Even in a divided sport with a surplus of governing bodies, there is finally genuine consensus that the Davis Cup needs to change.
The very prickly question, as the International Tennis Federation gathers in Orlando, Florida, this week for its annual general meeting, is just how much change the sport is prepared to accept.
Most of us agree the Davis Cup needs some tinkering around the edges to ensure the best players play … but the radical overhaul in this proposal will decimate over 100 years of tennis tradition
The 118-year-old mens national team event was long ago a pillar of tennis. It is now a sideshow: good for boosting a few hotbed countries morale but not for routinely attracting tennis biggest stars or generating consistent global interest and major 21st century revenue.
Under a proposal from ITFs president, David Haggerty, and board of directors to be voted later this week, the Cup would condense from year-round competition to two weeks, double the total prize money to at least $20 million (AUS $27.52 million), and shorten matches to best-of-three sets instead of best-of-five.
Currently, in the top division of Davis Cup, 16 national teams compete over four knockout rounds interspersed throughout the year with a two-team final in November hosted by one of the finalists.
The new Davis Cup, with the backing of a $3 billion commitment over 25 years from the investment group Kosmos, would bring together 18 national teams at a neutral site for a week in November each year. The initial venues would be in Europe to reduce travel concerns for players who participate in the elite ATP Finals in London that month.
There would also be a preliminary round in February comprising 12 head-to-head matches hosted by national federations. The winners of those matches would advance to the 18-team final along with the previous years semi-finalists and, in one of the more questionable parts of the plan, two wildcard nations selected by the organizers.
All matches in the final phase, which includes round-robin group play with eight teams advancing to the knockout stage, would be decided in three sets instead of the current five. And each matchup would consist of two singles matches and one doubles match rather than the current four singles matches and a doubles match.
Haggerty said the deal was a way to stabilize the ITF economically and increase grass-roots funding for tennis worldwide by giving $25 million annually to the national federations. He said more than $15 million also would be invested in staging the new November event.
After decades of dithering, the proposal on the agenda in Orlando is genuinely radical — far too radical for some. It also needs two-thirds of the votes by 147 ITF member nations to pass. That is a high bar to clear, especially when a handful of traditional tennis nations, including the United States, Britain, France and Australia, have more power by holding 12 votes each.
“I think at this point in time, we have the votes, but I dont underestimate anything,” Haggerty said in a telephone interview from Orlando.
Leaders of three of the four grand slam tournaments — Wimbledon, US Open and French Open — have backed the new format.
So has Larry Ellison, the American software tycoon who bought the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, and turned it into one of the worlds best tournaments. He has pledged to invest in the new Davis Cup project with an eye on bringing the final to Indian Wells in 2021.
But emotions and resistance are running hot, particularly in Australia, where serial success in Davis Cup once played a role in raising the remote countrys international profile.
“Most of us agree the Davis Cup needs some tinkering around the edges to ensure the best players play,” said Wally Masur, the former Australian Davis Cup player and captain, “but the radical overhaul in this proposal will decimate over 100 years of tennis tradition that has helped grow the mens game to this point.”
The proposal comes in the midst of a turf war with the ATP Tour, which had been in negotiations with Kosmos and is planning a revival of the World Team Cup. The ATP event, if implemented in January 2020, could be a direct competitor and existential threat to the revamped Davis Cup, particularly if the World Team Cup offers ranking points and Davis Cup does not.
Increasing the tension, Tennis Australia is set to be a partner in the World Team Cup, which would be staged at various sites in Australia before the Australian Open in late January.
That move is driven in part by Tennis Australias desire to protect its hold on the early-season tennis calendar. Although Tennis Australia has insisted that the World Team Cup and Davis Cup can coexist, as they did in the past, the project clearly weakens Tennis Australias credibility as it calls for rethinking the Davis Cup project.
“Of course it would be in their best interests to delay a decision so a World Team Cup can take place, which could dramatically change the context of Davis Cup,” Haggerty said. “I think theres a conflict of interest, as do some others, about their objectivity.”
It surely would have been preferable for the ITF to have first tried some less extreme Davis Cup reforms through the years to improve superstar participation: first-round byes for the previous seasons finalists, or even a biennial instead of an annual competition.
Instead, Davis Cup is facing sea change, which may be coming too late if the star players dont buy in. It is unlikely that both team competitions can thrive in the long term. What the sport needs is cooperation: one major event with united support, not a Davis Cup and World Team Cup with similar formats within six weeks of each other.
Though ATP and ITF leaders have held in-depth discussions about joining forces to stage a single event, no agreement has been reached. The ATP player council threw its support behind the World Team Cup, which the tour would own, at Wimbledon earlier this summer.
The lack of clear player support makes the Davis Cup overhaul even more of a gamble, although Haggerty said existing sponsors are demanding change.
“There are players who are supportive,” he said, citing Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. “And I think that once this is approved, I think thats when we will see more.”
New York Times