As Davis Cup Transforms, Will New Version Be Better Than Old One?

WASHINGTON, November 28, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

Next year, amid protests, the historic Davis Cup will enter a new era and with a new format. Gone will be the year-long drama building up to a Davis Cup Final featuring two nations. Gone will be the familiar World Group of 16 nations contesting home-and-away ties played on a variety of surfaces, usually favoring the home team. Instead, the new-look Davis Cup will be contested like a football World Cup, during a one-week, season-ending 18-team tournament in late November. It will be staged on a neutral, hard-court surface inside La Caja Mágica (The Magic Box) at Manzanares Park Tennis Center, in Madrid, Spain.

While the Davis Cup Final always comes at the end of an already too-lengthy tennis season, and just a week after the end of the ATP Tour Finals, it’s been steeped in tradition – 118 years-worth of tradition. The men’s team event was started by a group of Harvard University students in Boston in 1900.

ITF members approve changes

The International Tennis Federation (ITF), the governing body of the Davis Cup, believes the overhauled format, with best-of-three-sets matches instead of best-of-five-sets and reduced from four singles matches to two, along with one doubles match, will be more attractive to the sport’s elite players – think of the Big Three of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – who more often than not decline to represent their countries, citing an already-crowded schedule. It is because of the waning interest of today’s tennis superstars – and it’s been waning for several years – that the ITF felt a radical change was needed for the Davis Cup to maintain its relevance.

“If Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had all made the Davis Cup a priority at the same time, they might have lifted the event into a new golden era, just as they have elevated their sport as a whole,” New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey recently wrote.

“But it was not to be. Individual ambition, injuries and the demands of an overstuffed tennis calendar conspired against it. Federer and Nadal have played 38 times, but never in Davis Cup competition. Djokovic has played Nadal and Federer only once each in the Cup, both matches coming before he entered his prime.”

Since the ITF’s announcement of the revamped competition was made last August, approved by more than two-thirds of the federation’s voters, many critics have – unkindly – taken to calling Davis Cup 2.0 “the Kosmos Cup” or “Piqué Cup,” both references to the Kosmos capital investment group headed by the Spanish football star Gerard Piqué, that is bankrolling (at the tune of $3 billion over 25 years) the new-look venture. Of course, all the new moves are being made with the hopes of turning a profit while generating increased global interest. It’s worth reminding that the Davis Cup is played for national pride, but offers participants no money or rankings points.

When the vote was taken last August, France and the United States voted in favor of the Davis Cup reforms, Australia and Great Britain did not. Djokovic and Andy Murray were supportive of the changes even though their federations did not vote in favor of them. More recently, Alexander Zverev has been an outspoken critic about the Davis Cup, especially concerning its schedule, and Federer has also come out against its changes.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, ITF President David Haggerty, an American and a prime mover–and–shaker in the Davis Cup changes, said, “I honestly don’t see it as the end of an era as much as I see it as the end of a chapter of a long book.” Throughout last weekend’s Davis Cup Final in the northern French city of Lille, it should be noted, Haggerty drew boos from the mostly partisan fans that filled Stade Pierre Mauroy.

Reactions after the 2018 Davis Cup Final

Immediately following Croatia’s decisive 3-1 Davis Cup victory over France on Sunday, it didn’t take long for several French players and their captain, Yannick Noah, to express their rage over the ITF’s decision to radically change the format of the world’s largest annual international team competition in sports. They’ve been the most vocal critics of the new format despite France’s federation voting in favor of the changes.

“Last year, I was crying of joy,” said French Davis Cup player Lucas Pouille, whose decisive win against Belgium lifted France to its 10th Davis Cup in 2017. “This year, I was crying because I was sad.

“I’m not going to change my mind about the new format. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to play in the Davis Cup anymore. That was the last time.” While Pouille made his comments in the heat of the moment after losing to Marin Cilic of Croatia in this year’s tie-clinching rubber, it was plainly evident that he’s not happy.

Neither is Pouille’s teammate Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who said he hopes the new venture with the Davis Cup fails next year so they can go back to what they know.

The always engaging Noah, who guided France to three Davis Cup titles and is departing after his third stint as French team captain, is a strong opponent of the Davis Cup overhaul. During a passionate and emotion-filled press conference following the trophy ceremony, Noah spilled his feelings, saying, “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen. There’s so much confusion. We’re trying to find the logic in all of this. Who knows how many millions it’s going to take to save the Davis Cup? I don’t know. Honestly, if I knew I would tell you.”

The tone and cadence of Noah’s voice, suggested “The Tennis Podcast” co-host Catherine Whitaker, was extraordinary. “It was like a five-or-six minute-long soliloquy – a love letter to a dying Davis Cup, a dying lover,” she said. “You can’t help but celebrate the strength of his feelings.”  

Noah continued: “The only thing I know is what I experienced today. How much in dollars is a dream? It will never happen, again. We touched a lot of people here in Lille. There were 25,000 people. As we are playing, there is a strife of people who are upset because of the injustices in the world. So, what can we give? What we can give to the Davis Cup is to be able to come to Lille, play Croatia, do our best and have 25,000 people happy to see some tennis.

“It will never be the same; it’s going to be something else. I really hope this is not going to be called the Davis Cup. It will not be the Davis Cup. Playing two sets is not Davis Cup. Playing somewhere else is not Davis Cup. When people tell us it’s Davis Cup, they’re lying. So, if I have a voice, I’m going to tell them ‘they’re liars.’ It’s the truth; it’s how I feel.”

After the ITF voted to approve the changes to the Davis Cup format, longtime French Davis Cup doubles star Nicolas Mahut tweeted his dissatisfaction. “The Davis Cup is dead, and part of the history of our sport is gone for a handful of dollars.” Mahut and Herbert garnered France’s only point during the Final against Croatia by winning the highly-competitive and entertaining doubles rubber. During the awards presentation afterward on Sunday, according to Clarey, Mahut gave Haggerty, “an extended piece of his mind as he accepted his second-place prize, still angry at the decision to radically change the format of the men’s team competition next year.”

Competition between ITF and ATP

Immediately following the ITF’s announcement of its Davis Cup reforms, the ATP countered with a decision to relaunch the ATP Cup, its own team event that has been dormant for many years. Beginning in January 2020 in Australia, just two months after the 2019 Davis Cup Final, the ATP Cup will feature a 10-day format with 24 teams competing in best-of-three-sets matches. Sound familiar?

“The fact that the events are going to be staged less than two months apart is tennis at its most dysfunctional. Redesigning the Davis Cup and doing away with a home-and-away final phase and tradition make sense only if there is a guarantee that most of the best players are going to play,” Clarey wrote.

“The sport’s divided governance remains the biggest obstacle to growth and a rational, sustainable schedule. Compromise should not be too much to ask.”

Let’s face it, the Davis Cup as we’ve known for generations is gone. Come next year, something will be missing. No longer will there be a bright spotlight focused on two nations, and no longer will there be loud home crowds cheering (or booing depending upon your point of view) every point from first ball to last ball. A neutral venue cannot replicate what fans experienced in Lille last weekend.

Looking back at more than a century of Davis Cup history, Clarey wrote, “It’s been quite a tale: full of pilot twists, upsets and indelible characters like Bill Tilden, Ken Rosewall, John McEnroe and Yannick Noah, to name just a few.” 

For now, Croatia can celebrate its championship together, as a team and as a country, and take solace from being the last team to win a Davis Cup Final in its historic home-and-away format. Croatia won the Davis Cup for just its second time – coming 13 years after its first victory in 2005 – and denied France an 11th Davis Cup title. They accomplished this feat before large, unabashedly noisy – and at times hostile – French crowds over three straight days of tension-filled competition in northern France. It makes for something special to savor now – for Croatia and for tennis fans throughout the world – until more lucrative money changes everything next year.