Twelve months down the road from the very last final in the ‘old’ version of the Davis Cup, the version where two nations came through three knock-out ties to reach the title bout—in that case a rousing victory by Croatia against France in Lille—things look and sound very different in the ‘new’ Davis Cup.
The next phase of this historic, century-old tournament got under way in a near-unrecognisable form this week in Madrid—no home-and-away ties now, except for Spain.
And instead of five best-of-five rubbers played across three days by the final pair of teams, the entire World Group campaign is concentrated into a week, during which it reduces 18 nations down to those final two.
Of necessity, then, there needed to be a different format. In place of the familiar 16 nations embarking on the four-stage knock-out progression, 24 nations competed at the start of the year for 12 places among the 18. The balance this week was made up by the 2018 semi-finalists, Croatia, France, Spain and the USA, plus two wild cards, Argentina and Great Britain.
The 18 were then drawn into six pools, each topped by one of the six top-ranked nations. Those ranked 7 to 12 were then drawn across the pools, followed by the remaining nations. They fell thus:
Group A France (1), Serbia (8), Japan (14)
Group B Croatia (2), Spain (7), Russia (17)
Group C Argentina (3), Germany (11), Chile (18)
Group D Belgium (4), Australia (9), Colombia (15)
Group E Great Britain (5), Kazakhstan (12), Netherlands (16)
Group F USA (6), Italy (10), Canada (13)
This revamped tournament, fronted by the Kosmos investment group owned by Barcelona billionaire footballer Gerard Pique, certainly picked up its share of criticism once the plans and structure were approved by the ITF.
Many felt, and continue to feel, that 100 years of tennis tradition has been swept away in favour of a World Cup style event, which will in any case soon be followed by the very similar new team event, the ATP Cup, in early January.
One of the biggest losses has been the home-away atmosphere so popular with fans and players. For Spain, it may be a win-win situation, but the crowds have been painfully thin for some ties, and with three courts in action and the Caja Magica, fans have often been spread thin. And for those trying to watch remotely, key information such as live scores have been near-impossible to source.
On the practical side, there have been other hiccups, especially with the schedule: ties have extended to absurdly late finishes, one of them after 4am.
Considering one of the main aims of the restructure was to reduce the burden on the top players, who tend to play last and longest in tournaments through the year, it seemed counter-intuitive to create a scenario where they may play five singles matches and perhaps some doubles rubbers too—and perhaps on back-to-back days—if their nations reached the final.
For the likes of Spain, with top-ranked players to spare, there can be some respite. For Chile or Kazakhstan, with just one player ranked inside the top 50 between them—Cristian Garin at 33—the options were few and very demanding.
Perhaps no surprise, then, that those last two nations fell at the round-robin stage. More of a surprise, perhaps, was that top seeds France and Croatia also lost, along with fellow top seeds USA and Belgium.
But while there were fears in some quarters that the top singles players would find it impossible to summon the physical resources to take part, the contests have often been star-studded.
World No1 Rafael Nadal and No2 Novak Djokovic spearheaded their nations to the quarter-finals, while Andy Murray played his part in helping GB through the knock-out stages.
Certainly some glamorous names have been missing. Roger Federer’s Switzerland and Dominic Thiem’s Austria did not make the cut for the Finals, while Nitto ATP Finals participants, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev opted out of the Russian and German teams respectively.
One of the stand-out performances has come from the Canadian duo of Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil, who played all the singles and doubles rubbers between them in the absence of injured compatriots Milos Raonic and Felix Auger-Aliassime. That included victories over the highly-fancied and highly-ranked Italy squad, plus their quarter-final against Australia.
The two nations who benefitted from the ‘best losers’ scenario were Russia and Argentina. The former, even without the top-ranked Medvedev, boasted some quality young stars in Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev, and fully deserved their place. But after facing Spain in the round robins, they then had to play Serbia. And if one match recalled the classic Davis Cup atmosphere and heightened emotions, it was the deciding doubles after the two nations had split the singles.
Djokovic partnered Viktor Troicki, while Khachanov and Rublev—‘doing a Canada’—continued to be sole commanders of their nation’s fortune. It would be a thriller, right down to the deciding tie-break that went first in Russia’s favour, then Serbia’s.
Djokovic and Troicki had the match on their rackets after changing ends at 6-6, but could not convert three match points. Instead, the adventurous and aggressive tennis of the Russian duo finally clinched a semi-final place on their first match point, after two and a quarter hours, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(8).
Russia will next play that brave, but surely exhausted, Canadian pair—though Khachanov and Rublev, after their efforts, do not enjoy a day of recovery. The semis are played tomorrow, the final on Sunday.
Still contesting places in the semi-finals are:
Winners to face each other for a place in the final.
Spain vs Argentina
GB vs Germany
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