WASHINGTON, November 29, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Last summer, with the ATP Tour’s North American hard court circuit in full swing, the International Tennis Federation voted in favor of radically changing the format of the Davis Cup beginning next year. Not to be outdone, the ATP countered with a decision to resurrect the ATP Cup, its own team event that’s been dormant for many years, starting in January 2020. Both concepts will feature similar formats. While the Davis Cup remains a historic showcase of national pride, the ATP Cup will offer prize money and rankings points.
As professional tennis looks to its future, it’s worth pondering: With an already-packed calendar and a meandering season that offers its players very little down time, is there room for another team competition? With the Davis Cup and the Laver Cup already fixtures on the men’s schedule, is the ATP Cup really necessary?
With hopes of turning a profit while generating increased global interest, the ITF, which governs the Davis Cup, sided with the Kosmos capital investment group headed by the Spanish football star Gerard Piqué, which is bankrolling the new-look Davis Cup venture at the tune of $3 billion over 25 years. How could the ITF say no? After a 24-team, preliminary round of home-and-away ties at the beginning of February, a season-ending, one-week 18-team tournament will be staged on a neutral hard-court surface inside La Caja Mágica (The Magic Box) at Manzanares Park Tennis Center, in Madrid, Spain, from November 18-24. (This is the same site that hosts a Masters 1000 event, the Mutua Madrid Open, each year during the ATP’s spring European clay season.) This year’s last four teams (including champion Croatia, finalist France and semifinalists United States and Spain) will automatically be advanced into the Davis Cup Final.
Meanwhile, the ATP Cup will feature a 10-day format with 24 teams competing in best-of-three matches at various locations throughout Australia in January as a lead up to the Australian Open. The first ATP Cup, from January 3-12, 2020, will occur just six weeks after the overhauled 2019 Davis Cup takes place in Madrid. It will mark the return of an ATP team competition for the first time since the former ATP World Team Cup, which took place in Dusseldorf, Germany, from 1978-2012.
In a recent commentary, New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey wrote critically of the sport’s decision to place the Davis Cup and ATP Cup so close together on the calendar. “The fact that the events are going to be staged less than two months apart is tennis at its most dysfunctional. … The sport’s divided governance remains the biggest obstacle to growth and a rational, sustainable schedule. Compromise should not be too much to ask.”
While criticism among the sport’s elite players and some of its rising stars has raised doubt about whether redesigning the Davis Cup, which does away with its traditional home-and-away final, makes sense, there has been a more welcoming attitude by players toward the ATP Cup. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who is the president of the ATP Player Council, joined ATP Executive Chairman and President Chris Kermode and Craig Tiley, the CEO of Tennis Australia, in announcing the roll out of the ATP Cup during the recent Nitto ATP Finals.
According to a press release, the ATP’s move represents “the latest initiative by the ATP to innovate the sport, as well as providing increased earning opportunities for its players, and introducing new fans to the game.” The initial 2020 ATP Cup will offer $15 million in prize money and 750 ATP rankings points to the winner.
“I like that it’s owned by the ATP, by the players, and that we have rankings points,” Djokovic said recently. “It’s going to be the best way to kick start the season.
“Australia is a country that has a Grand Slam, that nurtures tennis tradition. More than 90 percent of the time we’re playing as individuals and we don’t have too many team events. This is going to bring together a lot of nations and, for me personally, it will be a very nice and proud moment to represent my country.”
Perhaps, the ATP Cup’s placement near the beginning of the year when players are fresh and not burnt out – not to mention the awarding of prize money and rankings points – makes a difference. Certainly, it seems, when the prize money is good and there are rankings points at stake, the players will follow the money and chase the points.
“The first week of the season is when the players want to play and that’s why the tournament has their strong support,” said Kermode during the mid-November announcement of the ATP Cup. “By staging the event with Tennis Australia, which is renowned for its experience as an outstanding event promoter, we know that the tournament will be a great success from year one.”
With the addition of the 2020 ATP Cup to the schedule, coming just six weeks after the completion of the 2019 Davis Cup, could it lead to two “identical” or “average” events? Maybe. Are both sustainable? Hopefully, but that remains to be seen.
“The challenge is the calendar, because it’s a very busy schedule,” ITF President David Haggerty said recently, while attending last week’s Davis Cup Final in Lille, France. “There is a concern that tennis has for the health of the players, and the good of the sport. We had very fruitful discussions about is there a way that we can collaborate together with one event as opposed to having a couple of events? It might not happen right away, but it’s something that could happen down the road.”
Although Haggerty said that a merger between Davis Cup and ATP Cup factions wouldn’t occur in the near future, “there is a real sense that we could work together.”
Asked if the two team competitions can co-exist, the Daily Telegraph’s Simon Briggs, appearing recently on “The Tennis Podcast,” said, “There are two big contrasts, but one big asset on each side. The Davis Cup has history; the ATP Cup has a week – a great week. The point is, if you want to play tennis the two weeks before the Australian Open, you’re going to have to play in the ATP Cup with very few exceptions.”
Sue Barker, a longtime BBC tennis presenter, expressed a sentiment that’s shared by many: the need to consolidate the Davis Cup and ATP Cup competitions into one. “For some players, they have to continue to train for an additional two to three weeks before they can go to their off season. It just makes their season that much longer. It’s crazy,” she said on “The Tennis Podcast” during the week of the recent Nitto ATP Finals.
“I’m sorry to see the Davis Cup go, the patriotic crowds. I’m sorry to see that part of history go, the many wonderful matches that everyone talks about for many years. That’s just gone. It’s just going to become another event.
“I think (the powers) need to bash their heads together and come up with one (Cup) – whatever they’re going to call it – and have it at the start of the season. Just one team cup. Nobody wants to play for an entire week against a bunch of different nations right at the end of the season. The players are so weary. For me, when it will happen – or if it will ever happen – the sensible thing to do is to have one team event that has the stature of the Davis Cup, but means a lot, and you go it from the start of the season.”
In a Twitter poll this week, “The Tennis Podcast” asked its followers: “Do you prefer the idea of building up to the Australian Open via the current Brisbane, Sydney, Perth events, or (2020’s) ATP Cup? Surprisingly, the response was 80 percent in favor of maintaining the current tour events compared to 20 percent for the ATP Cup.
According to Tiley, Tennis Australia is working in close collaboration with the players and the ATP Tour “to deliver a globally impactful event that further elevates the sport and the fan interest in it.”
The bottom line, according to Tiley, is simple yet straightforward. “We want to keep growing tennis, give the players an environment where they can perform to the best of their abilities and then ensure they are appropriately appreciated and rewarded,” he said. “This event will help us all achieve that while connecting with new generations of tennis fans. It will provide a new source of inspiration for young athletes to choose our sport.”
When you weigh the pluses and the minuses of the ATP Cup, it’s all about forward thinking, which includes the branding and marketing of tennis, not so much any more about the history of the sport. After all, when it’s summertime in Australia, during January, the Southern Hempishere can be a pretty welcome place to be, with plenty of sunshine and warmth – for both the players and for tennis fans, too. It makes for great TV visuals, seeing Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic or Alexander Zverev at play, having fun. Especially, when you consider the alternative that many of us have to endure: winter snow storms beating across a good portion of the Northern Hemisphere, in North America, in Europe and in parts of Asia, too.