When the first ever Davis Cup was held in 1900, only two teams participated in it- USA and British Isles. Each team had four members and the Americans won the first ever Davis Cup. Back then, it was more popularly known as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge. Dwight Davis, a member of the first ever American Davis Cup team took out $1000 from his own pocket to make a silverware as a reward to the winning team of the first ever winner of the now popular Davis Cup.
As time passed, the tournament reached to different continents and ultimately rose in stature to be a global team tennis. Such was its impact, that the event was considered to be tennis’ biggest stage outside the four grand slams. Popularly known as the World Cup of tennis, the Davis Cup was often cited as an opportunity by the players to win it and bring pride and glory to their respective nations.
118 years have gone by and the Davis Cup has seen memorable, joyous and emotional moments that would close the gap between a player’s love for the sport and his affection towards his nation. However, on 16th August 2018, the Davis Cup, owned by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) went through a process which would rob the tournament from its heart and brain, leaving only a skeleton behind.
For many years, Davis Cup’s format came into question and players and pundits suggested various proposals to upgrade the Davis Cup’s format. Numerous plans were discussed but none of them were accepted and the Davis Cup would stick to its usual format of sixteen teams battling over the course of four months in a home-and-away format. Ever since the establishment of the ATP World Tour in 1990 and its rebranding in 2009, the tennis calendar has grown out to be a hectic one for the players, often complaining about the scheduling. This eventually kept the top ranked players away from participating in the Davis Cup to recover for the remainder of the season. A notable statistic proving this point is that France, who won the Davis Cup last year, won it without facing a Top 40 singles player in the four rounds of the competition.
The ITF saw this as a problem as the Davis Cup was unable to generate the revenue that it once did. David Haggerty, the President of the ITF made a major decision to change the morphology of the Davis Cup. The proposal got financial support from Kosmos, a European Investment Group owned by Gerard Pique and Oracle founder Larry Ellison (who is desperate to organize the Davis Cup finals at Indian Wells in 2021). Kosmos (which has the support of Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani) committed to a $3 billion investment over 25 years with the ITF and drew out major changes to the Davis Cup format.
“This is the beginning of a new stage that guarantees the pre-eminent and legitimate place that the Davis Cup should have as a competition for national teams while adapting to the demands of the professional sport at the highest level.” – Gerard Pique
Representatives of 147 nations were summoned at Orlando, where the vote was carried out on whether or not to overhaul the Davis Cup via radical changes. Haggerty & Pique needed 67% of the votes in order to reform the World Cup of tennis. Except the Australian Open, all the other three grand slams were in favour of the changes. However, disagreements came from various nations like Australia, Britain, Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia. Great Britain had a split within, as the Lawn Tennis Association voted against the changes but the All England Club (host of Wimbledon) voted in favour of the changes. Towards the caudal aspect of the vote, Belgium, Netherlands and Spain agreed to the measures which eventually boosted the vote count for the Davis Cup reforms beyond 67%.
“I am delighted that the nations have voted to secure the long-term status of Davis Cup. Our mission is to ensure that this historic decision will benefit the next generation of players for decades to come.” – David Haggerty
When it was announced that 71% of the nations had voted for the changes, tennis players knew that the change in the Davis Cup was inevitable and ultimately a footballer had paved his way into the governing associations of tennis to break the traditions of the Davis Cup.
The new Davis Cup will kick-start in 2019, whose format is as follows:
24 teams will participate in February and face each other in the home-and-away tie format, meaning that teams will take turns in hosting if they have met before(a.k.a alternating host rule). These teams comprise of 12 teams that are placed from 5th-16th in previous year’s finals and 12 teams that are winners of Group I which are further subdivided as 6 teams from Euro/Africa, 3 from Asia/Oceania and 3 from Americas.
The teams which lose in the fifth week of February are relegated to zonal groups (Group I-IV). Later, the Group I teams will host in September in a round robin format whereas Groups II-IV can choose to host either in April or September.
The 12 winning teams from the fifth week of February get qualified for the finals in November. They will be joined by the four semifinalists from the previous year and two wild card teams bringing the total to 18 teams that will contest the final.
In the final week, these 18 teams will be divided into three groups of six teams that will play in the round robin format. The top two teams of each group and the next two most successful teams (who have won more games and sets) will comprise the 8 teams for the quarterfinals which will be knock out rounds.
The teams will play two singles and one doubles match across two days and the matches will be best of three tiebreaker sets and not the conventional best of five sets. (Zonal rounds might retain the original format of four singles and one doubles match but they will still be restricted to the best of three sets tiebreaker rule).
The finals will be played in a pre-determined single venue that will host the finals in November. For 2019, Madrid or Lille are the front-runners).
The changes were fiercely opposed by the players irrespective of the vote share. On one hand, the new format has curbed out some weeks from the hectic schedule of the players, but at the same time the finals of the Davis Cup are scheduled in November which is towards the end of the tennis season, a period where most players are evidently fatigued. Though Davis Cup was the first ever team sport in tennis which was staged at a global level, the Hopman Cup (held in January) and the newly sowed seed of the Laver Cup (a competition that was the brain child of Roger Federer and his manager Tony Godsick) are other team sports that take up a significant portion of the tennis season. To further spoil the broth, ATP’s chairman Chris Kermode is desperate to bring in the idea of World Team Cup from 2020 (which will most probably cease the existence of the Hopman Cup).
“Territorial behaviour is only making the vegetation denser; and there will be plenty more of that behaviour to come instead of what tennis really needs: a clear path for the sport and its fans to follow in an extremely competitive entertainment landscape.” – Christopher Clarey, The New York Times
It indeed is interesting to see why this change was made this year with the primary reason being that the players are not attracted to the Davis Cup. This year, in the two main weekends of the Davis Cup so far, Marin Cilic, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, Pablo Carreno Busta, Sam Querrey, Nick Kyrgios and John Isner played in February whereas Rafael Nadal, Marin Cilic, Alexander Zverev, John Isner, Lucas Pouille, Sam Querrey, Diego Schwartzman and Fabio Fognini played in April.
REACTIONS FROM FORMER, CURRENT AND NEXT GEN PLAYERS
“I am very proud to be a winner of the competition that was here with us for more than 100 years and could share those emotions with fans of my country and experience those amazing moments. It will all be gone now! #ripDavisCup” – Tomas Berdych, 2-time Davis Cup winner
“Sometimes it’s more than a game. More than money. Most of my biggest highs and toughest loses came in 5 set epic Davis Cup matches in front of screaming home or away fans. For the ITF to take that away from the next generation of future stars is a disgrace. #SorryDwightDavis” – Lleyton Hewitt, 2-time Davis Cup winner
“One of my biggest dream as a kid was to one day play a Davis Cup final in front of my home crowd. Sadly I’ll never have the chance to experience Davis cup like I grew up watching it. I still hoped tradition and history would win over money, but I guess that’s where we are now..” – Felix Auger Aliassime, Next Gen player
“Sad day for men’s tennis #ITF have voted for new format of #DavisCup (its no longer Davis Cup) Fooling themselves if they think top players will play a 18 team comp over 1 week at the end of the year????” – Pat Cash, 2-time Davis Cup winner
“Proposed changes to the format need to be subject to the widest possible consultation and agreement, to ensure there are no unintended consequences that could impact the great traditions of the Davis Cup.” – Rod Laver, 5-time Davis Cup winner
“ITF, you guys are a shame for tennis … Let’s enjoy our last Davis Cup year and lets try to keep it home..” – Lucas Pouille, defending Davis Cup winner
“Yesterday greed won against tradition. In 74 Matches in Davis Cup i have lost a few heartbreakers but the most pain full loss came yesterday and I didn’t even have the chance to fight for my country. When I was 9 years old Muster beat Agassi in front of 17000 fantastic Austrians and from that day on my goal was to wear that tracksuit and represent our colors. I feel sad that the next generation will not experience the joy of winning a 5 set battle in front of your home crowd. Or the pain in your chest that won’t go away for days because you let your team and nation down. These emotions and memories last for a life time. #RIPdaviscup #showurcolors” – Jurgen Melzer, two-time doubles Grand Slam champion
“Unfortunately their plan is a recipe for the death of the Davis Cup as we know it.”- John Newcombe, 5-time Davis Cup winner
“It would be the stupidest thing in the world to get rid of it,” – Alex de Minaur, Next Gen player
“Haven’t met one person who was for the Davis Cup changes. A bit like brexit. #moneymoneymoney,” – Marcus Willis
“A footballer gets the stage at ITF to tell us why Davis Cup needs to change but legends of the game of which there are many who disagree do not.” – Todd Woodbridge, 16-time Grand slam doubles champion
“Dear Friends and Professional Golfers, if you see on one of your tournaments Gérard Pique take care that your Ryder Cup is not played on 1 day in 6 holes….” – Julien Benneteau, defending Davis Cup winner
“The Davis Cup died, and a part of the history of our sport flew away for a handful of dollars.” – Nicolas Mahut, defending Davis Cup winner
“Just imagine a final next year without top-10 players. It’s a possibility, and it’s actually a realistic possibility. Players are not for sale; they’re not prostitutes. They won’t just take any money and go. After an A.T.P. World Tour Finals, being nearly exhausted and dead, I don’t think many of them want to play five days in a week, with two matches for most, singles and doubles. I’m just worried it won’t look like it does on paper in reality.” – Atilla Richter, President of Hungarian Tennis Federation
“Especially for small countries, it’s a good deal. Now we have $25 million more than we had before now. It’s three steps forward for the grass roots in the smaller countries.” – Aleksandar Sekulovic, Secretary of Montenegrin Tennis Association
“It gives us the opportunity to develop more players because we get 10 times the amount we get now, we get to produce more players. For us, it’s an easy decision.” – Cedric Babu, President of Uganda Tennis Association
“It is a good initiative that can work. It is obvious that when something does not work perfectly, you have to look for new solutions, and this has been going on for a number of years.” – Rafael Nadal, 4-time Davis Cup winner
“It is fantastic news. We all want to play for our country, but I have been saying for years that the current structure does not work. It will be more attractive for the world of sport, for sponsors, for media, and for fans. The most attractive sports have this type of arrangement. And there would be more money for the federations.” – Novak Djokovic, 2010 Davis Cup winner
“There have been many conversations about how to change things — maybe the scoring system, or to have it every two years. This news that we can have it all in a one week tournament is incredibly good and valuable. I think it will bring more attention to Davis Cup, everyone will be much more involved rather than just two teams and it will create a nice vibe.” – Marin Cilic, 2016 Davis Cup finalist
The Davis Cup reforms have seen immense opposition and even if the plan gets executed the outcomes of it are still unpredictable. Alexander Zverev has clearly refused to play under the new Davis Cup format and a lot of next generation players have not liked the decision and are planning to boycott it. Besides, if the World Team Cup’s proposal gets passed and if they do give ranking points to the players, then the entire restructuring of the Davis Cup (which does not give ranking points to the players) will be severely affected.