In one of the most momentous decisions since the lords of tennis opened the game to pro players in 1968, the ITF member nations have approved a plan that will alter the face of the Davis Cup competition, perhaps unrecognizably. The event, now in its 118th year, is tennis’s premier international team competition and one of the most closely watched of all global team tournaments.
The move was driven by a general, but by no means universal, belief that the traditional system took up too many weeks on the calendar and thus prompted too many top stars to skip the event even as they professed their love for it.
Here are the answers to some immediate FAQs:
What exactly is the new Davis Cup Final?
Starting in 2019, the top 18 nations, hopefully with their best players in yoke, will gather in one venue for a weeklong season finale (Nov. 18-24 in Madrid or Lille, France). The winner will be Davis Cup champion for the year.
What is the procedure for qualifying?
The new format will involve a qualifying round in February, during which 24 teams will take part in home-and-away matches following the current competition’s “alternating host” rule. That is, teams take turns hosting if they have met before. The host team gets choice of court surface and venue. Call it the “legacy component.”
The 12 teams that win earn a place in the November final. They will be joined by four semifinal countries from the previous year, which are exempt from the February qualifying round, and two wild-card teams that will be announced before the draw for qualifying.
The teams that finish 17th and 18th in the final will be relegated to zonal play for the following year, while the 12 teams between fifth and 16th place will be direct entries into the following year’s February competition. The four semifinalists automatically make the November final.
What is the format for the team matches in the final?
The 18 teams will be distributed in six groups of round-robin play. The six winners in those groups will be joined by the next two most successful teams (based on sets and games won) to form the eight-team quarterfinals. From that point forward, the team matches are single elimination.
The current format features four singles and one doubles match, all best-of-five sets. The new format will feature two singles matches and one doubles, all played on the same day. Some of the zonal competition will retain the current format, but all matches at every level will be best-of-three tiebreaker sets.
Why this change?
The short answer is that the reformers are calling for a streamlined Davis Cup that is more marketable and attractive to the public.
The long answer is money, and it comes in two parts. Part A: For all its prestige and power as the umbrella over all the national federations (like the USTA), the ITF owns only two significant revenue-producers, Davis and Fed Cup. Neither of those is raking in the kind of money that satisfies the desire and needs of the ITF.
Part B: Kosmos, a relatively new investment group headed by former Barcelona FC star Gerard Pique, has promised to invest $3 billion over 25 years in the event. There’s some question about how viable and sustainable this proposed payout will be, especially because participation by the top players and enthusiasm among tennis fans are not certain. But with American billionaire and Indian Wells tournament owner Larry Ellison now on board as an investor, the resource pool has become much deeper.
What are the advantages of the new Davis Cup format?
In theory, players — especially from the more successful nations — won’t have to agonize over dedicating up to four weeks of their year to Davis Cup. Most top players say they love to represent their respective nations but claim the current Davis Cup demand is onerous. The new format eliminates at least two weeks and assuages any anxiety about the potential site. The new format asks players to walk the walk.
The neutral site will allow the organizers to do the kind of long-term planning and promotion that is impossible under the current system, where the site of the final is not determined until after the semifinals. The one-week event in a media capital, featuring a host of top players, could be highly attractive to television interests as well as fans from a global pool created by the large number of participating nations.
What are the weakness in the new plan?
Nothing much is guaranteed, from the participation of the top players to the reliability of the financing. But the major concern ought to be player participation. The final as planned will follow the ATP World Tour Championships, much as the current one does. The problem is that very few of the top players are affected when the final is between two teams. Not so when there are 18 teams. The number of players who have been forced to skip the ATP World Tour Final with injury already is a concern. The fatigue level in November also is significant.
Another major concern is whether fans from around the world will travel to the venue to support their team the way they flood to home ties in most nations.
Are the players on board with this plan?
The revamp has been a matter of hot and sometimes bitter debate. The top players have frequently criticized the current format and approved the idea of reform. But they always end up doing what they feel is best for their careers, not necessarily the game. There are more traditionalists at the B and C levels, but those players have different concerns as well as fewer opportunities and demands on their time.
Many players backed reform but not this degree of it. Twitter posts from current and former Davis Cuppers such as Nicolas Mahut, Lucas Pouille, Pat Cash, Nicolas Kiefer and Greg Rusedski were all critical of the decision. Support for the new plan is virtually nonexistent on social media. Rod Laver doesn’t have a Twitter account, but he also opposed this plan, as did fellow countrymen John Newcombe and Lleyton Hewitt — all of them Davis Cup stalwarts.
What is the biggest loss from the current system?
The most cherished aspect of Davis Cup is the “alternating host” format. It’s an ingenious device that accounts for much Davis Cup lore and legend because of the advantages and challenges facing host and visitor, respectively. Small nations can stand tall and pull off great upsets, propelled by — or in defiance of — wildly enthusiastic home crowds. The event is extremely popular in Europe, but critics wonder whether fans will want to travel great distances unsure of whether their team will even survive group play.