week of January. In this great game of chess between the various governing bodies, what the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals – essentially the body that governs men’s tennis outside of the Grand Slams) has in their arsenal is ranking points. Also, from a calendar point of view, the ATP’s World Team Cup makes more sense, coming at the start of the season rather than at the end; whereas the ITF have the Olympics, and at the moment qualification for the Olympics is tied to Davis Cup participation. If anything summed up the dysfunctionality of tennis governance, this is it.
Some people have suggested making it a biannual event and reinstating ranking points. Personally, my feeling is that biannual would be ideal. The closer you can get to golf’s Ryder Cup model, frankly, the better. This year’s Ryder Cup was a reminder that there can be nothing better. They have nailed converting an individual sport into a team competition.
I think it’s desperately sad that the Fed Cup (the women's Davis Cup) is being completely ignored in all of this. It seems so obvious to me to make it a joint Fed Cup and Davis Cup venture, but as is so often the case, the Fed Cup, which ironically is in more desperate need of reform, is just being completely left out in the cold in all of this.
I think it’s fantastic that there are people who want to invest time, energy and money into the Davis Cup. I do believe that the Davis Cup needed reform, because it had lost its relevance. I’m not necessarily saying that every aspect of what’s being proposed is the right thing to do. I’m sure changes will be being made around the edges. They could have phased in a few changes rather than completely altering the format, but equally, I’m intrigued to see how this new competition plays out. The Davis Cup is clearly a failing competition and this could give it fresh impetus. It’s going to be fascinating to see how it evolves.