It is not mentioned in the previews to this week’s Davis Cup quarter-finals by its website editors, but in the month or so since the first-round ties in this century-long tennis competition were played, the scenery has undergone a significant shift.
In late February, the International Tennis Federation announced sweeping changes to the format of the tennis team event that began in 1900, and not just to the number and length of the rubbers played in each three-day tie.
For years, the majority of players have sought a rethink to how the Davis Cup fits into the annual schedule of ATP tournaments and the four Majors. Currently, four weeks are put aside to whittle down 16 nations to the final two who will contest the title in December—a pattern repeated through regional zones around the world.
That the tournament, as well as being played over the five-set format through three straight days, no longer offers ranking points has only added to the dilemma for players as they put together their schedule and try to factor in time for recovery and training blocks. Most want to represent their countries—and most have done so through much of their careers—but in a physically demanding individual sport, time is at a premium, both within the annual cycle and across a career.
However, it is probably fair to say that few expected the kind of wholesale restructuring that will be put to the vote at the ITF’s AGM in August, where a two-thirds majority could carry the proposals. Instead of four weeks through the year, the entire Davis Cup title will be determined through one week of round-robin and knock-out rounds at the end of the season.
As such, it has been branded “a World Cup of Tennis”, in a vision outlined by ITF President David Haggerty:
“Our vision is to create a major season-ending finale that will be a festival of tennis and entertainment, featuring the world’s greatest players representing their nations to decide the Davis Cup champions.”
The news release goes on to explain:
“Under the plans, the World Cup of Tennis Finals will be played over seven days in November in the traditional week of the Davis Cup Final. The Finals will feature a round-robin format followed by a quarter-final knockout stage. Each tie will consist of two singles and one doubles over best-of-three sets. The 16 World Group nations will automatically qualify for the Finals, and a further two nations will be selected.
“There will also be a play-off round held during the Finals which will include the eight nations that qualify from the Zone Group I events. The eight play-off winners will earn a place in the following year’s Finals.”
The ITF hopes to launch the new-shape Davis Cup in 2019—short notice in the grand scheme of large-scale sporting events. But here, there appears to be a nice coming-together of timings, for one appropriate venue is scheduled to become vacant: Singapore’s Sports Hub, where the WTA Finals play for the final time this year. No surprise, then, that Singapore is one of the favourites to win the bid.
There are other positives in the proposals, too. Aside from reducing the commitment for players from four weeks to one, and best-of-five matches to best of three, there is considerable financial backing from Kosmos and Rakuten to fund both the high-profile all-in-one jamboree and also grass-roots tennis development for the participating nations.
The down side of the proposed schedule, however, is one that rears its head every year. The biggest names, highest ranks and therefore the biggest draws for fans are invariably the ones most heavily involved at the sharp end of the other big tournaments in the calendar.
That currently means, for the World Group, playing after the Australian and US Opens and the Indian Wells/Miami double. The final comes days after the World Tour Finals in London—where the top eight men play between three and five matches over eight days.
So it is a big ask to expect them to travel half way round the globe to take part in an indeterminate number of matches through a packed week of activities. What’s more, it will cut down the all-too-brief off-season even further. So if one of the ambitions of the new structure is to encourage the involvement of those big names, it may be disappointed.
From the fans’ point of few—and that of many of the players themselves—the biggest loss will be the home-and-away atmosphere, and few who have watched their home nation in the heat of battle when the title is at stake would wish to see that thrill sacrificed.
And there is now another problem, one added after the Davis Cup plans were released: A proposal for a World Cup-style event organised by the ATP. This too would fill a week, possibly in the run-up to the Australian Open, which would schedule it little more than a month after the ITF’s event.
Chris Clarey of the New York Times has examined these unfolding scenarios—A Davis Cup Overhaul and a World Team Cup Revival Add Up to Tennis Excess—and it is well worth a read to appreciate the ramifications. But meanwhile, if the ITF gets the go-ahead this August, the Davis Cup’s 118th birthday this year could mark its last playing in its old form.
Perhaps that prospect will get bums on seats in even greater numbers, and fans cheering to even high decibels than usual. Then again, the quality of the quarter-finals that get under way on both sides of the Atlantic have drawn enough big names to satisfy the most jaded tennis palate: three of the top four in the world.
Try these for a start.
Spain will field Rafael Nadal, back at No1 this week and back in competition for the first time since the Australian Open following a persistent hip problem. And his nation’s ambitions to win in this notable year cannot be understated: Nadal is joined in the squad by No12 Pablo Carreno Busta, No17 Roberto Bautista Agut, and Nos 31 and 33, Feliciano Lopez and David Ferrer.
On the other side of the net will be No4 Alexander Zverev, fresh from his runner-up finish at the Miami Masters, and bolstered by the classy Philipp Kohlschreiber—but on Spanish clay, it should be wins all the way for the home nation.
Top quality action continues in the United States after a month of hard-court dazzle in Indian Wells and Miami. And with No9 John Isner, who won his first Masters in Florida, riding a confidence high alongside top-20 compatriots, Jack Sock and Sam Querrey, the most prolific champions in Davis Cup history, with 32 titles, could be in line for the first in a decade.
Certainly, the USA looks a shoo-in for the semis against a Belgium without its star player, David Goffin, who is still not recovered from the accident to his eye in Rotterdam last month.
Headlining for Croatia is No3 Marin Cilic, very ably supported by young Borna Cilic, who is inside the top 30 for the first time after semi and quarter finishes in Indian Wells and Miami. They will be hot favourites at home, against an underpowered Kazakhstan.
France, as usual, boasts a strong line-up, even without Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfiles. No11 Lucas Pouille, who clinched France’s first Davis Cup title in 17 years last December, heads to Italy and Fabio Fognini with some in-form colleagues. Jeremy Chardy made the fourth round in both Indian Wells and Miami, while Pierre-Hugues Herbert and and Nicolas Mahut comprise one of the best doubles teams in the world.
Make the most of it, then. All eight nations—aside from Belgium’s stalwart Goffin— feature their top-ranked players, and that means there will be some fine tennis and thrilling atmospheres at every tie.
Runners and Riders (rankings shown for players in top 100)
6 to 8 April 2018
Italy vs France: H2H 5-5
Outdoor clay, Valletta Cambiaso ASD, Genoa, Italy
Italy: Fabio Fognini (No20), Paolo Lorenzi (No57), Andreas Seppi (No62), Matteo Berrettini, Simone Bolelli
France: Lucas Pouille (No11), Adrian Mannarino (No25), Pierre-Hugues Herbert (No79, and No13 doubles), Jeremy Chardy (No80), Nicolas Mahut (No7 doubles)
Spain vs Germany: H2H 6-10
Outdoor clay, Plaza de Toros de Valencia, Valencia, Spain
Spain: Rafael Nadal (No1), Pablo Carreno Busta (No12), Roberto Bautista Agut (No17), Feliciano Lopez (No31), David Ferrer (No33)
Germany: Alexander Zverev (No4), Philipp Kohlschreiber (No34), Jan-Lennard Struff (No60), Maximilian Marterer (No73), Tim Puetz
Croatia vs Kazakhstan: H2H 0-0
Indoor clay, Varazdin Arena, Varazdin, Croatia
Croatia: Marin Cilic (No3), Borna Coric (No28), Viktor Galovic, Ivan Dodig, Nikola Mektic (No32 in doubles)
Kazakhstan: Mikhail Kukushkin (No92), Aleksandr Nedovyesov, Dimitry Popko, Denis Yevseyev, Timur Khabibulin
USA vs Belgium: H2H 4-0
Hard indoor, Curb Event Center, Nashville, USA
USA: John Isner (No9), Sam Querrey (No14), Jack Sock (No16), Steve Johnson (No52), Ryan Harrison (No54)
Belgium: Ruben Bemelmans, Joris de Loore, Joran Vliegen, Sander Gille
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