Many have slammed the ITF's proposed changes to the Davis Cup, however no one has come up with a better solution, says Reem Abulleil.
The outrage over the ITF’s proposed changes to the Davis Cup was amplified last weekend as players and fans slammed the pending move to get rid of home and away ties in the sport’s only official men’s inter-nation team competition.
The ITF announced in February plans to completely overhaul Davis Cup, which has been suffering for years due to scheduling issues, lack of top players participation and many other problems.
Dependent on a vote set to take place at this August’s Annual General Meeting in Orlando, Florida, the Davis Cup World Group could change starting next year.
Instead of being contested as home-and-away ties spread out throughout the season, the proposed format would bring together 18 nations in one neutral venue – possibly in Asia – at the end of November, to create an event described as a “World Cup of tennis”. This new version comes along with a $3bn sum from investment group Kosmos, founded by Barcelona and Spain footballer Gerard Pique.
Stars like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have welcomed the idea while many others like Lucas Pouille and Lleyton Hewitt have been very vocal in their strong opinions against it.
“I think it’s a death sentence to the Davis Cup,” said reigning Davis Cup champion Pouille in Dubai two months ago.
With the World Group quarter-finals taking place last weekend, many took to social media citing the buoyant atmosphere in Valencia for the Spain-Germany tie, and in Genoa for the Italy-France showdown as arguments against the proposed changes.
“Greetings to Dave Haggerty, this is Davis Cup,” Germany captain Michael Kohlmann referred to ITF president David Haggerty in his on-court interview after his side stunned Marc and Feliciano Lopez in doubles in an epic five-setter last Saturday.
“Are you serious @ITF_Tennis ??? You’re trying to kill off home & away ties, 5 set tennis and this unbelievable atmosphere! This is what representing your country is all about. #Pride #Passion #VoteNo,” tweeted Australia captain Hewitt.
Pouille echoed the Aussie’s sentiments, saying: “Who’s watching Spain vs Germany?? Still want to kill the Davis Cup? Just have a look at the atmosphere… #INCREDIBLE.”
Spain versus Germany indeed had all the makings of a great tie.
It was played in front of a 10,500-capacity crowd throughout the weekend, with a non-stop marching band laying down the soundtrack for the action. It featured an all-top-10 showdown between Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev on Sunday. It witnessed an incredible five-set upset by Tim Puetz and Jan-Lennard Struff over the Lopezes to give Germany a 2-1 lead. Then featured a 4+hour tug of war between David Ferrer and Philipp Kohlschreiber in the decisive rubber that sealed the comeback for the Spaniards.
No one can deny that it was a compelling weekend of tennis.
But how often does a tie like this attract a global audience? German television didn’t even air this tie live on TV, it was only available via streaming service DAZN.
The problem with Davis Cup is beyond filling out one arena and having three days of tight, passionate tennis.
Tennis is a business, and it needs money to survive. Yannick Noah said in an interview with L’Equipe that the ITF and players shouldn’t be swayed by money. That’s easy to say for a Frenchman since the French Tennis Federation makes a lot of money from Roland Garros and Noah undoubtedly receives a generous salary for his position as France captain.
The $3bn from Kosmos includes funds directed at grassroots initiatives for ITF member nations, which would grow the sport around the world. The four countries that host Grand Slams are at a completely different level when it comes to wealth. They are the exception, not the rule.
Sport in general doesn’t make the majority of its money from selling tickets, it makes it by selling TV rights, acquiring sponsorship and from merchandising. The current structure of Davis Cup, where ties, locations and participants are not known in advance makes it very difficult to sell the TV rights and attain sponsorship.
Obviously the home-and-away ties make for unrivaled atmosphere – a neutral venue can never replicate that, but on a global scale, these matches aren’t received that way.
Top player participation would guarantee interest globally. The Nadal-Zverev clash was the first between two top-tenners in over two years in Davis Cup.
You know something is flawed if it rarely features clashes between the best of each nation. Of course the fact that Davis Cup gives the opportunity for lower-ranked players to become heroes in their countries is great. But there’s always a bigger picture to look at.
A couple of main issues with the proposed changes is the timing of the event – end of November is a terrible idea and the start of April sounds like a far better solution. Also taking this event to Asia shouldn’t be the top priority because it’s obvious that Europe remains the epicentre of tennis and is more accessible to fans.
People are slamming the proposal but few of them are coming up with a better solution. Tennis is allergic to change so the fact that the ITF is going out on a limb here and is finally doing something about a competition that continues to struggle can only be positive.
Of course the ITF and the voting federations should listen to the players, but said players must also come up with better options, because vetoing something without having an alternative is just pointless.
The new proposal has issues. They should be addressed. But the thought of avoiding change altogether serves no one.