tennis

To be or not to be...

Davis Cup’s change in format draws mixed responses as oldest trophy in history seeks a change from 2019

16:16 March 2, 2018
Lucas Pouille

Dubai: “To be, or not to be, that is the question:”

And the debate rages.

Just like in the opening phrase of a soliloquy delivered by Prince Hamlet in the so-called ‘nunnery scene’ of William Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’.

There are pros and there are cons. And these are being discussed threadbare by all concerned.

With the Dubai Duty Free Men’s Open approaching its business end, a host of players especially from top Davis Cup nations, have opened up on the governing body’s decision to launch a totally renovated model starting hopefully from 2019.

Some are for the idea, others are not. And yet some more continue to give the new scheme a chance.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) proposal made public earlier this week has announced plans for a 25-year, $3 billion (Dh11 billion) partnership with investment group Kosmos — led by Spain and Barcelona FC star Gerard Pique — that will transform the annual Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, while also generating substantial revenues for global tennis development.

As per the details, the ITF Board of Directors has unanimously endorsed a proposal to create a major new annual season-ending World Cup of Tennis Finals that will crown the Davis Cup champions. Featuring 18 nations and played over one week in a world-class location in November, the event will be staged by Kosmos in partnership with the ITF.

Players here have been vocal. Second seed Lucas Pouille, who was a semi-finalist in Dubai, got a chance to speak to his other teammates during the course of the week on the ITF proposal. “I think they [teammates] think the same as me, just like a lot of other players. I did not say it was not good for tennis, I just said it’s not good for Davis Cup. It’s a particular competition and I think we just need to find another way to make it better,” the 24-year-old observed.

“I know it’s not the perfect way right now, but I definitely I don’t think it’s going to be good with what they propose,” he added.

One of the basic ideas behind the new competition is the vision to create a major season-ending finale that will be a festival of tennis and entertainment featuring possibly the world’s greatest players representing their countries to decide the Davis Cup champions. But Pouille, who features in France’s scheduled quarter-finals against Italy in Genova from April 6-8, is unsure of the spirit behind the decision to change.

“As per current rules you can play home or you can play away in the other country. Now just imagine a situation now featuring last year’s final between France and Belgium being held in Singapore. I am sure there would have been maybe 4,000 people. But in France, we had 27,000 and that’s definitely different. Roger and Rafa are not going to play forever. We don’t have to think about only them. What do we need to do for them to play? They’re not going to stay here for the next 15 years. I’m not sure this is the right way to do things,” he shrugged.

One of the poignant and endearing features of Davis Cup is the home and away rule that gives the home team the advantage of an added supporter in the form of spectators. With this rule making its way out, Pouille doubted whether the basic essence of the competition will stay the same. “I think it’s a death sentence of the Davis Cup. They just picked up the idea of the ATP of making the World Team Cup again, because it’s exactly the same. It’s during one week, a lot of teams and some money. That’s why they want to do it. But obviously they cannot call it a Davis Cup anymore. When you’re not playing at home, or in the country against who you’re playing, then it’s not a Davis Cup,” Pouille observed.

“I mean, everybody who lived already a Davis Cup tie know that it’s going to be different, it’s not going to be the same atmosphere any more. I think it’s a very bad idea for the Davis Cup,” he added.

But a player like Roberto Bautista Agut who has represented Spain at the Davis Cup quite fancied the new idea. “I think every new investment in tennis is a welcome sign for us. Every improvement on the circuit or during the year is going to be better for the players. But that said, we will see how this all goes in the end,” Bautista Agut consented.

Indian doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna welcomed the idea, although with reservations of his own. “It will be a really nice thing. The calender is already so busy, so it is nice that we have a one-week event and players go there and play it. It gives you time to prepare for other tournaments. It’s already such a tight schedule, along with the fact that the players have to do extraordinary amount of flying. So considering all this, I think this is a good idea,” Bopanna said.

But he didn’t want the home and away element leaving Davis Cup. “Anybody would love to play at home and get some support. There is no doubt about that, but then it will be equal for everyone. Like every tournament we play, a majority of them are away ties, so it is not really in our home country,” he added.

India’s Davis Cup legend Leander Paes, who has already played an amazing 27 years for the country, hailed the idea. “I am sure there are some challenges as the format is used more and more. But from the player’s perspective I think it is a very smart move, firstly to make it three sets for someone like me. I have been playing for India for so many years and I was playing on all three days, singles, doubles and singles. The same is the case with Aisam-Ul-Haq [of Pakistan]. He’s doing it. I don’t know exactly how old he is, but he has been doing it for so many years,” he said.

“Now go to World Group, someone like [Nick] Kyrguis or Lleyton Hewitt, or look at someone like [Radek] Stepanek and [Tomas] Berdych. Stepanek is still recovering from the wear and tear of the body. It is very tough in the Asian zone. Can you imagine how tough it is to do that in the world group?” he asked.

All said and done, the ITF should go ahead with the implementation of the new idea. “You cannot please everybody all the time. Nothing can be 200 per cent correct. I know I have been blessed to have an unbelievable Davis Cup record while playing home and away,” Paes observed.

“There is a charm playing home and away. Holland coming to Jaipur, or we going to Brazil or to Adelaide. Sure there is a charm to it, but how can you fit that in a ten-day calendar?” he queried.

“I think, at the end of the day, the thought process was about making sure all the players play. If you have Davis Cup, best of five, five times a year, players won’t play. They will get fed-up. It’s too much and it’s very hard on the body,” he added.

And in the meantime, the ITF train continued hurtling towards the new idea with its Annual General Meeting in August in Orlando, Florida taking a stance. Till this AGM finds the two-thirds majority, the debate will continue.