The Davis Cup: Is it really the ‘Tennis World Cup’?

While Great Britain were gearing up for their first Davis Cup final since 1978, culminating in their first victory since the 1930s, the build-up was somewhat focused on Andy Murray’s decision to play the ATP World Tour Finals the week before.

The British number one, who qualified as the second seed for the season-ending championships, immediately threw his participation in the event into doubt after he helped Leon Smith’s team beat Australia in the semi-finals back in September.

He was told by ATP Chief Executive Chris Kermode, who Murray helped out significantly last year by agreeing to play an exhibition for the fans after Roger Federer pulled out of the World Tour Final against Novak Djokovic through injury, that participation was ‘mandatory’, and it would expected that Murray fulfilled his playing commitments. Murray did and, regardless of how he did at the O2 Arena (which was not actually that well), it raises numerous questions about the positioning of Davis Cup matches on the calendar, and whether or not the tournament, widely regarded as the best team competition in the sport, gets the respect it deserves.

“With the current scheduling, the International Tennis Federation (ITF), who run the Davis Cup, cannot expect the top players to regularly commit to the competition”

It certainly had the respect from the world number two though. The Scot openly admitted following the semi-final victory in Glasgow that the Davis Cup final was his most important match in the remainder of the season, despite Masters 1000 events in Shanghai and Paris, as well as the World Tour Finals all to be played before the end of November.

However, with the current scheduling, the International Tennis Federation (ITF), who run the Davis Cup, cannot expect the top players to regularly commit to the competition. They have to do something in conjunction with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), so that events like the Davis Cup are enticing for the world’s best players, but do not compromise their ATP World Tour commitments.

For instance, this year, and indeed in most years, the Davis Cup World Group matches have been played at crucial times of the season. The first round was just prior to the Indian Wells/Miami double, two of the most prestigious events on the calendar. The quarter-finals were held the week after Wimbledon. The semis the week after the US Open. The final the week after the World Tour Finals.

The top players in the world are likely to make it into the latter stages of these events. The Grand Slam’s last two weeks. They take their toll both physically and mentally, so how can you then expect the likes of Murray, Federer, and Novak Djokovic to regularly commit to playing Davis Cup the week after these massive events? After Murray’s run to the Wimbledon semi-finals, he then picked himself up for the Davis Cup quarter-finals against France. And Britain just about got away with it. Murray, who was evidently struggling with fatigue, conjured up an unlikely fight-back to overcome Gilles Simon in four sets to secure Britain’s passage into the semi-finals. Hardly ideal. In the final, once again, he produced a super-human effort to play three matches in three days, defeating David Goffin on the final day to seal the Davis Cup for Great Britain.

“They are the best in the world, the ones who get people through the door, yet it seems that the Davis Cup is not high on their list of priorities anymore”

Of the last five years, the ‘Big Four’ have played Davis Cup just 12 times between them. Djokovic twice, Federer three, Murray four, and Rafael Nadal three times. You have to go all the way back to 2011 for the last time all four of them played in the same competition. The scheduling of the competition will likely have something to do with that. As will it’s seemingly diminishing prestige. That surely has to be changed for the global appeal of the game.

These four, as well as Stan Wawrinka and a few others, are your marketers. They are the best in the world, the ones who get people through the door, yet it seems that the Davis Cup is not high on their list of priorities anymore. It does not appear to carry the same prestige as, for instance, the Olympics, which take place in Rio de Janiero next year. The governing bodies have hardly helped the cause themselves though. They have somewhat devalued the Davis Cup by rescheduling the 2016 season around that Olympic week in August. Something they haven’t done for Davis Cup matches.

Big Masters 1000 events in Cincinnati and Montreal have been brought forward a few weeks, meaning that the transition from the grass court season to the hard court season is much shorter. Yet it is unlikely to deter the players too much, because they will want to compete in the Olympics, which happens just once every four years. An Olympic gold medal means just as much as Grand Slam successes. Look at what it did for Murray and his career progression back in London 2012.

It’s highly unlikely that any of the top players will play Davis Cup next year. The current scheduling is far from ideal, so the addition of another big tournament midway through the American hard court season is hardly going to convince them, especially given that Djokovic and Federer have yet to win Olympic singles gold, and Murray will want to give himself the best chance of defending his title.

“It should be tennis’s ‘World Cup’. It has the potential to be tennis’s ‘World Cup’”

So why can’t they restructure the season to give the top players the best possible opportunity to play Davis Cup without hindering their chances at the other major events, like they have done with the Olympics? The governing bodies have got to communicate to reach a compromise. If changes to the current annual schedule cannot be implemented, then maybe they need to consider changes to the schedule biennially, thus playing the Davis Cup every other year, ideally so it does not coincide with the Olympics. That way, there is not a yearly commitment, there is a greater chance of the world’s best players participating, and there is more prestige surrounding the event, as the field would more likely be stronger.

Smith’s team go down in British Tennis history after beating the Belgians in Ghent. It clearly meant a great deal to the team, and to everyone involved with British Tennis. We had not won the tournament since 1936. Yet it is likely that if Britain were not in that final, many Brits would not know of its being. This should not be the case for the final of tennis’s biggest team competition. In the FIFA World Cup, the Rugby World Cup, and other big sporting events of the like, the best players are there, the best teams are there, and the fans want to watch them play. Yet you sense that the Davis Cup is nowhere near as prestigious a tournament as it should be. It’s not even close to those aforementioned events.

It should be tennis’s ‘World Cup’. It has the potential to be tennis’s ‘World Cup’. It just needs fulfilling.

Marcus Oades

Image: Marianne Bevis via flickr

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