Save the Davis Cup before it changes forever!
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Three set matches – two day ties – neutral finals: the Davis Cup is about to change forever, unless the voice of the fans is heard.
Tennis fans think a lot about their sport, and when you work in a tennis publishing, as we do, you get to hear differing opinions about everything from Roger Federer’s backhand to growing the game at grass roots level. Everyone you speak to has their own point of view, but there is one issue on which fans are completely agreed: the ITF’s current proposals to change the Davis Cup, if ratified at their AGM in Vietnam in August this year, will quickly tarnish and eventually destroy a wonderful competition. Since the changes were first mooted in 2016, not one single person we have spoken with has said they are a good idea.
In recent years the ITF and BNP Paribas have done a wonderful job in promoting and enhancing the Davis Cup. It is important that the players and the ATP realise that this success is a benefit to them, and not a threat. Any change to this historic and successful competition must be carefully thought through, however, to ensure that it really will persuade the elite players to play regularly, and without being detrimental to the fans.
Make your voice heard
At the ITF’s Annual General Meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from 1st to 4th August 2017, the future of the Davis Cup will be formally discussed. If you feel strongly about this issue and how it relates to British Tennis, you can send your views to: DC.email@example.com.
So what are the proposed changes?
Opinion is strongest against the planned reduction of Davis Cup rubbers from best of five sets to best of three, but people also strongly oppose the idea of playing Davis Cup ties over two days rather than the traditional three. The third proposed change, a neutral venue for each year’s Davis Cup Final, provokes less reaction as it is simply seen as an absurd idea. Why would you make thousands of people from two countries travel halfway around the world to support their teams? It is a simply ridiculous notion, not worthy of serious consideration. Unless, of course, increasing revenue from TV is your prime motivator.
To consider the proposed changes to the Davis Cup in their true context it is necessary to know a little about the history and status of the competition. American player Dwight Davis donated the trophy that bears his name with the aim of promoting international friendship through sport, and the inaugural Davis Cup challenge was held in 1900 between USA and the British Isles in Boston. The format agreed was for five matches (referred to as “rubbers,” as in the game of bridge) to be played over three days, with two singles on the first day, a doubles on the second, and two reverse singles on the third. Each rubber was played over the best of five sets, and there were no tiebreaks in those far-off days.
This format was very popular with public and players alike, and over the next century the Davis Cup steadily grew to become sport’s leading international team competition. By 2016, more than 600 players from 124 nations were taking part, and 485,000 fans bought tickets. That is more than attended Wimbledon or the French Open. For many of the competing nations, a home Davis Cup tie is by far the biggest event in their domestic tennis year.
In the 21st century, however, tennis is a victim of its own phenomenal success. The mix is perfect: four Grand Slam events, each with its own unique identity and atmosphere, to attract a worldwide TV audience; vibrant professional tours taking the top men and women to five of the six continents; and in the Davis Cup, one of the world’s most iconic team competitions. The top players are in great demand, and have to skip some events to avoid burnout. The Davis Cup, with its extra travel demands and changes of playing surface, is an obvious option for a leading player to miss, although every top star also knows that to be considered amongst the all-time greats he must have at least one Davis Cup victory on his CV. It is against this background that the ITF’s stewardship of the Davis Cup must be considered.
Fans want the top players to represent their countries in the Davis Cup, there is no doubt about that, but above all they turn up to support their country. Andy Murray is hugely popular with British fans, but when he is absent they still turn up to roar on the GB team. We can never forget the amazing atmosphere in Coventry in 2012, when a British team without Andy downed Russia in a thrilling third day finale. It seemed as though the roof was going to come off the Ricoh Arena!
Whenever we’ve watched Davis Cup ties from other countries on TV, the stands have always been packed and the atmosphere electric. One of the reasons that fans value the Davis Cup so highly is that home ties cannot be taken for granted. Every time a draw is made, the venue for each tie is determined by the last time the countries paired together met, so if you were away last time you will be at home this time, or vice versa. This is eminently fair, but a country can go several years without a home tie, as Great Britain did between 2003 and 2006. So when home ties do come round, fans snap up the tickets, grateful that they will get the chance to be a part of the unique Davis Cup atmosphere.
So why should the current format be preserved? Larry Ellison at Indian Wells might disagree, but the Davis Cup is the closest thing there is in tennis to a fifth Grand Slam, and those elite events present players with the ultimate challenge of a best of five set match. Over this distance there are no lucky victories, for there is time for the best player on the day to win, even after a slow start. If the Davis Cup is reduced to best of three sets, it will be like running the Grand National over a single circuit of Aintree. Interesting, yes, but no longer a classic with a place in history for the winner.
And why not two days? Quite simply, because it still won’t make it any easier for the top players to play in Davis Cup, and the doubles game will be the casualty. At present, the doubles Saturday of a Davis Cup tie is hugely popular with the fans and a great showcase for the form of tennis most social players enjoy. With only two days available, doubles will share the spotlight with singles, and forced to choose, fans will stretch their legs and buy their refreshments while it’s on.
There are however several ways in which the Davis Cup can be improved for the benefit of top players and fans alike. Firstly, the World Group could be reduced back to eight nations as it was in the past. That would mean the two nations reaching the Final playing only three ties in the calendar year, rather than four as at present, and most nations only playing twice. Secondly, the rounds of the Davis Cup could be repositioned in the tennis calendar to move them further away from Grand Slams and other major tournaments. Thirdly, ATP World Tour ranking points could be reintroduced, with players at all levels of the competition being rewarded for their Davis Cup victories. All these ideas require the active co-operation of the ATP, but the first thing that is needed is to postpone a decision on the way forward until the views of the people who really matter, THE FANS, can be properly canvassed. This must be done at Davis Cup ties, where the real fans are, and would also smooth the way to implementing changes once they were agreed.
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