What’s wrong with the Davis Cup?

The first round of the Davis Cup has come and gone quickly, with very little media attention. In fact, if it were not for 17-year-old Denis Shapovalov of Canada hitting a ball in frustration straight at the umpire, the round of fixtures may have slipped by, completely unnoticed, overshadowed by other significant sporting events such as the start of the Six Nations or the Superbowl.

For the Davis Cup to match events like this and other leading sporting competitions, changes must be made to the structure and format of the tournament.

On the surface, there may not appear to be significant problems. However, a deeper look into the competition reveals several. Firstly, the best players in the world have been disregarding the Davis Cup over recent years. Many see it as a gap in their calendar which can be used to rest. Looking at the first round in 2017, 9 out of the world’s top 10 were eligible to play, with only Dominic Thiem unable to compete because Austria had no game.

Remarkably, from these 9, Novak Djokovic was the only player to take any part in the round, which is astonishing when you consider that this is the round-of-16 and in no other international competition in any sport would the biggest players want to rest.

The best players are struggling to partake due to the scheduling of the rounds. Every set of fixtures appears to be squeezed in, with the round-of-16 and semi-finals coming straight after the Australian and US Opens. Admittedly, this could be due to the fact that the tournament is run by the ITF and not the ATP, who decide the layout of the tour, making the scheduling of the Davis Cup a tough task in an already busy year.

“The Davis Cup simply fails to capture the imagination of non-tennis fans, meaning the sport is less likely to grow”

However, rounds positioned after major tournaments are a waste of time, because the best players need rest after giving their all. Many will reach the latter stages of these tournaments, which takes a lot out of them. This means that they must recharge and recuperate to stay fit, hence why they choose not to play in the Davis Cup.

This leads on to the final problem. If the best players are not competing, then people will simply not want to watch the competition. Successful international sporting events showcase the best parts of a sport in order to gain an extra audience for the future. At the moment, the Davis Cup simply fails to capture the imagination of non-tennis fans, meaning the sport is less likely to grow.

Solutions to these problems all revolve around the necessity that the best players compete in every round. There are several changes that could be made to the format of the Davis Cup in order to allow this.

Firstly, the tournament could be contested on a less frequent basis. It could be played on a two or four-year cycle like other tournaments are, such as the Olympics. If this happened, each round would have greater significance because if you lost, the next chance to compete would be much further away than it is in the current format.

The Ryder Cup in golf is a perfect example of how an individual sport, like tennis, can produce a successful team contest. Every two years, the golfing calendar stops to allow this prestigious event to take place, with the best players never choosing to sit out. Great importance is placed on every single shot because they know that the next time the Ryder Cup is contested, they may not be on the team. The Davis Cup needs to change in order to create this mindset for the players who compete in it.

“If other major tennis tournaments during and surrounding this period were cancelled, then the big players would not be worried about resting instead of playing”

Furthermore, changes could be made to the structure of the competition. Instead of straight knockout rounds, an initial group stage could take place in order to whittle the teams down to the best few. From here, knockout rounds between the group winners and runner-ups could take place, which would increase the competition’s stature because, in the later stages, the best teams will be competing with each other, as seen in other tournaments like the FIFA World Cup.

I think the every round should be played over a four or five week period, allowing teams to grow together over the course of the competition. If other major tennis tournaments during and surrounding this period were cancelled, then the big players would not be worried about resting instead of playing. Additionally, any worries surrounding the lack of game time are nullified by the introduction of the group stage, which would allow players to compete in matches, despite the lack of other major tournaments during this period.

A successful example of a tournament that is contested over a small period can be seen in Rugby Union, with the Six Nations. Thousands of people attend every weekend and millions more watch on at home. From a tennis fan’s point of view, a similar proposition could definitely work for the Davis Cup, making it one of the best competitions in the world. 

Looking forwards, the future of the Davis Cup is tricky to predict. At the very least, changes have to be made to the scheduling of rounds so that they do not fall near other big events on the tennis calendar. If changes are not implemented then the sport will nearly always fail to capture the focus of new fans, resulting in a lack of growth for tennis. Despite the Davis Cup still being popular in the tennis world, it is clearly lacking an edge in order to make it one of the best international competitions.

Harry Vogt

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