Tradition takes a big hit

Christopher Clarey, New York Times News Service, Mar 3 2018, 22:46 IST
CHANGE IN THE AIR: Top players like Rafael Nadal have been enthusiastic participants in the Davis Cup but the hectic nature of the pro tour has pegged them back. AFP

It is a pity it had to come to this, but with the Davis Cup withering and rival events surfacing, the feeling was that something had to give. Tradition did, last week.

In what would arguably be the biggest change to the Davis Cup since its creation in 1900, the International Tennis Federation announced plans to transform the annual national-team competition through what it called a 25-year, $3 billion partnership with an international investment group headed by Spanish soccer star Gerard Piqu.

The lucrative proposal, which requires final approval in August by the ITF's general membership, would change the top level of Davis Cup into a weeklong event in November involving 18 nations, with best-of-three-set matches played at a single site.

The plan is to implement the overhaul for 2019, but approval, in light of the general membership's conservative voting record, is far from guaranteed.

"It's politically tricky and no sure thing that this gets rubber-stamped," Jim Courier, the American Davis Cup captain, said in an interview Monday while expressing support for the plan.

Currently, 16 men's teams play in Davis Cup's top division, known as the World Group, in a home-and-away format over four rounds interspersed throughout the season, and all live matches are best of five sets.

Some former Davis Cup champions, like Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia, consider the proposal a travesty.

"Terrible," Kafelnikov said in an interview. "The value and spirit of the whole team competition is gone."

But like many influential figures in the game, ITF President David Haggerty is convinced that big moves are necessary to keep the event relevant. Haggerty said the proposal had received unanimous support from the ITF's board of directors.

Though mild-mannered in person, Haggerty is unafraid to make bold moves. (If this one fails, his bid for re-election in 2019 certainly will suffer, too.) A former tennis industry executive and a former president of the US Tennis Association, Haggerty was among those who pushed successfully for a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open and for the USTA's vast new complex at Lake Nona in Orlando, Florida.

"Certainly this is a big decision for the ITF," Haggerty said. "We know the environment has changed in tennis over the last few years. Players are playing later in their careers. It's a very physical sport, so I think many factors were taken into account.

"At the same time, if you go back 50 years ago, in Bournemouth they had the first Open tennis event. There had to have been a number of tennis leaders sitting around saying, 'Jeez, tennis is OK, do we really need to make this change? What is it going to do to us? Is it good or bad?' You never know, so that strength of conviction, they had that at the time. They took a risk, but look how tennis has changed. Perhaps in the future, we will look back on this and say the ITF board took such a risk."

Haggerty also wants a more solid financial base for the ITF, which has become the weakest pillar among the sport's bloated network of governing bodies.

The money could indeed be transformative: Haggerty said the partnership with Kosmos, the investment firm headed by Piqué and backed by 52-year-old Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani, would provide more than $20 million in prize money for the players in the final phase each year.

If the $3 billion figure is correct, it would also provide the ITF, whose main source of revenue is the Davis Cup, with an unheard-of influx of cash to fund its own activities, which include developing the game worldwide and running amateur and lower-level professional circuits. Haggerty also said that national federations would benefit.

If the overhaul is approved, only the seasons ahead will determine who was correct in their assessment: the Kafelnikovs or the Haggertys. But one can understand the lure and the timing. Despite pockets of passion, and a compelling history, Davis Cup is losing traction globally.

There were certainly less extreme potential solutions: A partnership with the ATP Tour; shifting the Davis Cup dates away from such proximity to Grand Slam tournaments; or switching to a biennial format that might have lured the biggest stars.

But after being thwarted last year in an attempt to tweak the format with smaller changes, like using a neutral-site final and best-of-three-set singles matches, Haggerty doubled down and pushed instead for more radical change.

At least initially, the event would most likely be held in Asia, Haggerty said, and because of the number of courts required, it would most likely be staged outdoors.

The 18 national teams would be divided into six groups of three for round-robin play over three days. Each team would have four players, and each encounter would include two singles matches and one doubles match. Eight teams would advance to the quarterfinals (the six group winners plus the two best second-place teams) and would be guaranteed a spot in the following year's final phase.

During the week, the strongest eight of the 10 eliminated teams would then play for a place in the following year's competition against the eight teams who have come through home-and-away qualifying during the Davis Cup's traditional dates earlier in the season.

The semifinals would be played Saturday, and the final Sunday.

"The nice thing is that by the end of the week, you'll know the 16 teams playing in next year's event," Haggerty said.

He said the 17th and 18th teams would be selected by the ITF and Kosmos "based on criteria to be determined."

Such an overhaul would have been unthinkable in Davis Cup's heyday, when its prestige was on par with the four Grand Slam tournaments in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. But those moments are long gone, even if Davis Cup continues to generate big crowds and enthusiasm in several countries, including France, which won the title for the 10th time last year.

But many leading players and tennis officials have been clamoring for a change in format for decades. In this golden age in the men's game, the biggest stars - including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic - have all been part of winning Davis Cup teams but have rarely participated at the same time and have faced each other too rarely in the event.

Also, rival national-team events with shorter formats have surfaced, including the Laver Cup, which was started successfully last year by Federer's management company, pitting a European Team against an International Team.

But the biggest threat was the ATP's recent interest in relaunching the single-week World Team Cup, which could have further reduced top players' interest in committing to Davis Cup. Piqué's group, with support from Djokovic, first negotiated with the ATP and its executive chairman Chris Kermode about creating such an event before turning to the ITF in late November. The result was the latest announcement. The Davis Cup - and tennis - may never be the same.

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