It has been a long time coming, with lots of negativity en route, but the newly revamped Davis Cup Finals is all set to kick off in Madrid where it will be played on indoor hard courts at the Caja Magica.
But now it’s November and we need to demonstrate that we were right and try to convince those who still have their doubts. Gerard Piqué
It starts tomorrow, Monday, as soon as the dust has settled at the O2 where Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, neither of whom are competing in Davis Cup, compete for ATP Finals honours.
The Davis Cup Finals event takes place over the course of next week from 18-24 November and features 18 teams (and 90 players) – 12 qualifiers, last year’s 4 semi-finalists and 2 wild card nations.
The teams are competing in 6 round-robin groups of 3 teams, so 25 ties will be crammed into the 7 days.
The 6 group winners plus the 2 second-placed teams, with the best records based on sets and games won, qualify for the quarter-finals on Thursday and Friday.
The Davis Cup champions will be crowned next Sunday after the completion of the knockout phase.
The 4 semi-finalists, who play out over the coming weekend, qualify automatically for the 2020 Finals, while the nations that finish in 5th-18th positions will contest the 2020 Qualifiers.
These teams will also be eligible to receive a wild card into the 2020 Finals, along with the winners of the 2019 Group I ties.
Up for grabs is prize money of $20 million, rivalling those awarded in Grand Slams, which has also helped to attract top players to the event.
This radical overhaul of the 119-year-old historic competition has largely done away with the home & away format and created huge controversy, particularly among fans, who are largely unhappy that the chance to watch their team on home soil has been taken away.
Only the 2 group stage ties involving host nation Spain have sold out in Madrid, with organisers admitting they are happy with afternoon sales but that morning ties are proving a challenge.
They have also said that 100,000 tickets have been sold for the season-ending tournament that will attract some 700 journalists to Madrid and will be broadcast to more than 170 countries.
“The competition will be much easier to follow for all kinds of audiences as the title will be decided in just one week,” Kosmos Tennis CEO Javier Alonso told The Associated Press.
A major element of Davis Cup ties was the partisan atmosphere generated by fans cheering on their country’s efforts.
If ties are played in half-empty stadiums with little noise, the event will not be seen as a success.
Traditionally, World Group ties consisted of 4 singles rubbers and 1 doubles, all best-of-5 sets.
Here, however, ties are reduced to 2 singles rubbers and a doubles, all best-of-3 sets.
Whether some of the drama is lost, and whether doubles remains central to the narrative, are just a couple of the big questions.
The impetus behind the switch to a World Cup-style event was to try to encourage the leading players to return to the event, with the commitment of top-20 players increasingly poor.
Most of the eligible top names were, in fact, present when the teams were announced last month, but the absence of Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev, who are playing exhibitions in South America together, speaks volumes.
While Federer (and Thiem) are not playing because Switzerland (and Austria) did not qualify for the finals, Germany’s top ranked Zverev is boycotting the event.
“I said it a lot of times. I don’t think the format is Davis Cup anymore,” Zverev said during the ATP Finals in London this week.
“I think Davis Cup is the most historic event that we have in tennis, which is over 100 years old, and Davis Cup is the home-and-away ties.
“Davis Cup is the whole atmosphere, the play over 3 days to play 5 sets and play those tough matches.
“That’s Davis Cup for me, and not playing it at one venue for one week and deciding it all.
“That’s not Davis Cup. Davis Cup is going to South America, Davis Cup is going to Australia, like I did when it was the proper Davis Cup.
“Yeah, I hope people realise that Davis Cup is more than just money and all that like they are offering us now. It’s history, and it’s tennis history. Yeah, it’s more than just what’s on the table for the players now.”
Under the old format, there was no meeting between the ‘big four’ of Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the last three who are all representing their countries in Madrid.
And would the changes have been so controversial had the man behind them not been as high profile as Barcelona footballer Gerard Piqué?
Critics, including Federer, have referred to the event disparagingly as the ‘Piqué Cup’, and the defender has been involved in an unseemly war of words with Federer.
“To tell you the truth, I’m a bit nervous,” admits Piqué. “I want everything to go well, and I know that everything will go well. I’m a very optimistic and positive person.
“My father is a member of the Real Club, I’ve been going there since I was a kid,” Piqué explains. “I used to watch Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Alberto Berasategui, Carlos Costa.
“I always loved football, but tennis has been my passion as well. Ultimately, I chose football, which I guess has been a smart choice.”
Piqué’s Kosmos company has promised to plough a staggering $3 billion into tennis over 25 years, but his investors will expect a lot back and, if income from ticket sales, TV rights and sponsorship does not live up to expectations, what does that mean for the future of the deal?
“Obviously football is the biggest sport but probably tennis and basketball share the second position in Spain, and this makes a lot of us footballers follow it.
“For instance [Lionel] Messi likes tennis a lot and Ivan Rakitic is another. They follow their countries in the Davis Cup.
“At the Caja Magica you can always see players from Real Madrid and Atletico watching.”
Amid the countdown to the new Finals week, Piqué’s vision is that anyone who attends the event in Madrid has a memorable experience, whether they are a superstar footballer, an ordinary fan, or one of the players who are the central part of the show.
“I want them to have the best week of their lives,” he says. “I want Davis Cup to be a party around tennis, not just tennis.
“We have a deal with Sony and there are going to be different artists performing there that will provide other entertainment, which is going to help make Davis Cup unique.
“During that week fans will enjoy more than just tennis, and of course we want them to have a great time in Madrid.
“They love their sport there. They had the Champions League final in the city this year, the World Cup of basketball also.
“Spain in general is a very sporting country, Madrid is the capital and they are very excited to be hosting the Davis Cup.”
Kosmos is expected to put on a glitzy event, with Piqué’s wife Shakira booked to sing at the closing ceremony.
Having fulfilled his dreams in one athletic pursuit, Piqué now has the chance to fulfil some more in his other sport of choice, this time reshaping the Davis Cup in line with his own vision and that of colleagues at Kosmos.
Helping him is Albert Costa, the former French Open champion who he used to watch and is now the Tournament Director of the revamped competition.
Costa has admitted that Nadal played a crucial role in bringing more top players into the event line-up.
“Having him [Rafa] on our side has been very important,” Costa said. “He has managed to convince a lot of people.”
Costa believes many things make the Davis Cup unique: “A player like Federer has only won it once. With this format, we hope that the top players will sign up more and more.
“Instead of having to keep 4 or 5 weeks free in their schedule, it’s now enough to keep 1; 2 at the most,” says Piqué. “It is the one we’ve dedicated the most time, effort and money to; an initiative that will allow everyone to know what our company is capable of.
“I understand that our project is unsettling and takes time to assimilate.
“But now it’s November and we need to demonstrate that we were right and try to convince those who still have their doubts.”
Piqué has revealed he wants to expand the Davis Cup finals to a two-week event featuring 24 teams so the stakes are high, but they get even higher because of the looming shadow of the ATP Cup.
“It is a long-term project. It’s the tennis world cup and the idea is, over time, to go to a 2-week competition and 24 teams,” he told Cadena SER on Thursday.
He wants to occupy the slot in the calendar in September currently held by Federer’s Laver Cup, which had its third edition this year.
Piqué and Federer have been engaged in something of a long-distance war of words since the footballer became involved.
Asked if he had thought of calling Federer, Piqué said: “No, I’ve always wanted to respect the process.
“First we talked with his agent about the possibility of Switzerland [playing] in 2020.
“He said he would send a formal letter to Roger. They sent us the letter and we were surprised by its contents.
“They see the Davis Cup as a little competition compared to his competition.
“I don’t know if he will play in the Davis Cup one day, but we are delighted with all the players who do come to it.”
The ATP and the ITF, which oversees Davis Cup, are locked in a power struggle that has resulted in 2 near identical competitions being held within 6 weeks of each other.
The new ATP Cup will take place in Australia in January with 24 teams, boasting big prize money and ranking points.
Many believe that only one event can survive in the long term and an underwhelming Davis Cup could well put its future at risk, although many remain positive.
Nadal has been supportive from the outset, but he has his concerns, and would like to see the two events merged.
“Of course we need to fix a couple of more things on the tour to make a big, big competition. I think two team tournaments, Davis Cup and ATP Cup in one month, is something that, in my opinion, is not good.” Nadal told reporters in Paris recently.
“My feeling is we need to create one big, big competition to stay together,” he added. “ITF, ATP, that’s a good opportunity to make that happen and we need to make that happen.”
Nadal is not alone in his calls for a potential merger, with rival Djokovic saying the 2 events taking place in close proximity in the long-term is ‘not sustainable’.’
Trying to find a resolution, however, is not so simple.
The ITF and ATP are separate governing bodies in the sport, with their own agenda of investing millions into their events.
On top of that is the Laver Cup where Europe take on the rest of the world, co-founded by Federer’s Team8 Management company, which secured a place on the ATP Calendar earlier this year.
“We have to remember they are only 6 weeks apart,” Djokovic commented during the Shanghai Masters.
“To have 2 huge competitive team events in our sport so close to each other, I don’t think in the long-term that’s sustainable. That probably needs to change.”
He will, of course, be seeing the Davis Cup Finals for himself.
“It will be a spectacle,” Spain’s Feliciano López said this week in Madrid. “We have to thank everybody for making this happen. The atmosphere will be incredible this week.”
Murray, who is making his comeback from hip surgery to lead the British team, is also urging everyone to get behind the event after reportedly speaking several times to Piqué.
“I respect that he’s trying to do something new and different in tennis,” Murray said. “Tennis is not always the easiest to make changes in and this is a big change.
“We’ll see how it goes. I hope it goes really well because, if it does, that’s fantastic for tennis.
“I think there’s some people that seem to be hoping it doesn’t go well, but I hope it goes really well and that it’s a big success.
“The players and all of the fans need to try to give it a chance to see how it goes and I think we’ll have a better idea after the tournament’s finished.”
Among those missing because of injury are Japan’s Kei Nishikori and Canada’s Milos Raonic, while the latest withdrawal is Daniil Medvedev from the Russian team.
Adapting the Caja Magica, which hosts the Madrid Masters in the spring, has also been a challenge, and the fact it is not entirely indoors is not ideal given the chilly temperatures in Spain’s capital city.
A bubble has been constructed to add additional indoor practice courts, while temporary individual locker rooms for each team have been constructed.
Kosmos are pushing to move the event to a different time of the year but that will require co-operation with the ATP.
Despite outgoing ATP Executive Chairman and President Chris Kermode declaring last spring that having 2 similar team events 6 weeks apart would be insane, that is exactly what has played out, with the ATP Cup opening the new season in Australia in January.
“I’ve really enjoyed the set-up that they’ve got,” he said. “It’s nice just seeing all of the players at one event in all their team colours and stuff.”
Murray has not played Davis Cup since the semi-final loss to Argentina 3 years ago.
Because of his lowly ranking, currently 125, the 3-time Grand Slam champion will be the second singles player, with either Dan Evans or Kyle Edmund the first.
“It’s been fun, just being around all the guys again. There’s lots of things I didn’t think I’d get to do again and certainly I didn’t expect to be here,” Murray added.
“Even a few months ago, I was losing in the second or third round of Challengers and was not playing particularly well, so I didn’t know if I was definitely going to be in the team.
“It’s nice, I feel more like I’ve earned my chance to potentially play again and hopefully I have a good week.”
Great Britain begin their campaign against the Netherlands on Wednesday.
Serbia play their first match the same day against Japan, and captain Nenad Zimonjic is hopeful of being able to call on a fully-fit Novak Djokovic.
The world No 2 experienced pain in his troublesome right elbow in his ATP Finals loss to Federer on Thursday but was due to practise on site on Sunday afternoon.
“I think so far everything is OK,” said Zimonjic. “I think it’s going to be enough time for him to prepare for our first match.”
Eurosport 1 will show exclusive coverage of the Davis Cup Finals on their channels and online player.
The TV schedule is as follows:
Monday 18th November: 3:00pm – 9:00pm
Tuesday 19th – Saturday 23rd November: 10:00am – 11:00pm
Sunday 24th November: 3:00pm – 9:00pm
To access the Eurosport Player direct costs £6.99 per month or £39.99 a year.
Eurosport is also available through Virgin Media and Sky Sports.
Order of Play
1.30pm: Opening Ceremony, followed by Croatia v Russia (centre court), Italy v Canada (stadium 2) and Begium v Colombia (stadium 3)
10am: Argentina v Chile (centre court), France v Japan (stadium 2) and Kazakstan v Netherlands (stadium 3)
Not before 5pm: Spain v Russia (centre court), USA v Canada (stadium 2), and Australia c Colombia (stadium 3)
10am: Serbia v Japan (centre court), Argentina v Germany (stadium 2), and Great Britain v Netherlands (stadium 3)
Not before 5pm: Croatia v Spain (centre court), USA v Italy (stadium 2) and Belgium v Australia (stadium 3)
10am: France v Serbia (centre court), Germany v Chile (stadium 2), Great Britain v Kazakstan (stadium 3)
Not before 5pm: Quarter-finals: Winner Group D v Winner Group F