Come 2019, the world of tennis will have a slew of changes to offer to its viewers.
There is going to be a sizeable reduction in the number of seeds in the Slams – from 32 down to 16 – in a throwback to the past. Then, there is to be a revamping of the ATP Challenger Tour, with an increase in the size of the singles draw – from 32 to 48 along with an increase in the prize money pool. The ITF transition tour will also be initiated the following year.
But none of these changes is as drastic as the ones which were agreed upon in the ITF’s Annual General Meeting in Orlando regarding the continuity of the Davis Cup. In an overwhelming jot of approval – 71%, more the requirement of 67% – the 118-year-old edifice was eroded, if not brought down, to cater to the needs of development. And while development has been the apparent keyword around which this modernization has been instituted, the finer points of how the same would be realized remain murky.
Just see how lofty and irrational the idea to have an 18-team event spanning a week in November (18th-24th in its inaugural edition in 2019) at a neutral venue featuring round robin matches sounds. While the proponents of the revamping debate that the distinctive feature of home-and-away ties would remain intact in the initial rounds – both in the qualifying rounds featuring 24-teams in February and in the zonal ties – the reduction in the way these ties, especially in the qualifying round, would be played leaves a diluted essence for everyone to soak in.
Currently, the zonal ties are played across two days with both singles and doubles rubbers played as best-of-three sets, and the World Group Play-Offs’ ties and the ties in the World Group are played across three days as best-of-five sets. In the newer format, the qualifiers will be played across two days in February as best-of-three sets for the four singles and the doubles rubbers.
Thus, where the players once had the opportunity to try and effectuate a comeback and fans once experienced Davis Cup rubbers which tested endurance as they went the distance and which were recorded for posterity, there would now be rubbers where crossing the finish line would be imminent and (most likely) without any possibilities of a comeback.
And considering that the early plans of remodelling involved only 18 teams play at a neutral venue before the backlash from the tennis community made them shelve the idea, even this reconsideration seems like a feeble-minded acceptance. It’s as if they wanted to offer a compromise to the idea they had envisioned of holding the finals at a place of their choosing – which is yet-to-be-decided between Madrid and Lille.
This seeming compromise also adds to the imbalance surrounding the reformatted structure of the event. In that where before, teams were to maximise their strengths and exploit the weaknesses of their opponents by playing the ties on surfaces that best suited them, which also added to the flavour of the event, what uniqueness and flair would this so-called contemporary event bring to the table?
This attempt of reducing the fervour of home-and-away ties, then, speaks volumes about the extent of their disregard towards fans. There is nothing except obliviousness to the fact that fans are – and have been – a core tenet of the tournament. And that it is an event as much as of – and for – the fans as it is an event of the players.
France’s hosting of its home Davis Cup ties in Lille has seen substantial turn-out for the Blues. And the Madrid Open, too, does bring in the crowd in droves. But, there is a significant difference in the way fans attend – and have attended – both events. The Madrid Open sees an outpouring of neutral fans, whose passion is driven by individual contenders. Whereas in Lille, it has been about displaying the country’s colors to everyone at large.
Thus, even if it would be easier to spot more numbers of hardcore French fans in Lille, as it would be easier to spot more Spanish fans in the country capital, not many would want to travel to the neighbouring cities to catch their teams in action. And if this were to be the situation of fans belonging to teams which have done well for themselves in Davis Cup competition, what about the relatively lesser-prominent nations? What motivation would followers from these countries have to travel to “a world class European location”?
These words find a mention in the FAQs page of the new in-charge of the tournament, Kosmos. Does this, then, mean that Davis Cup is a lost cause as far as the rest of the world is concerned? Would the new owners – for that’s who they are, no matter how they refer to themselves – be able to put out a definitive answer to this query, too?