Now that the “bigger must surely be better” version of the Davis Cup has concluded, it’s time to take a look at how the event itself has evolved over time. Initially, it was a clubby/chummy affair between the US and the British Isles, as Great Britain was known long before there was even a thought of Brexit. True, there had been international, country versus country tennis gatherings, such as England versus Ireland or England versus France, but that was in the 1890s. The “official” team competition wasn’t birthed until 1900 when the US and BI faced-off at Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, Massachusetts.
The visitors, who were supposed to be the creme de la crème of tennis because they came from Great Britain, were throttled by their upstart hosts, 3-0. One of the competitors on the winning side was a Harvard student whose name was Dwight Davis. Five years after the launch, Australasia (with players from both Australia and New Zealand), Austria, Belgium and France took part in what was called the International Lawn Tennis Challenge. Perhaps to downplay the seeming pompousness of the title, the competition quickly became known as the Davis Cup, a salute to the perpetual trophy donor.
In the beginning, the event was played as a Challenge Cup. The set-up allowed the winner from the previous year to sit on the sideline while the other countries battled for a spot in the final. The “wait and watch” was great for the title holder but the format proved to be an ultra-marathon for all the other participants. In 1972 a change was finally made, and play became a somewhat more sensible win and advance tournament.
Since then, the international competition grew so large that it became unwieldy and modifications needed to be made. None of the alterations has even come close to matching the Madrid extravaganza that was created by Gerard Pique and his Kosmos team, supported by Hiroshi Mikitani’s Rakuten financing and sanctified by the International Tennis Federation.
Before going further, it must be stressed that the “old Davis Cup way” was no longer working. But, bulldozing history to put up a new event demands an overwhelming amount of thought and even more insight. Thus far, it appears that a “too much, too soon” approach has been built on a foundation that isn’t exactly sand, but something nearly as tenuous. The set-up has a number of fissures. It is as if, Pique and his collogues were trying to create a Tennis World Cup. Perhaps the group borrowed pages from the wandering methodology that has plagued the Fédération Internationale de Football Association Qatar World Cup preparation.
It must be mentioned that the novel undertaking was bold and there are hopes for it to get better. Still, with all the pre-tournament hype and sensational fanfare, there needs to be an assessment of what actually took place in Year One, in order for the event to improve. Particularly, in view of the fact that “first impressions are almost always the most lasting.”
A few of the issues that lead the “Could Have Done Better” list include:
- Match scheduling (the US versus Italy finished at 4:00 a.m., just in time for an early breakfast. (Nearly every match contested was almost nine hours in length.);
- Plodding ticket sales;
- Improvements in communication, so there is more clarity for the fans, players and media. Keeping the information flow accurate and continuous so that speculation doesn’t enter the tournament arena.
With the old Davis Cup there often were gripping, edge of your seat, emotional contests in the “five matches, five-set” play. Home and away ties truly added crowd fervor to a tasty recipe of competition.
It’s hardly surprising that whenever Spain played on the Manuel Santana Center Court, with a capacity of 12,422, the crowd was raucous. The Arantxa Sánchez Vicario No. 2 Court, with room for 2,923 spectators, rocked, but only on occasion. From time to time, Court No. 3 was loud too, but that was due more to having a mere 1,772 seats in an enclosed space than a collection of rabid fans.
Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt admitted that the atmosphere lacked feeling because of the neutral setting. French doubles standout Nicolas Mahut brought up how much his country’s fans ordinarily helped their team, but few were in attendance. Support groups of faithful French fans stayed away to show their unhappiness with the decision to scrap the old Davis Cup format.
In his New York Times, November 19th article, Christopher Clarey quoted Ion Tiriac. “The Brasov Bulldozer”, who owns the ATP Masters event held in Madrid, candidly said, “It is a joke and a disgrace. They have ruined the jewel of tennis.”
Reducing a tie to three matches (two singles and just one doubles) made the matches Tweet-like. Instead of slashing the number of characters that could be used, the new look limited the essence of the product being proffered – The players and their teams. The confusion became more profound on the rules front when it came to “play or don’t play” the doubles, the tie-break and translating the results system. It seemed only those with a mathematics degree could make sense of the situation. Additionally, with18 countries participating, many ended up feeling they were meandering members of a “lost tennis tribe”…or they came to the conclusion that they needed a serious calculation class.
Another issue, (and this may be the most bewildering particularly to journalists who have a stake in promoting the game worldwide), was the accrediting process. Anxious to have the tournament touted, the tennis media from here, there and everywhere was encouraged to apply for accreditation. Yet, a number of accomplished writers were denied credentials while, at least, two publications that no longer exist were granted event access.
A soccer pitch is sizeable (75 yards wide and 120 yards long but it can vary). In comparison, a tennis court is a tiny 26 yards long and 13 yards wide (including the doubles alleys). The point – There were many comments about the need for trekking skills to traverse the architecturally pleasing Caja Mágica three court complex. Perhaps hosting such a colossal spectacle at a new location, combined with “never been there or done that” brought about those first experience jitters.
Looking at the big picture, the most staggering aspect of the “new” Davis Cup was the 25-year agreement with $3 billion dollars at stake. How do tennis fans put these “Monopoly-money” like figurers into any meaningful perspective?
The quarter-century commitment and pledged funding are difficult to comprehend . The years and financial “unreal” combination brings to mind 1999, when the staggering ISL (International Sport and Leisure) Worldwide-ATP marketing, broadcasting and licensing agreement for “elite” tournaments was made. It was a ten-year arrangement for $1.2 billion. Unfortunately, ISL, which also had close ties with FIFA, collapsed in May 2001. Oops.
Canada’s performance was stellar in reaching the final against Spain. Because of the “magic” that had been part of its success, “The Great White North” was looking to join Australasia, Croatia, Serbia, South Africa, Sweden and US each of whom won the Davis Cup in its debut.
Having won the tie five times since 2000, the home country was a prohibitive favorite to earn number six. That Spain closed out the inaugural Pique/Kosmos/Rakuten/ITF Davis Cup, 2-0, wasn’t surprising. As a result, the Canadian first-timers joined Japan in 1921, Mexico in 1962, Chile in 1976, Slovakia in 2005 and Belgium in 2017 as debut finalists and history’s runners-up.
With 24 more years to go, the new Davis Cup has real potential. Still, the tennis world is trusting that the future offers more than a quote from Bob Dylan, the 2016 Literature Nobel Prize winner who many have regarded as the world’s poet laurate. In 1964, he said, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”
From afar, the 2019 Davis Cup appeared to be a week-long exhibition. Through no fault of its own, Spain benefitted, but was that fair to the others? It actually seems like something was lost in the transition translation.