• Jonathan Brannan

IS THIS THE END OF THE DAVIS CUP?

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

This article was originally published on December 19th, 2018.


"The Davis Cup can become the one definitive team event in tennis", said David Haggerty (@HaggertyTennis) president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF).


The ITF recently announced controversial plans to end the Davis Cup's 37-year-old format. After brokering a $3 billion, 25-year partnership with Kosmos, the investment group founded by soccer player Gerard Pique (@3gerardpique).


"Sometimes things have to change, or they have the risk to die," said Pique. The Barcelona defender added, "I can understand for a very traditional tournament like the Davis Cup, it's difficult for people and they have doubts."


The Davis Cup, which was founded in 1900 and has been played in the current format since 1981. Haggerty stated that the decision would elevate the Davis Cup "to new standards".


"This new event will create a true festival of tennis and entertainment which will be more attractive to players, to fans, to sponsors and to broadcasters," he added.

Kosmos team celebrating after deal is announced. Credit: rtve.es

The Change

The Davis Cup is one of the world's largest international team competitions with 132 nations taking part in 2018.


In August, the ITF voted to transform the sport’s most famous and oldest international men’s team tournament into an 18-team World Cup-style format event at their annual general meeting in Orlando, Florida.

A 71.63 % majority voted in favor of the changes to the 118-year-old Davis Cup.


Haggerty said, “I am delighted that the nations have today voted to secure the long-term status of Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. By voting in favor of these reforms, we will be able to work with Kosmos to realize the huge potential of the competition and elevate it to new standards. This new event will create a true festival of tennis and entertainment which will be more attractive to players, to fans, to sponsors and to broadcasters."


"In addition, the new revenues for nations that the event will generate will have a transformative effect on the development of tennis in all nations. Our mission is to ensure that this historic decision will benefit the next generation of players for decades to come."


The revamp, would see the new Davis Cup is played over seven days in the traditional week of the Davis Cup final, rather than across four weekends in February, July, September, and November.


It would comprise a round-robin format where teams are placed into six, three-team groups, involving two singles matches and one doubles match, all best-of-three-sets, instead of the current format that has four singles matches and one doubles match that is best-of-five.

The winners, along with the next two teams with the best records, will advance to the single-elimination quarterfinals. Sixteen teams would automatically qualify for the finals, and two more would be selected.


Established in 1900, the Davis Cup has struggled for relevance at times in a crowded sporting calendar in recent years, failing to attract elite players to come and compete for their countries, as they try to ease their schedule.

It was also confirmed by Haggerty, that Madrid will host the Davis Cup finals in 2019 and 2020 before the competition moves elsewhere. In 2019, it will take place at the Caja Magica, which stages the Madrid Open in May.

It is unsurprising that Madrid was chosen given Kosmos Tennis is very much a Spanish affair. Piqué is joined by chief executive Javier Alonso, the former director-general at MotoGP commercial rights holder Dorna Sports, and media rights director Alex Soriano, who has stepped across from the Barcelona-based Beach Soccer Worldwide.

Kosmos will be pouring around $125m into the sport each year, and Haggerty said "the economics are there for them to be able to make some money as well".


And despite the ATP's plans for their own World Cup event, Haggerty hopes that, after discussions, the Davis Cup will be able to claim its place as the key team event in the sport.


The ATP intends to stage a revamped World Team Cup in Australia in the first week of January from 2020, less than two months after the conclusion of the Davis Cup finale in November.

The Experience


The main criticism leveled towards the Davis Cup in its current format has been the lack of involvement from elite players, many of whom chosen to skip non-mandatory Davis Cup ties in favor of focusing on the four Grand Slams and top-category events on the ATP World Tour.


However, it remains to be seen whether that will change under the new format. Despite efforts having being made to reduce the burden on players.


Nevertheless, Alonso is unperturbed. “Players are important but they are not the most important thing,” he says. “Nations are the most important thing. Having those ingredients makes it very unique.”

Ultimately, says Alonso, the aim is to create an all-new experience that not only transcends tennis, but is eventually regarded as a marquee event on the global sporting calendar. He hints at the prospect of a performance from Pique’s wife, Shakira (@shakira), who could well be brought in to add glamour to proceedings, making the event “something beyond the tennis experience”.


“Gerard loves the Super Bowl,” he continues. “He doesn’t like American football but he always watches the Super Bowl. We want to have a Super Bowl.”


“One of the reasons why we managed to make it happen is because we are not coming from the world of tennis,” insists Alonso. “We are not contaminated by the world of tennis. We have a fresh view. Gerard is a footballer; I am coming from another sport; Alex is coming from beach soccer. We have good ideas around the table.”


As it stands, there are no plans to implement similar changes for the women’s equivalent, the Fed Cup. Yet that could change in the near future. “The Fed Cup also needs a little bit of revamping and we are happy to help the ITF on that,” added Alonso. Another idea on the table concerns a mixed team event, held in April, which would be similar in format to January's Hopman Cup. “I think it’s too early to talk about what we are going to do but we have some ideas,” he continues, adding that any additional events if approved, would begin in 2020, once “the Davis Cup is more fixed in the calendar”.


“We want the Davis Cup to grow and we want the Davis Cup [to become] one of the biggest sports events of the year - not only in tennis but all of sport,” says Alonso. “We really think that having the nations competing against other nations, with the experience of the World Cup - of course, we don’t pretend to compare ourselves to football - but there is room to improve what has been done until now."


“Business-wise, there are some tournaments that work very well and some others that don’t work very well. We want to be in the ones that work very well.”

Reaction


The radical makeover has been divisive in the tennis world.


Critics of the new plan say it involves too much change to fundamental elements of an event that has been around for more than a century.


However, The U.S. Tennis Association was among the national federations that backed the changes.


The organization said the new format will "project Davis Cup into the 21st century" and elevate the competition to "the heights it deserves."


“Especially for small countries, it’s a good deal,” said Aleksandar Sekulovic (@sekulaPG), secretary of the Montenegrin Tennis Association. “Now we have $25 million more than we had before now. It’s three steps forward for the grassroots in the smaller countries.”


Cedric Babu (@CedricNdilima), president of the Uganda Tennis Association, applauded the embracing of the business of sport.

“It gives us the opportunity to develop more players,” he said. “Because we get 10 times the amount we get now, we get to produce more players. For us, it’s an easy decision.”


Babu added: “Davis Cup, over the years, has been losing its momentum. There’s such big money in mainstream tennis that players were not really incentivized to play; they get all the credit from playing on the ATP Tour or at Slams.”

Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) and Rafael Nadal (@RafaelNadal) have been the most positive backers of the plan since it was revealed earlier this year. With Djokovic stating "I'm really glad that people of ITF are understanding the urgency of changing the format and the schedule. It was just not right, especially for the top players."


Lucas Pouille (@la_pouille) shared his thought on the decision.


The French federation also supported the changes, despite French players being some of the most outspoken against the new format.


The Davis Cup died, and a part of the history of our sport flew away for a handful of dollars,” the French player Nicolas Mahut (@nmahut) wrote on Twitter after the vote.

Tennis Australia is one of several federations, including Germany and England, who voted against the plans.


“This proposal takes away too much of what makes the Davis Cup special and unique,” Tennis Australia, who are backing the ATP’s venture, said in a statement.


“Reform is vital for the competition but this proposal takes away too much of what makes the Davis Cup unique and special, especially the home and away aspect which has brought elite tennis to so many fans around the world.”


"Sometimes it's more than a game, more than money," said 37-year-old two-time Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt (@lleytonhewitt), who won the competition with Australia in 1999 and 2003.

"Most of my biggest highs and toughest losses came in five-set epic Davis Cup matches in front of screaming home or away fans.


For the International Tennis Federation to take that away from the next generation of future stars is a disgrace."

The Lawn Tennis Association, Britain's governing body, opposed the proposals, saying it was concerned about scheduling, financing and the division between member nations.

Roger Federer, who played Davis Cup regularly in the first half of his career and won it for Switzerland in 2014, has not participated in it recently and has started his own team event, Laver Cup. Still, he seemed unhappy about the changes.


"The ITF has historically never involved the players," he said. "I'm still a bit surprised. I didn't get involved because I didn't know the solution. It was definitely flawed in some ways, you know, the Davis Cup."


"So for me, I don't know, I feel sad about it, you know, not to have the Davis Cup as it used to be. It will never be the same."

Federer also appeared to have some questions about the funding arrangements.

"I just hope that every penny of that mass of money will be paid for the next generation," he said, referencing a similarly lucrative agreement in 2000 between the ATP and ISL, which then went bust. "It set us back in a big way. I don't want that to happen again."

Finally making the statement "The Davis Cup should not become the Pique Cup."


Haggerty, drawing inspiration from the city around him, said that the boldness and ambition would be rewarded.

“There’s risk in not doing anything, and I thought that that risk was far greater than the changes that we’re making,” he said. “It’s interesting that we’re here in Orlando, when you think of a crazy guy like Walt Disney having a dream and building something that people said wouldn’t happen.


“I in no way compare myself to Walt Disney, but I can learn something from that: You have to look to the future.”