How do you make an “after-thought” (the memorable phrase that Martina Navratilova used to describe the relative lack of status of the Fed Cup) a major event? That is the challenge facing the International Tennis Federation as it plans to revamp the world’s premier women’s team tennis competition.
It was announced this week that the ITF is planning to reorganise the Fed Cup along the same lines as the Davis Cup, itself recently overhauled. The changes will introduce a week-long finals, involving a dozen teams, at the end of the season, with qualification decided by home and away ties in February. These changes could be introduced as early as next year, although they may be further altered after the ITF sees how the Davis Cup fares in its new format in Madrid this November.
However, will such changes on their own be enough to save the Fed Cup? Historically, it has been a very poor relation to the Davis Cup. That is demonstrated by the fact that the Davis Cup was first competed for in 1900 between Britain and the United States, with the US winning. However, it took more than half a century for an equivalent women’s competition to be established, with the first Fed Cup Final being contested between the United States and Australia in 1963, with the US again victorious.
Perhaps, therefore, it is time for the ITF to think big and think differently, not just to save the Fed Cup but to regenerate it and re-brand it as a competition that is the full equal of the Davis Cup. Here are five proposals (some modest, some less so) for the ITF to consider.
5. Use Grand Slam venues for the Fed Cup Finals Week
Frankly, it is surprising that the ITF has not already considered doing this for the “Davis Cup Version 2.0”. Like any sport, tennis thrives in and off its most famous and iconic venues, yet Melbourne Park, Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, are typically used only once a year for a fortnight.
So why not use them to host both the Davis Cup (if Gerard Pique and his fellow Kosmos investors can be persuaded to move it from Madrid) and the Fed Cup? They could even alternate, so that each venue hosted a team tennis event finals, or even two team tennis event finals, once every four years. Of course there are obvious difficulties in doing this, principally that the Davis Cup and Fed Cup Finals take place at the end of the tennis season and so usually have to be held indoors.
However, three of the four Major venues have indoor courts that could be used, with Roland Garros the sole exception. And what a fillip it would be for the less successful members of a tennis team to say that they had competed for their country in a Fed Cup Final in front of a packed house on the main show court at the All England Club or Melbourne Park. The added kudos of playing in a final at such illustrious venues would surely lead more players to make the Fed Cup a priority, as well as likely drawing in spectators, both in person and on television.
4. Double the prize money – and the points – on offer
As the BBC and others reported this week, the ITF has already doubled the prize money at the World Group level, the highest division of the Fed Cup, this year, and that is certainly to be welcomed. However, the really radical move, which would surely do more than anything to revive the interest of the top players in the Fed Cup, would be to double the number of ranking points on offer. In fact, given that it is currently the case that no ranking points are awarded for competing in the Fed Cup, it would be a good beginning merely to start offering ranking points for Fed Cup participation.
It can perhaps be argued that women players should not receive any singles ranking points for competing in a team event. However, the Davis Cup offers male players ranking points, so there is no reason why the Fed Cup should be any different. Moreover, by offering players ranking points for competing for their country, the ITF would be rewarding both the player and the federation that helped to produce them. That would reward a country’s overall contribution to tennis.
3. Play Fed Cup ties over a whole weekend
One of the more frustrating differences between the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup is that Davis Cup ties are played over three days. That allows the opening pair of singles matches to be played on the Friday, the doubles match on a Saturday and the closing pair of singles matches, if required, on the Sunday. Fed Cup ties, in contrast, are played over only Saturday and Sunday. But there would be several immediate benefits to a switch to mirroring the Davis Cup’s scheduling.
If nothing else, it would help the home federation to generate extra income from its Fed Cup side by selling tickets for three days. However, more importantly, it would lessen the burden on the singles players, who currently have to play two singles matches on successive days. The potentially injurious effects of that workload were rendered clear when Britain’s Johanna Konta played three matches that went the distance in three days during February’s qualifying tournament.
Such were her exertions that she nearly collapsed on court during the third match. The introduction of a day’s break between the two pairs of singles matches would dramatically lessen the chances of such an incident happening again. Consequently, the Fed Cup should copy the Davis Cup and play ties over a whole weekend.
2. KISS (or Keep It Simple, Stupid)
The famous acronym, which was apparently first used by the US Navy in 1960, is most applicable to the Fed Cup. Particularly in the case of its complex, if not arcane, qualification system. Unlike in the Davis Cup, which has one World Group, the Fed Cup has two, with eight teams in each. But it has often proved so difficult for lower-ranked teams to gain promotion to the World Groups that they have almost become closed shops. Great Britain, for example, has not competed in the World Group since 1993.
The ITF is currently proposing to have the kind of one-off qualifiers for the Fed Cup that the Davis Cup has already introduced this year. That can only be a good thing, reducing the number of matches a player has to compete in and thereby minimising their chances of getting injured while representing their country. That process of simplification should certainly extend to the Fed Cup Finals Week, if and when it is introduced. For a start, the proposed number of finalists should be increased from 12 to 16. That would make for a much simpler format of last 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and final, even if doing so necessitated extending the Finals from a week to a fortnight.
1. Integrate the Davis and Fed Cups to create a single team tennis event
This is by far the most ambitious proposal of all. Indeed, it is arguable that integrating the Davis and Fed Cups to create a single team event would actually destroy the Fed Cup rather than save it, as it would simply be subsumed into one event and thus lose its unique history and character. However, the upside of such a competition is that it would showcase the best players, of both genders, that a federation has to offer.
Doing so would create an event that could embrace all the formats of tennis: men’s singles; women’s singles; men’s doubles; women’s doubles; and, crucially, mixed doubles. Indeed, mixed doubles remains one of the few sporting events in which men and women compete directly against each other. Such an event, which could perhaps be called the “Davis Federations Cup” in a nod to the history of the two team events that preceded it, would make the most of the unique and gender-neutral appeal of tennis.
For tennis one of the rare sports where both the men’s and women’s game are of a similarly high level and status, which is not true of golf or football, for example. Any opportunity to take advantage of that must surely be seized. In this case, it would lead to the creation of a genuinely unique event in world sport – true team tennis, in which the best male and female players from one country fight it out with other sides to be crowned the undisputed world champions.
Moreover, given the difficulties that both the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup have had recently in attracting the best players, which is what largely necessitated the recent relaunching of both events, it makes sense just to have one world team tennis event. Not only would an event involving both genders reduce the disruption that team tennis causes for both the ATP and the WTA Tours, it would surely encourage player participation. The enduring popularity of the Hopman Cup alone should serve as evidence of that.
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