Readers of Paddy Power News will know that Didier Deschamps’s vibrant French side lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in Russia this summer. And I’d wager that it probably wouldn’t take too long to name the world champions in rugby union or the Ryder Cup holders.
How about the reigning Superbowl and NBA Finals winners? Easy, says you.
But here’s a trickier one: can you name the victorious 2017 Davis and Fed Cup teams?
It’s France and the USA respectively. If you knew that, well played. Yet the problem for tennis is that there simply aren’t enough interested in its international competitions, which have been in decline for a number of years and don’t hold the world’s attention in the way they used to or should.
This week, the International Tennis Federation decided to switch the narrative and approved drastic reforms to the Davis Cup from 2019 onwards.
What are the changes?
As things stand, 132 nations take part in the Davis Cup with 16 of them in the top tier known as the World Group. Matches in the World Group are best-of-five sets and rounds take place in February, April, September and November.
Despite a prestigious history dating back to 1900, the Davis Cup has lost some of its appeal in a world of Netflix, Dua Lipa and Fortnite. Meanwhile, the bloated tennis calendar has resulted in star players skipping ties in favour of tour events and majors.
Enter Gerard Pique.
You read that right. The Barcelona centre-half has thrust himself into the world of tennis as the President and face of a group called Kosmos, backed by billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani.
Kosmos proposed a one-week best-of-three sets Davis Cup Finals with a prize fund of $20 million and held in one location. Despite massive opposition from players past and present, the ITF has confirmed the changes with a majority of 71%.
The new format has some positive and negative aspects so let’s have a closer look.
The Good Bits
There’s more money
While players do earn some coin for playing Davis Cup, it’s nothing like the loot on offer at grand slams. Kosmos has filled the void with an extraordinary offer of $3 billion over 25 years. This will go to the players and the development of tennis generally.
It’s more straightforward for players
To win today’s Davis Cup, a World Group nation must navigate four gruelling rounds of home and away contests. Sides must win three out of five ties per round and matches are best-of-five sets.
The new format discards most of that for a single qualifying stage of 24 teams in February followed by the finals in November. All matches will be best-of-three sets with just three rubbers (two singles and a doubles) per round in the Finals week.
Easier for broadcasters and TV spectators
With four grand slams, two year-end tour finals and dozens of ATP/WTA events competing for eyeballs, the international events can get lost in the mix. The new format condenses the main action across seven days in one location (set to be Lille or Madrid in 2019). In theory, this will be an easier sell to broadcasters and viewers as it’s close to the format of the Ryder Cup and NBA Finals.
The Bad Bits
Top players still might not play
The biggest issue for the Davis Cup in recent decades is sporadic appearances from top players. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have all skipped the event in recent years to focus on other events or recovery.
Any changes to the format should remedy this problem but, judging by the reaction so far, players weren’t properly consulted before the switch.
Lucas Pouille, a member of reigning champions France, called the ITF “a shame for tennis”. Two-time Davis Cup champion Lleyton Hewitt said the transformation was “a disgrace” while another two-time winner, Tomas Berdych, tweeted out “#ripdaviscup”.
Best-of-five tennis is fading away
While the traditional format of the game survives at grand slams, removing best-of-five sets from the Davis Cup is a severe bodyblow. Shortening attention spans and ailing players have contributed to a movement for best-of-three everywhere. If this trend continues, magnificent contests like the Wimbledon semi-final between Nadal and Djokovic will become the stuff of history PDFs.
The calendar is a mess
We are now in mid-August and the 2018 season still has three months left to run. Like golf, the tennis season never seems to end.
Unfortunately, the new Davis Cup format merely maintains the length of the current calendar instead of shortening it. Worse than that, it’s not the only men’s international tennis competition in development.
The ATP is baking its own World Team Cup at the moment and plans to serve it at the start of the 2020 season. There’s also Roger Federer’s Laver Cup which began in 2017 and will be held in about a month in Chicago.
That’s three competitions added to a calendar that is already thought to be too long. Makes sense right?