David Ferrer made us care about the Davis Cup, again … Now, what’s next?

The future of the largest team competition in sports hanging in the balance.

International Blog – Michael Dickens

Dickens

Michael Dickens

Here’s to you David Ferrer – you may have just single-handedly saved the Davis Cup!

Last weekend, with the Spain-Germany Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group quarterfinal tie dead even at two rubbers each, Ferrer and Philipp Kohlschreiber battled like gladiators for nearly five hours on a red clay tennis court inside a converted bull ring at Plaza de Toros de Valencia, in Valencia, Spain.

On a Sunday afternoon in which tennis fans around the world were focused on Davis Cup competition, it didn’t get any better than this one match: a pivotal fifth rubber between two of the sport’s powerhouse countries. And to think that earlier in the day, World No. 1 Rafael Nadal knocked out World No. 4 Alexander Zverev just to keep Spain’s hopes alive – and it extended his personal winning streak of 24 combined singles and doubles Davis Cup rubbers, longest in the history of the competition. Then, he became fully engaged from the sidelines as a fan along with the rest of his Spanish Davis Cup teammates. If Nadal hadn’t won, there wouldn’t even have been a Ferrer-Kohlschreiber clash – winner take all.

David Ferrer: the ultimate hero

As it happened, Ferrer played the part of the ultimate hero in front of his hometown fans as he fought and fought some more and – finally – defeated Kohlschreiber, 7-6 (1), 3-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-5. There were plenty of dramatic moments going on inside the bull ring throughout the rubber by both players – and some truly great shotmaking, too.

A photograph of an exhausted Ferrer laying on his back with his arms spread wide and his racket by his side celebrating his and Spain’s 3-2 victory remains fixed in our collective minds more than a week later.

Spain advanced into the semifinal round of the Davis Cup for the first time since 2012. It also maintained its perfect record at home this millennium.

A match-up like Ferrer-Kohlschreiber brings out the best in Davis Cup competition. While I’m not a big fan of best-of-five-set matches – even during the Grand Slams – it certainly allows for plenty of high drama to unfold, doesn’t it?

As Davis Cup World Group quarterfinal weekend began – which matched France at Italy, Kazakhstan at Croatia, Belgium at the United States and Germany at Spain – it prompted Christopher Clarey, tennis columnist for The New York Times to tweet: “Nadal back for Spain, set to face Kohlschreiber & Sascha Zverev. The irony is that if there had been more marquee match-ups like this, Davis Cup wouldn’t have needed an overhaul.”

Imagine, then, if the ITF had its way: A one-week, end of the season extravaganza coming after a long, grueling season would do away with the familiar home-and-away ties such as like we witnessed with Spain and Germany.

“When Ferrer won that gripping match in front of a partisan crowd,” wrote Jon Wertheim, executive editor of Sports Illustrated“it reminded us of the beauty of Davis Cup. (And thwarted momentum for the ‘change agents,’ whose proposal will be put to a vote in late summer.)”

Software upgrade for the Davis Cup

The Davis Cup has been tennis’s premier men’s team competition since its inception in 1900. It is owned and operated by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), which depends upon the Davis Cup for a great portion of its annual income. However, thanks to pressure coming from sponsors and some top players, the ITF has proposed to change the Davis Cup format to a one-week competition at the end of November that would feature 18 teams in the World Group, best-of-three rubbers, best-of-three sets. Investment group Kosmos has dangled a 25-year, $3 billion partnership at the ITF. If approved by ITF member nations, Davis Cup 2.0 could become reality in 2019.

“We know that both Davis Cup and Fed Cup need a revamp in some way,” said Katrina Adams, President and CEO of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and an ITF vice president, during a recent Tennis Channel interview. “They need a shot in the arm. We want to make sure it’s successful to the players and exciting for the players. Players have been saying they want change, but every time there’s a proposal put forth for change they say ‘wait, we don’t want that change.’ So, it’s just a matter of making sure that there’s an opportunity out there for these players to continue to play Davis Cup, to represent their country and be rewarded for it.”

Wertheim agrees. “The longtime model needs the equivalent of a software upgrade. For reasons empirical (drop-off in player participation, dwindling media coverage), practical (the clogged calendar) and visceral (loss of relevance) we need change,” he wrote in Sports Illustrated last week.

“Yet the proposed restructure has so many problematic elements,” Wertheim continues. “It doesn’t include women, which would be an obvious way to build support among federations, fans and sponsors. The week on the calendar is problematic, coming as it will at year’s end when players are exhausted and least likely to be motivated by money. At a time when Europe clearly represents the sport’s nerve center, holding the event in Asia makes little sense. The notion that armies of, say, Belgian tennis fans and Argentine supporters will converge on Singapore smudges the line between whimsical and delusional.”

On top of the changes to the Davis Cup format proposed by the ITF, the ATP is seeking to revive its discontinued World Team Cup, which was formerly staged in Düsseldorf, Germany, in May before it was disbanded in 2012. “The last thing professional tennis needs is two similar men’s team events within a few weeks of each other,” wrote Clarey last month in a New York Times article “A Davis Cup Overhaul and a World Team Cup Revival Add Up to Tennis Excess.” He noted, “Surely not even tennis can be this clueless. … But big money and the survival instinct are powerful forces. Both are in play when it comes to the Davis Cup and the would-be World Team Cup.

“Now the leadership of the men’s tour, the ATP, is looking to revive it on a grander and more lucrative scale in cooperation with Tennis Australia. It would place this one- or two-week event at the start of the season in early January as part of the lead-up to the Australian Open.”

If it’s approved by the ATP leadership, the “new-age” (in the words of Clarey) World Team Cup could begin in 2020.

With over a hundred years of history, it seems the ITF wants to see the Davis Cup evolve as a meaningful 21st century competition in an effort to maximize its potential. Meanwhile, ATP executive chairman Chris Kermode recently told The New York Times, “The results of those efforts remain to be seen. Our focus remains on bringing the ATP World Team Cup back into the calendar, an exciting project which we’ve been working on for over 18 months now, with the last few details still to be finalized.”

What do the players think?
Here’s a sampling of opinion as quoted in Clarey’s article:

• Milos Raonic of Canada: “They will compete, but one’s going to end up swallowing the other eventually. Because I don’t think in any sport, two team competitions, other than something as big as soccer, really survive.”

• Jeremy Chardy of France: “The fans aren’t going to understand. It would seem bizarre to have essentially the same thing twice in a row.”

• Feliciano López of Spain: “I don’t know if it would be great to play both competitions in the same year … two in five weeks would be two much.”

And, then, there’s Lucas Pouille of France, who broke into a widely publicized diatribe against the ITF’s proposed changes to the Davis Cup competition during a post-match press conference in Dubai earlier this season: “Well, I think it’s a death sentence of the Davis Cup. They just picked the idea of the ATP of making the World Team Cup, again, because it’s exactly the same. It’s during one week, a lot of teams, some money. That’s why they want to do it. But obviously, they cannot call it a Davis Cup anymore. When you’re not playing at home, or in the country against who you’re playing, then it’s not a Davis Cup.”

The World No. 11 Pouille makes several excellent points. He went on to say, “Everybody who won it already, they don’t play anymore. Maybe, if it was every two or three years, then it will be different. 

“But, of course, I mean, we won the Davis Cup end of November. First round we play the beginning of February. I mean, it’s a bit ridiculous. There is no point playing the first round two months after the final. Maybe there is a point or finding some way to change it. I’m not sure this is the right way.”

And the future?

Looking ahead, I think it’s obvious that what tennis would benefit from is one clearly defined team event – not two – so as to not further weaken the value of having a team competition in the first place. Does the Davis Cup need to remain an annual event? Tradition says yes – but, then, how about setting uniform playing surfaces during the Davis Cup instead of letting the home team dictate the surface, and while we’re at it, let’s change from a best-of-five set to a best-of-three set rubber format for the sake of helping to preserve a player’s health and well-being during the already-too-long season.

Now, common sense and forethought might suggest that making the Davis Cup a biennial competition like the professional men’s golf Ryder Cup might create greater fan interest and, thus, make it more meaningful and competitive.

Finally, let’s consider including women. If the annual Hopman Cup competition in Perth, Australia, can include both men and women, why not the Davis Cup? As Clarey recently noted, “Combined events, including the Grand Slams, are among tennis’s greatest strengths going forward, with women’s sports set to take on greater importance and market share.”

The bottom line is this: why not set the bar high and elevate tennis apart from other sports that continue to segregate men and women’s World Cup-level competitions. It can be done. It should be done.