Ever since the International Tennis Federation (ITF) passed radical reforms to turn Davis Cup into a one-week, 18-team, single-venue event, there has been much consternation among tennis fans.
While nearly all stakeholders agreed that changes were indeed required, not many expected them to be this far-reaching.
For the purists, a Davis Cup stripped of all the characteristics that made it great — home-court advantage, raucous and partisan crowds, best-of-five sets with no tie-breaks in the decider — held no appeal.
For those who wanted the competition to move with the times, be mindful of the television audience, it was a gamble worth taking.
As the Davis Cup qualifiers — to decide the 12 teams which will join six others in the grand finale in Madrid in late November — get underway from Friday, the ITF will hope it is not a false start.
“The Davis Cup was antiquated and did not appeal to those outside the tennis community,” Paul Annacone, former coach of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, told Sportstar . “In a competitive global sports landscape, you have to evolve. This may not be “the” answer, but it is important to be open to trying and find the optimal format.”
It was widely felt that for an event which called itself The World Cup of Tennis, Davis Cup lost momentum constantly. A single competition played across four weekends in a nine-month window struggled to maintain spectator interest.
“They are now trying to get it closer to other sports like the FIFA World Cup,” said Prajnesh Gunneswaran, India No.1. “Obviously is not going to be that big but getting everybody at once place can make it easier for fans and sponsors. The success of it really hinges on the top players coming and competing. But the timing may not be conducive, that’s what they [players] have stated.”
The ITF also sold its idea with the promise that the revamp — bankrolled by investment group Kosmos, of which Barcelona football star Gerard Pique is a founder — will ensure more funding for countries. Not many are impressed though.
“There has been a substantial increase [in money], but at the same time, there has been a proportionate increase in the prize money, payments to the officials etc.,” said Hironmoy Chatterjee, secretary-general of the All-India Tennis Association (AITA).
“Also, there is no state which can boast of a surplus after hosting the Davis Cup because the ITF norms make it very costly. So I don't see much money for development.”
But the biggest threat may well come from the ATP World Team Cup to be launched from January 2020 in Australia. Unlike the Davis Cup, the ATP tournament will offer ranking points and has the attractive start-of-the-season slot. “Until something dramatic happens, I don't see the Davis Cup surviving,” warned Chatterjee.
It is then ironic that the first of the qualifiers of the brand-new Davis Cup will be held at the grass courts of Calcutta South Club, a place synonymous with India’s rich Davis Cup history.
On Wednesday, both teams had their first hits on the centre court even as flex boards printed with words ‘La Liga’ [Spanish football league where Pique plays] stood witness.
“We’re getting run by a Spanish football player and a soccer league is the main sponsor of the Davis Cup!” lamented Lleyton Hewitt, the Australian Davis Cup captain, the other day.
A disruptive or constructive move, only time will tell.
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