London | ITF bombshell strikes at Davis Cup tradition
The ITF has dropped a bombshell onto its flagship Davis Cup by proposing the World Group is played using the old Fed Cup format!
In 1995 the Federation Cup adopted a new format and shortened its name to Fed Cup, based on the great success that the home-and-away format had achieved in the Davis Cup.
Since 1963, the women’s team championships had previously been played over one week at a different venue each year, initially attracting teams from 16 countries and supported by the top players right from the start.
The format was two singles and a doubles and, by 1994, 73 nations were competing, with on-site qualifying determining which nations would join a 32 main draw.
Played on different continents each year, the competition provided unprecedented opportunity for the development of the game but the powers that be insisted the format be changed so that women, as well as men, could play for their country on home soil.
The International Tennis Federation has thrown a bomb into the tennis landscapeTodd Woodbridge
They have been tinkering with it ever since and now, the ITF is proposing a major revamp of the Davis Cup that will see it lose the very essence that made it such a success.
The proposal is for a one-week World Cup of Tennis Finals to be held at a neutral venue featuring 18 nations, with a round robin qualifying stage before a knockout phase in which two singles and one doubles match will be played, using a best-of-three sets format.
The fact that this could come about through a partnership between the ITF and Gerald Pique’s investment group, Kosmos, which has promised to sink an extraordinary $3 billion into ITF projects over the next 25 years, exposes a marginalised governing body trying to offset challenges presented by the ATP’s revival of the World Team Cup, possibly in January 2020, and the recent success of the Laver Cup run by Roger Federer’s management company, Team8.
The ITF used to be the ‘conscience of the game’ and the guardian of the Rules of Tennis but, over recent years, it has seen its role eroded as the ATP has grown ever dominant.
The alliance with the Grand Slams adds a degree of credibility but each major goes its own way at will, testimony to which are Tennis Australia and the USTA’s endorsement of the Laver Cup.
Politics aside, stalwarts of the Davis Cup see this latest proposal as an outrage, best expressed by Todd Woodbridge, Australia’s former captain, who is quoted as saying: “The International Tennis Federation has thrown a bomb into the tennis landscape”.
Should the new World Cup of Tennis Finals come to pass, it will mean the end of the Davis Cup as we know it.
The oldest team competition in sport, the Davis Cup dates back to 1900 and all the glitz in the world cannot compete with 118 years of tradition, but it is ailing, as top players spasmodically support their countries, or not.
An increasingly congested calendar, governed by tennis’s mind-boggling governance structures, which involve seven different bodies, serve only to fuel old rivalries as the ITF, the ATP and the Grand Slams all pull in different directions.
That the ITF is under pressure from the ATP is clear, and this would-be partnership with Kosmos could be seen by some as a last gamble by an organisation with few cards left to play.
To make any headway with the World Cup of Tennis Finals proposal, however, the ITF will need a two-thirds majority at August’s annual general meeting in Orlando, Florida.
Only last year, members rejected proposals to switch to a neutral final and best-of-three set matches, which represented a far less dramatic shift, so to target the event up and running by November 2019 is a tall ask.
“There’s still a long way to go as it requires approval at the ITF annual general meeting, but we’re still passionate about the Davis Cup and I, like everyone else, realise that changes need to be made to ensure longevity and status of the competition,” Leon Smith, Britain’s Davis Cup captain, told the BBC.
André Stein, President of Belgian tennis, however, categorically stated: “We are absolutely against and will vote against.
“This formula is precisely what we do not want, because Belgium will never have the means to organise such a competition, so our public and our partners would see the already rare opportunities to see the best Belgian players in action fall away.
“I know the French are against and the former chairman of the ITF too.”
The Germans also have lobbed some very hostile words at David Haggerty, President of the ITF, who has championed the proposed changes: “Instead of improving the event, they are ruining it. They want to transform it into an exhibition.
“I truly hope that the member nations will stop this nonsense and remove Haggerty from his presidency,” the Vice President of the German Tennis Federation, Dirk Hordorff, is reported to have said.
“The neutral final, or neutral final and neutral semi-final, would destroy the unique format of the team events.”
Spain is probably the only Western European country that could support the project.
As the shockwaves spread through social media, reactions split down geographical lines.
European fans, who often turn out for the Davis Cup in large numbers, expressed real fury at the loss of home-and-away ties for World Group nations.
Americans, who are less attuned to the concept of regular international competition, were broadly positive about the idea of a glamorous, well-funded end-of-year circus, especially if it can be on their shores.
As for the players, it is too early to say.
On the upside, finals week would offer the financial benefits of a fifth Grand Slam, given the $20m prize pot on offer, but how will another high-profile event, shoe-horned into the middle of the off-season, affect a men’s tour that is already perceived to have an injury crisis?
Todd Woodbridge, who won two Davis Cup titles during his career, has accused the ITF of revealing the changes without holding talks with those involved, despite Haggerty’s claims that the idea was based on feedback he received from the Players’ council.
“I’ve been around the Australian summer of tennis, Davis Cup, Fed Cup the last seven weeks and I’ve been in the commentary box with Lleyton Hewitt and there was no talk of any of this being thrown like a big bomb into the tennis landscape,” Woodbridge told ABC News.
“When you’ve got one of the greatest players in Australia’s Davis Cup history [Hewitt] and the competition’s history and he hasn’t been personally spoken to, you’ve got to ask questions about that due diligence and what is the ITF doing?
“Are they going out and sourcing the right opinions before making such a big change?”
“Has it got the players behind it? What’s it really going to look like? There are so many questions that are unanswered before they’ve put out a big statement like today,” added Woodbridge, winner of 25 doubles matches in Davis Cup, who acknowledges there is too much tennis on the ATP schedule.
“I’m hoping that this is just a catalyst for discussion, I think there is so much that has to be worked out for this new proposal,” he said.
“What happens to the home and away tie? What happens to the individuality of Davis Cup because, if you look at Davis Cup over its 100-plus years of history, it is unique and it’s different.
“It’s that ability that makes it stand apart from a regular tennis week.”
Rafael Nadal has welcomed the motion to change the format of the event, telling DPA news agency: “I think so [the changes are good]. Obviously, when something does not work perfectly, it has to look for new solutions and this has been going on for years, it’s a good initiative that can work.”
The World No 2 also said that he hopes the new event will be one that will move around the world and not be fixed in one location.
“In the end, the important thing is that an event in a week that will be like a World Cup does not remain based on a particular place, which can be seen in different parts of the world, that fans can travel, enjoy encouraging his team, his country, and that makes the competition is great and unique,” he added.
Andy Murray has seemed favourable to Davis Cup change, while Novak Djokovic, who is one of Kosmos’ stockholders, will surely support the revolution.
In contrast, Roger Federer, who is the mastermind behind the Laver Cup along with his agent Tony Godsick, cannot be thrilled by the idea of having his event compete with a newer and apparently more appealing to television Davis Cup.
While keen to see how the plans develop, Federer was coy about giving it his full support: ”I’m surprised this is happening, just because I do not know another Davis Cup other than the current format.
“Time will tell us if it’s okay, I’m hearing a lot of extremely positive and extremely negative reactions.
“It will be interesting to see what happens, if it will be the final format.”
Leon Smith has urged others to keep an ‘open mind’ about the format, saying that change has been long overdue, but it is unclear whether the LTA will vote in favour or against the proposals.
“Of course one of the first things that came to mind is the loss of the home and away tie,” continued Smith. “It works in other sports but remains to be seen if it could work in Davis Cup.
“However, I do think it’s really positive the ITF are looking at significant investment from other sources to secure the future of the competition.” he told the Press Association.
“For now we’ll just have to keep an open mind as we start to learn more about this proposed new structure and whatever the outcome, I hope the Davis Cup remains the most important team event in world tennis.”
When it comes to producing the raucous atmospheres which help make the Davis Cup unique among tennis events, few do it as well as the Belgians who have reached two of the last three finals, losing on both occasions.
The final between Belgium and Britain in the Flanders Expo in Ghent in 2015 was an unforgettable experience for the 13,000 fans who crammed inside the arena over the three days.
Last year’s first-round clash against Germany in Frankfurt and the final against France in Lille brought thousands of Belgians across the border to roar on their players.
“Our major concern is that we are risking killing the soul of the Davis Cup,” Belgian tennis chief Gijs Kooken told Reuters.
“The Davis Cup atmosphere is really something unique. The ITF are focusing on having a bigger event but our concern is that this part of it [the home and away format] creates big event value.”
While Kooken says change is needed to ensure the participation of the world’s top players, he is sceptical about the radical revamp, especially the fact that the traditional home and away ties would be lost.
“I can’t imagine that [the ITF] are not thinking about this because they know what makes Davis Cup different from all the rest,” he said.
“You have to change what is necessary to change and strengthen what is good or at least keep it. To drop the most unique thing of a product, that isn’t the right way to develop a sport.”
Tradition can be a fine thing and the Davis Cup has doggedly clung on to its heritage although, in 1972, the competition did undergo a major change of format when the Challenge Round was abolished, resulting in the reigning champion having to play in every round, and advantage fifth sets were ditched before the 2016 competition.
Now, this ground-breaking proposal will condense the Davis Cup competition into only one week, with 16 nations as part of the World Group plus two wild cards.
There will be six groups with three teams each competing in a round-robin format for the first three days of the competition.
Each team will be composed of four players and each tie will consist of two singles and one double, with all matches employing a best-of-three format with tiebreaks at 6-6 in each set.
At the end of the first three days, the six teams that win their groups and the two second best teams will advance to the quarter-finals.
The semi-finals will be contested on Saturday and the final on Sunday.
Determining the two second best teams will certainly be a puzzle with many complicated calculations in terms of sets and games that were won and lost, perhaps even more complicated than the ATP Finals.
The best teams among the ten that are eliminated in the round-robin stages should play against the eight teams that emerge from World Group II, whose ties will take place in the same three calendar slots that are currently assigned to the traditional Davis Cup.
“At the end of the week, we will know the 16 nations that will compete in the final stages of the following year, while we still have to decide how the wild cards will be assigned to teams No 17 and 18,” Haggerty explained.
Even though founder Dwight Davis was American, the United States are not very attached to certain traditions.
US captain Jim Courier doesn’t seem to be against the new format and would also like to add the Fed Cup to the same week.
Russia’s Yevgeny Kafelnikov is utterly against the new format: “It’s terrible, the soul and spirit of the competition will be completely lost,” he laments.
“Smaller countries losing their chance to see their stars on home soil…” reflected Jurgen Meltzer. “Plus home and away atmosphere is gone… wasn’t that what DC was all about?”
Another question mark is the location for the competition, which could require as many as 12 show-courts during the round-robin stages.
Other than the USTA’s new National Tennis Center in Orlando, Florida, there are no obvious tennis venues with a big enough capacity to host a world championship of this magnitude by 2019 with pleasant weather conditions during the month of November.
Europe therefore would not be an option, but maybe Florida, Australia, the Middle East or Asia are.
The fact that Spain and Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique, who may soon become one of the most important people in tennis, is involved doesn’t sit well with many: “This is NOT Davis Cup! Name it Kosmos Cup or Pique Cup or whatever. Leave the real Davis Cup to history,” tweeted one outraged fan.
There are clearly more doubts than certainties surrounding this new revolutionary World Cup of Tennis idea and, while the old Federation Cup format was a proven success for many years, this one may never get off the ground, perhaps to the relief of many