ITF approves ‘world cup’ restructure of Davis Cup

The Sport Review's Marianne Bevis runs through the the key facts and figures behind ITF's restructure of the Davis Cup

Novak Djokovic won the Davis Cup with Serbia in 2010 Photo: The Sport Review

It may be, as the Davis Cup website proclaims “the world’s largest annual international team competition in sport”, with 132 nations entered this year, and with a history dating back to 1900.

But this famous tournament is set to undergo a dramatic restructure next year—into something not dissimilar to the new World Team Cup planned by the ATP to feature before of the Australian Open in 2020: Two new team tennis jamborees in the space of about five weeks.

Few have denied that reform of the Davis Cup in its present form has been needed for years. The packed tennis calendar that begins before 1 January and runs to its climax at the ATP Finals in mid November, accommodates just three non-tournament weeks—weeks during which Round 1, quarters and semis of the Davis Cup are played.

What is more, the five rubbers played in each tie are best of five sets, and for nations with few top-flight players, that can mean three back-to-back five-set matches in as many days. Witness Andy Murray who played two singles and a doubles rubber in every round of GB’s victory run in 2015.

And coming, as those ties do, immediately after either a Major or the Indian Wells/Miami double header, it is little wonder that the most successful men, after deep runs in the tour’s most prestigious tournaments, have found it increasingly hard to take part in Davis Cup without a recuperative break.

It was already a big ask of any player before 2016, but since then, there has not even been the incentive of ranking points—which might at least have offset points lost from missing an alternative tour tournament.

Certainly some of the biggest names and biggest draws in the sport have recognised the need for change: options thrown into the mix were to play the tournament in alternate years, switching to best-of-three sets, and playing over two days—as in the Fed Cup.

Yet while the argument has often been that the competition no longer features the biggest and best players, such is the national pride and professional kudos of adding the Davis Cup to their resume that there is hardly a top player who has not thrown his weight behind the tournament for significant stretches.

Novak Djokovic led Serbia to victory in 2010, played his first tie in 2004, and has gone on to notch up 25 ties and 44 rubbers.

Rafael Nadal played his first as a teen 2004, has been part of four title runs for Spain, and committed to his country’s tilt this year: 18 ties, 34 matches.

Marin Cilic has rarely missed a tie since his first in 2006, now up to 23 and 52 rubbers, while Juan Martin del Potro’s Argentina denied Cilic’s Croatia in the 2016 final.

And the young stars are proving to be just as enthusiastic: Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, and Karen Khachanov all began as teens and have accumulated several ties.

Then there is Federer, who has often been criticized for his lack of Davis Cup participation, yet he missed only two years between his first tie in 1999 and his Davis Cup retirement in 2015, age 34, having finally helped lift Switzerland’s first trophy in 2014. He is his country’s most prolific ever winner—27 ties, 70 rubbers—with Lleyton Hewitt one of the only men to play more during Federer’s long Davis Cup career.

It so happens that Federer and Nadal, Djokovic and Cilic, del Potro and Zverev are currently in the frame for the ATP Finals—the week before the proposed 18-team Davis Cup showdown begins next year. Which poses the big question: Will the very men who have played and won the most matches through the year really be able to switch, a day later, to round-robin competition, followed by three knock-out days?

Yes, there will be big money on offer both to players and national associations—the concept has the backing of Gerard Pique’s Kosmos company—but for the big names, used to pulling in big prize and sponsorship money, that too may be little incentive, taken alongside the need to rest and rehab for the new season that follows all too soon.

And then there is the other spanner in the works, the ATP’s own proposal to launch a similar team event in January 2020—five or so weeks after the Davis Cup’s debut. The ATP World Team Cup will feature 24 teams, a similar prize purse, plus ranking points—the big gap in the ITF plan.

The ATP’s press release, timed, perhaps, to take the wind out of the ITF’s AGM announcement this week, said:

“This event will enable us to kick off our season with a major team event with minimal impact on existing player schedules at the start of the year.”

Where that leaves the group of tournaments that has traditionally provided the build-up to the Australian Open—Brisbane, Sydney and Hobart are embraced within the ‘Emirates Australian Open Series’— is unclear until more detail is forthcoming. But one significant casualty could be the Hopman Cup, an ITF-backed ‘team’ event held in the first week of the year.

The Hopman Cup, which sets man-and-woman compatriots against other national duos, has, ironically, gone from strength to strength in recent years. The likes of Federer, Zverev, and Angelique Kerber played last year, and Garbine Muguruza and Stefanos Tstisipas will join them for 2019, in what may be a memorable finale.

In announcing the Davis Cup transformation, ITF President David Haggerty said:

“This new event will create a true festival of tennis and entertainment which will be more attractive to players, to fans, to sponsors and to broadcasters.”

He may have in mind the successful launch of another ‘team’ event last September, the Laver Cup, which certainly captured the imagination—in large part, it should be added, because of the charismatic pairing of Federer and Nadal on the same team, Rod Laver’s eminent presence and praise, and the bringing together of two of tennis most famous former champions, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

Haggerty and Pique will have to hope they get similarly starry player backing.

Structure

· The one-week event will feature 18 teams: 12 qualifiers, the previous year’s four semi-finalists, plus two wild card nations.

· The two wild cards for the following year will be selected during the week of the Finals by the Steering Committee (comprising two ITF reps, one organiser rep and one past player). A nation must be ranked in the top 50, or have at least one player ranked in the ATP top 10.

· The 18 teams will compete in six round-robin groups of three teams, Monday to Thursday, with each tie comprising two singles and one doubles match, all played on one day.

· Teams must be confirmed 10 days before the start of the event. Nations will be allowed to nominate up to five players.

· The six group winners plus the two second-placed teams with the best records based on sets and games will go through to knock-out quarters, semis and final stages.

· The two teams with the worst record after the round-robin phase will be relegated to the respective Zone Group 1 the following year.

· The 12 teams that finish in 5th to 16th position will compete in the qualifying event the following February (ie after Australian Open) with the 12 promoted Zone Group 1 teams, comprising six from Europe/Africa, three from Asia/Oceania, three from Americas (ties played home and away). Ties will comprise four singles and one doubles match played over two days.

· Singles matches at all levels of the competition will be best-of-three tiebreak sets, and doubles matches also best-of-three tiebreak sets with regular ad scoring.

· Zone Groups will continue to play in April and September. 12 Zone Group 1 winners will advance to the following year’s Finals qualifying event.

Other Questions and Answers [more on ITF website]

· Date: In 2019, 18-24 November [NB Nitto ATP Finals held 11-17 November].

· Venue: It will be “hosted in a world class European location.” In the first two years, that is either Lille or Madrid, on three hard courts.

· Draw to determine the composition of the six groups at the Finals will take place at least five months before the event.

NB Draw for the 2019 Finals qualifying event will take place after the 2018 September World Group semi and play-offs. The draw for future qualifying events will take place after the completion of the Finals event.

· Seeding: Six nations will be seeded; the top two will be the finalists from the previous year, and seeds 3-6 will be determined by the Davis Cup ranking at the time of the draw; Teams ranked 7-12 are placed in the second spot in Groups A-F, with 13-18 being drawn into the third spots.

· Prize money: $20 million player prize fund will go directly to players competing in the Davis Cup Finals via their National Associations.

· What about the Fed Cup? “The ITF’s commitment to enhancing the Fed Cup has not changed. It is still a priority for the ITF to increase the size of the Fed Cup World Group to 16 nations in 2020 either through a similar one-venue event or through the introduction of a Fed Cup final-four event.”

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