Orlando | Battle lines drawn at ITF AGM
Delegates to the ITF AGM are gathered in Orlando this week where, no doubt, much lobbying is taking place to enable the most radical overhaul in the 118-year history of the Davis Cup.
The crunch vote on the sweeping reforms that have divided the sport comes on Thursday, but the battle lines have already been drawn.
It requires two-thirds of the votes by 147 ITF member nations to pass the controversial proposals, which is a high bar to clear, especially when a handful of traditional tennis nations, including the United States, Great Britain, France and Australia, hold more power with 12 votes apiece.
I went on to say that unfortunately their plan is a recipe for the death of the Davis Cup as we know it John Newcombe
ITF chief David Haggerty is expecting to be given the go-ahead for the new format that will see the Davis Cup condensed into a season-ending event played at a single, neutral venue.
“I think at this point and time we have the votes, but I don’t underestimate anything,” Haggerty said from Orlando in a telephone interview with Christopher Clarey of the New York Times.
Haggerty said in a recent interview that the revamped competition would enable the ITF and its member federations to boost tennis’s global development for years to come.
The reforms have the backing of a $3 billion partnership from the Kosmos investment group, founded by Barcelona football star Gerard Piqué, which in turn is supported by Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani and Indian Wells owner Larry Elisson, who announced last week that he has joined the Kosmos company as an investor.
Three of the four Grand Slam nations, the LTA, USTA and the FFT are apparently backing the new proposal but Tennis Australia remains opposed.
“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 men’s game to this point.”
Tennis Australia is set to be a partner in the rival ATP World Team Cup, which would be staged at various sites in Australia before the Australian Open in late January.
This will be a direct competitor threatening the revamped Davis Cup Final, particularly if the World Team Cup offers ranking points and the Davis Cup does not.
The civil war between the game’s governing bodies, ironically, is being driven in part by Tennis Australia’s desire to protect the early-season tennis calendar down under, although it insists that the World Team Cup and Davis Cup can coexist, but only if the latter retains its existing format.
“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 there’s a conflict of interest, as do some others, about their objectivity.”
The ITF maintains its new-look Davis Cup would boost the profile of the tournament, which was first held in 1900 when the United States defeated Britain at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, Massachusetts, claiming that the revamped competition would effectively create a fifth Grand Slam event, increase prize money and attract top players by freeing up space on the calendar.
The changes have appalled some of the greatest names ever to play the sport, not to mention the bulk of fandom who have supported home teams throughout the world.
On Saturday, Australian Davis Cup captains and players including Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Lleyton Hewitt were united in condemning the proposed overhaul.
Newcombe, a five-time champion as a player, described the overhaul as “a recipe for the death of the Davis Cup as we know it.
“At the finish, I congratulated them on coming up with change as many of us former Davis Cuppers have been waiting 25 years for the ITF to act.
“I went on to say that unfortunately their plan is a recipe for the death of the Davis Cup as we know it.
“The Davis Cup is 118 years old and was the forerunner that made tennis into an international sport.
“Their proposal will be voted on by all the ITF nations (in) August and as much as I like Dave Haggerty, I hope it gets defeated.
“There is a much better way to do this and, if the proposal is defeated, I would hope the ITF sits down with all interested parties to come up with a solution that saves the Davis Cup.
“It is too important for tennis to just let it become another event on the calendar that has no real meaning.”
Hewitt disparaged the changes as little more than a “money grab” which ignored the tournament’s history.
The Australian misgivings mirror comments from other regions prompting Tennis Europe to confirm they are planning to vote against the reform.
“It will kill the Davis Cup,” DTB Vice President Dick Hordorff said.
“You cannot make an event which is more or less an exhibition, after the Masters in November, and expect the players to come.
“We all know how many players are injured and unavailable to play in the Masters, so to have another event after that doesn’t make any sense if you want to have the players.
“The Davis Cup is the crown jewel of the ITF, and if you change something then you have to have a clear concept and a clear contract, but even board members, regional federations and big nations asked questions and they don’t get the answers.”
Opposers say it would have been preferable for the ITF to have first tried some less extreme Davis Cup reforms through the years to improve superstar participation, such as first-round byes for the previous season’s finalists, or even a biennial instead of an annual competition.
The ITF remains resolute, releasing a statement last week confirming that they remain confident that their proposed revamp will work.
This calls for the Davis Cup to be condensed from a year-round competition into two weeks, doubling the total prize money to at least $20 million, and shortening 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 initial venues will be in Europe to reduce travel concerns for players, who participate in the elite ATP Finals in London that month.
There will also be a preliminary round in February comprising 12 home or away ties hosted by national federations, the winners of which advance to the 18-team final along with the previous year’s semi-finalists and, in one of the more questionable parts of the plan, two wild-card nations selected by the organisers.
All matches in the final, which includes round-robin group play with 8 teams advancing to the knockout stage, will be decided in three sets instead of the current five and each matchup will consist of two singles matches and one doubles match rather than the current four singles matches and a doubles match.
Haggerty says the new format is a way of stabilising the ITF economically and will increase grass-roots funding for tennis worldwide by giving $25 million annually to the national federations, adding that more than $15 million will also be invested through staging the new November event.
Haggerty is a former tennis industry executive and President of the USTA who, in his first term at the ITF, miscalculated by pushing for a combined final for the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup, the annual team competition for women, which was thrown out.
Adding to the current tensions within the ITF is the notion that Haggerty, who will be up for re-election next year, is acting too independently.
He is drawing criticism for proposing an amendment to the ITF Constitution, which also is being considered in Orlando, that would force board members out only if they commit “criminal offence in the majority of jurisdictions in which the sport is played” and if there is a “custodial sentence” or the board feels the member’s continued presence would bring “the ITF into disrepute.”
Many feel this is Haggerty’s way of protecting his ally, Bernard Giudicelli, the FFT President, who was found guilty of defamation in September last year in France, receiving a fine but no jail sentence.
Giudicelli is a member of the ITF Board of Directors and Chairman of its Davis Cup Committee.
While defamation is a civil offence in many nations, it is a criminal offence in France, and as such, should have meant Giudicelli’s removal from the Board, according to the current ITF constitution.
Instead, he continued to serve in his post and supports the Kosmos deal.
Haggerty states that Giudicelli no longer exercises the rights of a board member, since mid-July, including voting rights, and denies favouritism, adding the issue is “being used to interfere with the momentum for the Davis Cup reforms.”
That this week promises choppy waters for the ITF is more than clear and how Haggerty weathers the storm remains to be seen but, after decades of dithering, the proposal is firmly on the agenda in Orlando, radical and positively unpalatable for many.