Todd Woodbridge put it best. Expressing his shock at the idea of a week-long team tournament, the former Australian Davis Cup captain said “The International Tennis Federation has thrown a bomb into the tennis landscape”.
If the new “World Cup of Tennis Finals” should come to pass, this will mean the end of the Davis Cup as we know it. And that would feel like a bereavement. The Davis Cup is the oldest team competition in sport, dating back to 1900. Yes, the concept would spark a sense of excitement, in its first season at least. But all the glitz in the world cannot compete with 118 years of tradition.
The trouble is that the Davis Cup has been squeezed into an ever tighter corner by the relative weakness of its owners, the ITF. There is barely any room for it in the crowded schedule created by the Association of Tennis Professionals tour, as well as no rankings points and no significant pay-packets. As a result, the big names have simply stopped showing up.
Everyone knows what the best Davis Cup would look like. It would stick to the current model, only with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal taking the court instead of deputies like Henri Laaksonen and Roberto Bautista Agut. But making that happen has proved too much for tennis’s mind-boggling governance structures, which involve seven different bodies (or eight, if you include Team8, the founders of the new Laver Cup).
It’s rare that anyone in this sport gets to think about best-case scenarios. With the ITF, the ATP and the grand slams all pulling in different directions, realpolitik rules, and Machiavelli would have made a fine tennis administrator.
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There are some big changes proposed by @ITF_Tennis and Kosmos for #DavisCup!
Full story 👉 https://t.co/NKbCxmYHg5 pic.twitter.com/ApthQl6oMP
Which brings us back to the ITF, once the conscience of the game, but now an increasingly sidelined body. It was already under heavy pressure from the ATP, which was talking about the possibility of setting up a rival team competition in January 2020.
So this would-be partnership between the ITF and Gerald Pique’s investment group Kosmos – which has promised to sink an extraordinary $3bn into ITF projects over the next 25 years – could be seen as the last gamble of an organisation with few other cards left to play. If nothing else, it has fended off the ATP’s hounds for the moment.
In practice, Woodbridge’s bomb may never explode. The ITF will need a two-thirds majority at August’s annual general meeting to push the proposals through. Kosmos’s promises of cash may well persuade enough nations to sign on. But only last year, members rejected proposals to switch to a neutral final and best-of-three set matches, which represented a far less dramatic shift.
As the shockwaves spread through social media last night, reactions split down geographical lines. European fans, who often turn out for the Davis Cup in large numbers, expressed real fury at the loss of home-and-away ties for World Group nations. Americans, who are less attuned to the concept of regular international competition, were broadly positive about the idea of a glamorous, well-funded end-of-year circus.
Goodbye @DavisCup 😢! Original spirit of competition is gone https://t.co/aEfZ3yGzo0— Kafelnikov Yevgeny (@KYevgeni) February 26, 2018
As for the players, it is too early to say. On the upside, finals week would offer the financial benefits of a fifth slam, given the $20m prize pot on offer. But how will another high-profile event, shoehorned into the middle of the off-season, affect a men’s tour that is already perceived to have an injury crisis?
Davis Cup moving to a 1 week event at the end of the year is LONG overdue. Now just make it every other year and we are cookin.— Mardy Fish (@MardyFish) February 26, 2018
Team tennis is a compelling form of the game, and badly under-represented in the calendar – as Team8 were quick to spot. So perhaps the ITF’s finals week can be a success, on its own terms.
Seen in the round, though, it represents a messy solution to a complex problem. Which is entirely typical of this wonderful yet often maddening sport.