RIP Davis Cup, after 118 years

The International Tennis Federation on Monday formalized the sweeping changes it has been seeking for the 118-year-old Davis Cup competition.

The old format, at least at the World Group level, will be no more.

Sponsored

Instead, the ITF, in partnership with a company called Kosmos founded by the soccer star Gerald Piqué, will Crown the Davis Cup champions in a one-week event featuring 18 nations.

Up front, though, the words “Davis Cup” have been eradicated.

The new competition is to be called the “World Cup of Tennis Finals”.

It is to be played in November, beginning in 2019, at a yet-undisclosed “world-class location”. (The Telegraph is reporting that location would be Singapore, at least initially. It’s ironic that just as the WTA Tour Finals leave for greener pa$tures in Shenzhen, China, the ITF would arrive).

$3 billion, over 25 years, starting in 2019

The ITF mentions high up in its press release that the partnership is for 25 years and has a value of $3 billion.

But … it seems not to be a done deal quite yet.

The caveat is that the proposal “is subject to further development, and the successful completion of due diligence and finalization of a formal agreement.”

So they’re floating this out there now, no doubt to gauge initial reaction.

The ITF got an unexpected surprise last August in Vietnam, when it thought it had the backing from member nations on its plan to change the Davis Cup format to best-of-three sets. But the membership voted it down. The ITF gave itself more power to make changes in the wake of the AGM, by executive decree.

RIP
(Photo: Paul Zimmer, ITF)

Another vote needed

This year’s ITF annual general meeting will be held in president David Haggerty’s back yard, Orlando, Florida. Once again, the ITF will need a two-thirds majority from its nations to get final approval. No doubt all the five-star hotels and restaurants in the area are already booked, to ensure that the member nations on the bubble have the optimal AGM experience. 

The press-release quote from Haggerty:

“This is a complete game-changer for the ITF and for tennis. Our Board has supported a bold and ambitious plan for the future of Davis Cup by BNP Paribas … Our vision is to create a major season-ending finale that will be a festival of tennis and entertainment, featuring the world’s greatest players representing their nations to decide the Davis Cup champions.

“This new partnership will not only create a true World Cup of Tennis. It will also unlock record levels of new investment for future generations of tennis players and fans around the world.”

Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce company that already sponsors the ATP Tour event in Tokyo in September, is a backer of Pique’s company. 

The ITF says this partnership will include “significant increases in prize money for players and ITF member nations.” And it also will include the funding of “grass roots projects and other tennis development programs.”

There are no details yet about exactly how that will be accomplished.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Last May, reports were that Piqué was having conversations with ATP Tour executives about holding a 16-nation event.

The proposed event would have taken the format changes the ITF wanted to implement in the Davis Cup, and bring them to life. But the event would have had the ATP as the title organization and beneficiary.

That couldn’t have been good news for the ITF.

Seemingly, if you can’t beat ’em, you try to join ’em. There is no indication the ATP is involved in any formal way in the proposed new event.

No women allowed

The ITF jumped the gun once before in its quest to radically revamp the century-old men’s competition.

The federation announced ambitious plans last June for a World Cup of Tennis that also would include the women and Fed Cup. It was to take place at the Palexpo in Geneva, Switzerland for the first three years, from 2018 to 2020.

The reaction was not great. And the ITF back down – at least temporarily.

“The Board has listened carefully to feedback and has decided to defer bringing this motion to the ITF AGM for vote until 2018 to allow more time to reach alignment,” it said at the time.

President Haggerty said a task force would be formed. He added that taking another year “to build consensus around the World Cup of Tennis Finals will allow us to finalize an even stronger recommendation to the AGM. This decision shows that we do not act unilaterally, and are working with all our stakeholders to find the best solution for tennis.”

The “best solution for tennis”, apparently, is to exclude the women.

The WCTF format

The proposed format is a seven-day event in November, during the “traditional week of the Davis Cup final”.

What that essentially means is that it won’t just be eight to 10 players from two countries who will see a season they already consider too long extended to the end of November.

It means that 100 players from more than 25 countries will see their already-long seasons extended to the end of November.

The format will be a round-robin – six groups of three nations each – followed by a quarterfinal knockout stage. And there won’t be as many rubbers, and therefore no need for as many players. The format will feature two singles and one doubles, much like the current format in the lower zonal competition. And it will only be best-of-three sets.

Those goose-bump moments that become iconic parts of tennis history – such as 27,000 blue-clad fans singing “La Marseillaise” as one along with the victorious French team last November in Lille – will be a thing of the past as the new event is played at a neutral venue.

 

The winning nation therefore would have to play two matches in the round-robin, and three more in the knockout stage, to hoist the Cup.

The 16 World Group nations will automatically qualify. And there will be two wild-card nations. No doubt one of them will be the host nation. The other could potentially be a country that has a top star (like Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic), whose team has been relegated in recent years because of their lack of Davis Cup participation.

Or perhaps the “home” Singaporean Davis Cup squad. No way to know.

Getting them to play in late November, though – quite possibly in Asia – will be the challenge there.

World Group playoff included

The proposed event also will include a replacement for the World Group playoff round typically held in September. 

With no more play throughout the season, there no longer will be World Group first-round losers. Those teams had to compete in a September playoff for the right to remain in the top 16. So the playoff will feature eight nations from the zonal events, and eight nations from among the World Group teams.

The winners will be in the World Group the following season, therefore eligible for the big event.

That relegation round, at the moment, is played after the US Open in September. So that’s another group of players, who might well end their season in late October, who would have to stay fit and fresh until the end of November even if they might not be playing any tournaments.

The zonal competitions will not see a format change.

One thing’s for sure. They’re going to need a venue with a LOT of tennis courts.

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