With Andy Roddick and James Blake leaving Davis Cup off their 2010 calendars and Roger Federer pulling out of a much anticipated first round tie against Spain, I’ve been wondering about the future of Davis Cup as an elite, world-class event. It seems the players have been, too.
Members of the ATP players’ council, which includes Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, are looking at a proposal that challenges the century-old Davis Cup national teams competition with something like a Tennis World Cup. Branded as the Grand Slam of Nations, the event would take place every two years (likely in September or October), instead of yearly, and run for 10 consecutive days in one location, instead of four weeks spread out across the calendar and the globe. The proposal’s main goals seem to be shortening the time commitment for players and creating something flashy and comprehensible enough to attract a large fan following.
The Times explains the proposed format:
• A ten-day, men-only event with 32 teams in eight groups of four, 16 reaching the knockout stages.
• Each tie a single match over the best of five sets, with each nation having to field at least two players per tie — ie, enforced substitutions.
• Maximum 25 seconds between points.
• Tie-breaks the first to five points.
I’m not sure what happens to doubles in this situation (paging the Bryan Brothers!), but the Guardian reports that “there would be a sudden death advantage in doubles” so it seems that dubs – or some bastardized version of it – will be included. Perhaps as a set or two in this single best-of-five set match or maybe one of the proposed formats includes a series of rubbers per tie instead of just one big set with players rotated in and out.
Personally, I think the best-of-five set format and the key role of doubles in the ties is what makes Davis Cup so interesting – and yes, grueling. Suffering and heroics are expected when national pride is on the line. And don’t we already have something like Tennis World Cup? With multicolored courts, a Billie Jean King mascot and Ana Kournikova playing break points? Yeah, that’s right, it’s called World Team Tennis. (But I guess the ATP thinks that girls have cooties!)
Sorry, sometimes my tennis snobbery just has to come out. . .back to the story:
The Tennis World Cup proposal was created by a Melbourne-based sports marketing company called “gemba.” James Hird, a former athlete and partner at the firm offers this bone-chilling rationalization:
“In the new world order, sports must compete with Hollywood blockbusters, video games, the world wide web, TV and music for a slice of the global consumers’ attention.
“Today’s consumers want their entertainment in a different form. Of course, the pride of tennis are the grand-slam tournaments and we would never do anything to change that, but we are conscious of the need for tennis to bring in an entire new breed of followers — the youngster who doesn’t have the attention span to watch five-set matches.”
Excuse me while I barf!
Moving on. . .The proposal has been submitted to the ITF, the All England Club, Tennis Australia and the U.S.T.A. for review, as well as to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, ATP CEO Adam Helfant and various television executives.
Novak Djokovic, who has called the current tennis calendar unreasonably long, stresses that this proposal is just preliminary:
“It’s all fresh and it’s all ideas,” he said. “We didn’t decide to put anything on an official term because we have to consider other sides as well. But the main point is that we are trying to make this sport improve and get better and players are most important – this is the bottom line.” (via the Guardian)
His fellow players share his cautious optimism:
Andy Murray: “I am a great fan of the Davis Cup but if a decision was taken to drop it, or something else could change on the calendar, then a World Cup is a fascinating idea.” (via the Telegraph)
Ivan Ljubicic: “The format is not suited for the players at the moment. I’m not going to play Davis Cup any more.” (Telegraph)
For once I agree with Lleyton Hewitt: “It would have to be something a lot better if it was going to take away from the Davis Cup. Obviously Davis Cup has meant a lot to me over the years for me personally and for our country as well.” (via the Guardian)
The ITF, which oversees Davis Cup, reacts with a balance of condescension and arrogance:
“This proposal, also shown to the ITF, has some interesting elements and, of course, timely branding, given the current worldwide fascination with the 2010 Fifa World Cup. It also has many challenges that must be faced if it is to succeed. Everyone is in agreement that a nation v nation format is very attractive, something Davis Cup has recognised for over a century, and only time will tell if a new competition can earn a regular place in the tennis calendar.” (via the Guardian)
Though the sports marketers probably don’t see it this way, it looks like this proposal is more of a call to action than a real threat to Davis Cup. I’m sure most players would prefer to stick with over 100 years of tradition – and the magnificent trophy – that Davis Cup offers. It may be arcane and a little stuffy, but DC is not a tacky exhibition.
But the Davis Cup scheduling does need to change. At the very least, the ITF should move it to a once every two years format and work with the ATP to schedule the ties at more convenient times (say, not the weekend before the Indian Wells/Miami Masters double header.) This means that the ATP tour may have to cut some tournaments. In terms of building more interest, I’d say everyone needs to get their priorities straight – when ties are played at home, there’s enormous enthusiasm at a grass roots level (like packed stands in Birmingham, Alabama and Portland, Oregon.) If ties are only played at the O2 arena or Madison Square Garden, I think it sends a much different message. We already have the World Tour Finals, after all. But I’m rambling. . .what do you think?