Rest in peace Davis Cup. You had a good run. You were a lot of fun. You have been a pioneer. But, quoting a beautiful song by Echo & the Bunnymen, Nothing Lasts Forever. Not even you my old friend. The competition was launched in 1900, following the desire of four American students from Harvard University, led by Dwight Davis, to challenge the best British players.
It became the first worldwide Team competition of all sports, years before the Football World Cup was even an idea, years before team sports were introduced at the Summer Olympics. Originally referred to as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge, it was rebranded as Davis Cup in 1946 after the death of its founder.
For many years the Davis Cup was the most important tournament on the Tennis calendar, more important than the US Open, more important than Wimbledon. All the best players competed, even if it meant embarking in a long journey by boat from Europe to America or from America to Australia.
Bill Tilden, the best player of the 20s, skipped 5 consecutive editions of Wimbledon, yet he never missed a single Davis Cup tie. Not until the 70s a top player “dared” to skip the Davis Cup. It was Jimmy Connors and he was considered a sort of a criminal for that.
Ivan Lendl followed, but only because he became a US citizen and was not allowed to play, having already competed for his native country Czechoslovakia. Through the years, the Majors had actually benefitted from the Davis Cup appeal to attract players.
The Australian Open was typically skipped by most European and American players. However, if the Davis Cup final was taking place in Australia in December, then the four American/European players involved in it would stay Down Under until January, boosting the field of the Aussie Open, otherwise only entered by the local champions.
Up until the 80s, the Davis Cup was still healthy, still relevant, all in all in better shape than most of the other tournaments. Yes it also suffered from the ridiculous 40-year-long ostracism to pro players, but, when the Open Era began, after 5 years when the Contracted Professionals were still not allowed to compete (a story for another day), it was finally honored by all the best players: Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, John McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Pat Cash, Andre Agassi all played year in year out.
On the contrary, the Australian Open was basically a tier-3 tournament with only Vilas attending regularly. The French Open was banning players like Connors or even Borg, in 1977, because they were playing the World Team Tennis.
Wimbledon suffered two years of boycott in 1972 and 1973. When finally the ATP took over as the sole organization managing the circuit – minus the Majors and the Davis Cup still run by the ITF - in 1990, they cleaned up some of the mess, but the Davis Cup began to suffer, as a consequence of the restructured calendar.
Pete Sampras, the best player of the decade, only played 4 editions, Boris Becker, who had singled handedly won it twice for Germany in the 80s, only played 3. Things got even worse in the new Millennium. Andre Agassi only played 2 editions out of 7 before retiring.
With the exception of the 2014 edition, which he won, Roger Federer only played 2 World Group ties in the last 13 years. During the same spell, Rafael Nadal only played 2 away ties. Yes Roger and Rafa, like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, all have the Davis Cup in their trophy cabinet, but their appearances were sporadic and mainly focused on collecting the trophy once, as well as enough appearances to participate in the Olympic Games.
The Davis Cup was clearly bleeding. The beauty of the home and away ties and the passionate crowds, the glorious history, the pride of representing your country were not sufficient anymore to attract the top players every year.
A competition cannot be considered a top-competition if the best players don’t play. That’s a fact. We all love Football/Soccer and we all love the Olympic Games, but even the most hardcore Football fan can’t care less about who wins the Gold Medal at the Olympics and prefer to follow sports he/she never follows for four years, like Track & Field or Swimming.
Why? Because the best players don’t play in the Olympics. No Pele, no Cruijff, no Maradona, no Messi, no Ronaldo etc. Who cares about Germany v France if a bunch of un-known Under-23 players are on the pitch unless, maybe, you are German or French? If Federer/Switzerland plays Nadal/Spain people, regardless of their nationality, will be glued to the TV.
If, with all due respect, Laaksonen plays Bautista Agut, people won’t. Why aren’t the best players playing then? Because the season is long, the game is becoming more and more physical and players are constantly exposed to injuries and fatigue.
The Davis Cup schedule forced players to play during weeks in which they should have rested (the week after a Masters 1,000, a Slam or the ATP Finals), often times on surfaces on which they were not playing during that time of the year.
It was far from ideal. They are professionals. Tennis is their job. Why should they risk getting injured and lose income for an event they play for free? None of us would take an unpaid job for a prestigious employer over a good salary from a less glamorous one.
Let’s not be naïve. How do you save a bleeding patient then? You call a good doctor who can address the two issues that caused the bleeding: the best players were not playing and the event was not strategically placed on the calendar.
Unfortunately the doctor here didn’t have a degree in Medicine. The doctor here, the ITF, is not an association of experts in the field, who studied sport management, marketing and such, like the leaders of NBA, MLB or NHL.
The ITF members are people who have their own careers, their own jobs that have nothing to do with sports and in their spare time they sit on a chair in their own countries’ federations and decide the destiny of the sport.
Nothing personal, but if you are a doctor you should have studied medicine, not just watched E.R. like the rest of us. Just like FIFA did awarding the World Cup to Qatar only to realize the many down sides and challenges that this decision caused to the Football world, the ITF and their Federations approved an un-complete and messy proposal.
They were lured by easy money but, unless they had info that were not provided to the public and the media, the details were not finalized. And the devil is in the details. Starting from the financial aspects. We proved how to engage the best players on a yearly basis you have to pay them.
We don’t have the official numbers, but it seems that players on the winning team will receive a total of $2.4 million. After we divide it by a minimum of three players included in one team, that leaves each of them with $800.000.
It’s obviously not peanuts, but it’s less than what a player earn by winning a Masters 1000 event. It won’t be enough to attract the top-5 players on a regular basis. It’s very good money for all the others but, then again, the second tier players were already playing the Davis Cup.
It’s Federer, Nadal and Djokovic (or whoever the top 3-5 will be in the future) that we needed to attract. How was the other problem, the placement on the Calendar, addressed? They left the event at the end of the year, when players are tired, out of gas.
They barely make it on two feet to the ATP Finals, how can they expect them to be thrilled for the prospect of playing an extra week for less money and no ranking points? Let’s not downplay the importance of ranking points for players.
The more ranking points you award the more a player is interested in competing to improve his ranking because a better ranking equals more bonuses from their sponsors. Even the Grand Slam Cup in the 90s, which granted players more money than even a Slam, disappeared after 10 editions because no points were awarded.
So here we are. The two main problems of the Davis Cup were not addressed. In addition the things that were working are no longer there with the new format. The home and away ties are gone, with the exception of the 1st round in the 2019 edition.
We can argue about the best of 3 versus the best of 5 but, without even going there, this format is a shamble. The beauty of tennis is that you win you go through, you lose you go home. We have one tournament where that is not the case, the ATP World Tour Finals, and we often see a player giving away a match after winning a set if he knows he will still qualify.
We don’t need more of this. Let’s leave it to Football, which is by the way a sport that allows a draw and therefore exposes itself to calculations because of its own nature. And what about the 5 rubbers? With the new format each tie will be decided by 2 singles and 1 double.
Will the No.1 of one team play the No.2 of the other team or will he play the No.1? We don’t know yet. Is that for real? One would assume the No.1 plays the No.1 to guarantee blockbuster matches, but, either way it’s a terrible idea.
With the old format a team could still win the Cup with just one great player (Borg, McEnroe, Becker, Murray all won it practically on their own), true, but now, theoretically, a country with a great No.2 could win it even by just beating the No.2 of the other team and the Doubles.
Your No.1 could lose every single match and you can still win the competition. With the old format it never happened. It’s basically a worse version of the old Federation Cup, which at least didn't have a group stage.
And nobody cared about the Federation Cup with the old format, as proved by the fact that it was changed to follow what was happening, guess where? In the Davis Cup. So good job ITF. Good job Kosmos. Hopefully you’re going to make a profit during the first two or three editions because you won’t last very long.
Especially when the ATP, meaning the players, are not behind you and are already creating alternative Team competitions. Follow Filippo on Twitter @FilippoScala1