The Destruction of the Davis Cup Undermines the Future of Tradition in Tennis
The Davis Cup, as it is currently configured, no longer deserves a place in the contemporary tennis landscape. Last Friday, 210 member nations voted unanimously in favour of making radical alterations to its scheduling and format, with full endorsement from Gerard Pique-owned Kosmos investment group. These changes will be set in motion next year, and financial backing for the reformed season-ending team competition is projected to sum to $3bn over the next 25 years.
Read the details and weep:
Gone are best-of-five-set matches. Home-and-away ties will be played only during the qualifying week in February—the November 2019 final is to be held at a neutral venue, either Lille or Madrid. The main event will be condensed to a week and individual ties to three rubbers. All that the newly cannibalized “Davis Cup” retains is its name, and that may only be because the ATP, headed by Chris Kermode, revealed plans for the January 2020 introduction of a World Team Cup—thus ruling out the possibility of the ITF co-opting a name along such lines for itself. The news has been greeted with opprobrium from players for whom the Davis Cup provided an abundance of cherishable memories: Tomas Berdych, Jurgen Melzer, Lucas Pouille and Nicolas Mahut took to Twitter to bridle at the announcement; Australian legends Lleyton Hewitt and Pat Cash, both of whom won the event twice, gave expression to theirs and Tennis Australia’s disenchantment via the same platform, and Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime lamented the loss of the opportunity his future self may have had to play a Davis Cup final in front of a crowd of adoring home supporters:
One of my biggest dream as a kid was to one day play a Davis Cup final in front of my home crowd. Sadly I’ll never have the chance to experience Davis cup like I grew up watching it😢 I still hoped tradition and history would win over money, but I guess that’s where we are now..
— Félix AugerAliassime (@felixtennis) August 16, 2018
It’s difficult not to concur with the views aired by these players, all of whom (except, for obvious reasons, the teenaged Auger-Aliassime) gave of themselves for a considerable number of years when their respective nations called upon them. But these views, for all their merits, miss the forest behind the thicket of novelties being frantically shoehorned into the ATP ecosystem. What we see, in plain speak, is a desperate attempt to transform men’s tennis into a short-form, untraditional sport, with tournaments tailored specifically for easy marketability being promoted to the foreground because of a foreseeable dip in its commercial outlook once Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray’s playing days are over.
Besides the Davis and World Team Cups, the Laver Cup, Next Gen ATP Finals and—in ITF President David Haggerty’s words—a “mixed team event in April and a winner-takes-all event in September,” will be the fixtures relied upon to generate additional interest outside of the regular ATP tour events and the majors. Unfortunately, it appears that a surfeit of team-based, modernized gimmicks isn’t what tennisdom has been clamouring for. Anyone with their ear to the ground in this sphere would have heard instead, with crystal-like clarity, complaints about the failure of the ‘lost generation’—a term used to denote Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and David Goffin collectively—to challenge Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray at major tournaments. In tandem with this group is a generation of players born in the late nineties—Sascha Zverev, Karen Khachanov, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alex de Minaur, Denis Shapovalov, Hyeon Chung, Borna Coric, Francis Tiafoe, Andrey Rublev and others—that has yet to deliver anything of value on the biggest stages with even a fraction of consistency, despite there being more or less old enough (by historical standards, at least) for this to be reasonably expected of them. The same criticisms apply to the ‘inbetweeners’, identified chiefly in the persons of Dominic Thiem, Kyle Edmund, Pouille, Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios.
Inevitably, these players will improve, some of them enough to become the multi-slam winners of tomorrow. Over the last eighteen months, Zverev, Shapovalov and Tsitsipas have separated themselves from their peers by making huge strides at Masters level and reaching the fourth round or better at one (or in Zverev’s case, two) of the four Grand Slams. It doesn’t augur well for the tour’s imminently approaching Big Four-less future—which is the real issue at hand—that the best players of succeeding generations will likely have to wait out a few more years—and the handful of highly visible retirements that will coincide with them—before cementing their place at the top of the men’s game for good. A plethora of newly minted additions to the season’s calendar could temporarily compensate for the noticeable dearth in all-time great young talent. However, it’s up for debate how long its appeal will last when the youngsters are left to carry the sport. It is the quality of elite players, above all else, that sells tennis, not the tournament format under which these players compete.
The next question that naturally arises is of what might be next on the chopping block after the Davis Cup’s traditional format has been laid to rest. Following a Wimbledon semi-final between a pair of gangly ace machines that made for uncommonly laborious viewing, there developed a wide-reaching consensus that Grand Slam tournaments which don’t enforce a policy of fifth-set tiebreaks are outmoded. Wimbledon, as the only major played on a surface that can render monster serving the currency for success, bore the brunt of the demands to send the fifth marathon sets the way of the dodo.
That might not even be necessary if best-of-five-set tennis is done away with altogether, an idea which has been floated by a certain Serb and his Scottish rival. With the erasure of best-of-five from the Davis Cup, it doesn’t take a leap of logic to conceive of Grand Slams being undressed in the same manner. There is certainly nothing to suggest that the slams are too sacred to be tampered with; in 2019, the number of seeds in the main draw of each will be reduced to the pre-2001 number of 16, and the shot clock (which Djokovic is palpably less enamoured of) will feature at the 2018 US Open. If the best-of-five-set format one day passes into obsolescence, the genealogy of such a development would be easily traceable to the equivalent transformation made this year to the Davis Cup.
Overall, it’s both saddening and disconcerting to see the Davis Cup removed so abruptly from the traditions in which it was steeped, and ultimately the worse implications of such sweeping reform will redound on the sport at large. Men’s tennis will suffer immensely when four of its bestriding greats retire, but it will be damaged even more as it is torn progressively further from its roots. The demise of the Davis Cup in its pure form is symptomatic of the uncertain period ahead for men’s tennis, in which gratuitous experimentation will be the norm, and tradition a foreign concept.