The world’s most venerable team competition – tennis’s Davis Cup – was turned on its head on Monday when a consortium led by the Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique announced that it is sinking $3bn (£2.15bn) into a radical reinvention of the event.
Instead of home-and-away ties played throughout the course of the season, tennis’s 18 leading nations will meet in one city – expected to be Singapore, in the first couple of seasons at least – for a week-long tournament at the end of November, all supported by a prize pot of some $20m (£14.3m).
The huge remuneration means that the 100-odd players on site will collectively be earning as much as they would at a grand slam. But how will this latest addition to the calendar affect an already injury-plagued workforce? At the moment, most of the men finish their seasons around the end of October, then taking a two-month break from competition before the new year.
This dramatic rethink of the Davis Cup came as a major surprise after the International Tennis Federation – which makes most of its revenue from the event – had previously stuck stubbornly to a historic format: three-day knock-out ties involving five best-of five-set rubbers.
The problem was that the leading players had increasingly voted with their rackets by not showing up. The most recent weekend of first-round ties – Feb 2 to 4 – was typical. The World Group matches featured only two top-ten players (Alexander Zverev of Germany and David Goffin of Belgium), as well as a couple of names (Dmitry Popko, Adrian Bodmer) that even a confirmed tennishead might not have recognised.
Will the turnout improve for the new event? You would expect so, given the sums involved. However, there must be a danger of thin crowds, particularly after the novelty of the new competition has worn off. The WTA Finals – which will move to Shenhzen, China next season – have been based in Singapore for the past four years, and did not always inspire great excitement among the locals.
Pique, however, is clearly convinced that team tennis is a golden ticket. He and his backers – who include Japanese e-commerce billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani – have pledged to invest $3bn into tennis over the next 25 years. The whole deal is still subject to approval at the ITF’s annual general meeting in August. But the money involved is likely to convince the required two-thirds of the participating nations to support the proposals.
Another issue in the backstage manoeuvrings is that the Association of Tennis Professionals had been planning to set up a rival team competition – under the working title of the World Team Cup – in January in 2020. Indeed, the ATP had been in talks with Pique himself on this very scheme. But when they could not agree on a workable date for the WTC, Pique returned to the ITF – whom he had previously consulted in 2016 – to try again.
Now the new Davis Cup format is intended to begin next year, subject to approval, while the WTC has been shelved for the meantime. Two similar team competitions in the space of six weeks would be particularly daft, even for a sport as illogical as tennis.
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Monday’s announcement set off a passionate debate about the merits of the old system – which has, for all its faults, survived for over a century. Home-and-away ties involving partisan crowds have provided some unforgettable drama, and been the making of many fine players. No less a champion than Novak Djokovic began his domination of the world game after Serbia won their sole Davis Cup in 2010.
Leon Smith, the British Davis Cup captain, expressed mixed emotions on Monday. “There’s still a long way to go as it requires a two-thirds majority approval,” he said. “For now, we’ll just have to keep an open mind, but we’re still passionate about Davis Cup and I - like everyone else - realise that changes need to be made to ensure its longevity and status.
“One of the first things that came to mind is the loss of the home-and away-tie,” Smith added. “It [a team competition in a single city or country] works in other sports but it remains to be seen if it could work in Davis Cup. However, I do think it’s really positive that the ITF are looking at significant investment from other sources to secure the future of the competition.”