The Davis Cup. Heavyweight, in terms of tradition, and the trophy. Have you seen the size of the thing?
On a less flippant note, substantial changes to the venerable competition appear imminent under the radically sweeping broom (or moustache) of the new ITF President David Haggerty.
The former head of the USTA has broadly presented the game with a fait accomplit by announcing a bidding process for a ‘neutral’ venue for the final before the changes are formally approved by the sport’s national bodies.
A final four also looks to have been decreed for the Federation Cup.
The discussion document spends a remarkable amount of time saying how great Davis and Fed Cup are, while listing a radical re-think of almost the entire genre.
“Unmatched in fan passion and excitement” is one of the direct quotes from Haggerty.
However, suddenly landing on the table with a thud is the idea of three, rather than five set matches and changes to the match format, plus a review of ‘staging options’.
In the spirit of defending the soon to be departed, here are five reasons why the Davis Cup format works well as it is. A hymn to the Status Quo if you will.
1) THE JOY OF THE PARTISAN
If you are really worried about getting new audiences into a sport, here’s one very, very, easy way.
Have the participants represent their nation. A guaranteed way to deliver some kind of different energy to proceedings, especially in the individualistic world of tennis.
Davis Cup ties on non-neutral venues are embraced by home crowds in a way that cannot be matched by ATP Tour events.
If tennis has an image of stuffy, well to do, politeness, a baying Davis Cup crowd giving giant “oohs” in between first and second serves is one way to counteract it.
Bring the bearpit, especially for the big showpiece final.
Have something different from the norm of the Slams and regular events. Don’t kill it with genteel applause.
2) THE GLOBAL GAME
Rafael Nadal’s passage to India? Just one recent example of how players that will rarely be seen on entire continents are sent out to different venues by the randomness of the Davis Cup draw.
Quite simply, world ranked players, can end up in countries where there simply is very little or no exposure to seeing top 20, 50 or 100 players in person.
Grand Slam winners in Samarkand? Davis Cup is the only event that could make it happen in the current format.
Seeing elite players play live (and I mean top 100) is something that can capture the imagination better than television. Don’t change that part of the format at take those opportunities away to fans, and potential fans who will never get that chance – especially with no Masters event in South America.
3) THE PRIMACY OF DOUBLES
Ultimately, doubles is out on the fringes of the professional game most of the time. It takes second place at the Slams and on Tour, with the specialists battling for any coverage they can get.
Davis Cup turns that on its head. As things stand, the doubles rubber is always live. It stands alone for one day – and the three day format gives players enough rest (just about) to allow some of the elite singles players to be part of it. Want new doubles fans – it’s a great introduction again for the more casual supporters that this re-vamp is no doubt supposed to attract.
For example, Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori don’t really play doubles. Until it comes to the Davis Cup (or perhaps paying homage to Larry Ellison’s largesse at Indian Wells).
A change to a more condensed format would probably kill off the showcase doubles has – and shift it further to the side. Not something that the ITF should be doing.
4) FEELING OUT FIVE SETS
Five set tennis is the staple of Grand Slams for the men, and although there is some resistance to that, it is difficult to see an immediate change.
Only Davis Cup offers opportunities to players outside the elite to get a feel for the five set format in a competitive setting where the stakes are high and the body goes through the same sort of tensions.
When your responsibility, again, is to all of the game, that shouldn’t be abandoned.
5) THE NON ELITE HEROES
Davis Cup ties in their current format have a deeply satisfying balance.
The top two singles players are kept apart on day one. The doubles gets its day in the sun on day two. If the match is still alive in rubber four, there is the contest between the highest ranked singles player from each country. Should it get to match number five, it is the number two players for each nation who are inserted into the pressure cooker.
It provides less likely heroes (Viktor Troicki for Serbia and Leonardo Mayer in the recent semi-final between Britain and Argentina) – and god knows any player outside the perceived top four needs all the opportunities for coverage they can get.
Cue David Bowie “Just for one daaaaay.”
Hopefully, the ITF understands the Davis Cup has wider benefits than merely being one method of raising revenue.
It has more to offer than just the World Group, and it looks as if that will be some part of the considerations. That’s good, though he fear would also be lower divisions might be treated as the very bottom zone, in a frantic round robin week at a neutral venue.
Assessing the competition’s placing in the tennis calendar, especially in Olympic years, is a challenge. Either it, or the Masters calendar, comes under a squeeze in terms of elite participation. But elite participation is not all and a more convenient plan for broadcasters and fans (in theory) seems much more likely to kill of the unique vibe that is at the heart of the event.
A giddy sacrifice of the benefits for TV dollars? One hopes not.