Back to the Pumpkin: Thoughts on Improving Davis Cup

There’s something about Davis Cup that brings out the grouch in the least likely places.

Before the first ball has been struck, the 2015 edition of the competition already has Roger Federer happily vowing not to participate, and noting, not particularly graciously, that he had found the pressure to participate to be a “burden”  during his playing career. Even more surprisingly, Argentinian Davis Cup politics turned Juan Monaco against noted good guy  and moth rescuer Juan Martin del Potro.

Moreover, missing from this week’s first round matches will be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Marin Cilic, both injured, as well as Czech Davis Cup anchors Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek. It’s hardly an auspicious start.

That’s not to say that the early going has been all doom and gloom. Buoyed by Australia’s traditional love of Davis Cup, Lleyton Hewitt and Bernie Tomic, along with breakout star Nick Kyrgios, will anchor the Australian team versus a star-depleted Czech Republic. Jim Courier’s selection of Donald Young to represent the U.S. in its first round match is an encouraging vote of confidence in Young, a player who has faced more than his fair share of criticism from the U.S. tennis establishment* over the past few years. And, Andy Murray, leading the Great Britain team who will face the Young, Sam Querrey, and the Bryans in Glasgow, is clearly relishing the opportunity to tease his younger compatriots:

But, it’s hard to believe that less than four months ago, the tennis world was waiting with bated breath for the Davis Cup final to start. Rather than the usual apathy and annoyance that accompanies Davis Cup discussions, the lead-up to the final in Lille focused on team dynamics, match-ups, and the prognosis of Roger Federer after a back injury forced him to pull out of the World Tour Finals a week earlier in London. The final had enough broad storylines to satisfy a tennis world used to epic stories on a weekly basis.

Besides Federer’s injury, there were so many questions swirling before the tie began: would Roger Federer manage to fill one of the few gaps in his resume? Would the prodigiously talented French team, with Gaël Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Julien Benneteau, and Richard Gasquet, finally achieve together what they had failed achieve individually? Would the public and unexpected squabble between the normally friendly Federer and Stan Wawrinka affect the ability of the two Swiss stars to carry their team to victory?

The tie delivered –from Federer’s meek loss to Gaël Monfils in the first match to Wawrinka’s zoning performance against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, day one alone had more drama than entire years of the Davis Cup competition. By the time Federer fell to the clay after clinching the cup for Switzerland by defeating a frazzled Gasquet, it felt like the real winner might have been Davis Cup competition itself – finally returning to a level that could capture the imaginations of not only the public but also the players themselves.

Yet, just like Cinderella after the clock struck midnight, once the 2014 Davis Cup confetti blew away, we find ourselves with a pumpkin and a bunch of not-too-happy mice. Last year’s theatrics aside, returning to the early 20th century glory days of Davis Cup is a tall order. The Davis Cup heyday is inextricably tied to a time where tennis was played in a relatively small number of countries, virtually guaranteeing that all of the top players would face each other in the competition. And, because all of the top players participated, the Davis Cup’s importance and relevance increased. More importantly, until 1972, the Davis Cup was played as a challenge cup, where the other teams played a tournament for the right to face the defending champion, who advanced directly to the final.

In recent years, though, the fortunes of a nation’s Davis Cup team depend on whether its top players agree to participate in the competition. Indeed, one of the pivotal moments in Switzerland’s 2014 campaign was when Federer was a surprise participant in the tie against a Novak Djokovic-less Serbia. Had Djokovic played–and perhaps he would have if Federer’s participation had been announced earlier–the complexion of the competition might have changed completely. Similarly, without Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, Spain, which should be a perennial juggernaut with its depth of top 100 level players, lost its first round match and its playoff match for the World Group in 2014.

Given the grind of the modern tour, it may be too much to ask players to commit to a year-long competition that can send them to far-flung locales against unpredictable levels of competition. However, the entrenched politics and fiefdoms of tennis are seemingly unwilling to overhaul the format (which, it must be noted, is a relatively recent invention and thus not sacrosanct as some would think), despite repeated calls for change. But, time and time again, whether in World Team Tennis or IPTL, it’s abundantly clear that both players and audiences relish team competition and that there is a place for it in tennis today.

So, what can be done to make the Davis Cup we have work better?

1. Revise the Byes

It’s just not possible to mandate consistent participation by top players. Even the Olympics qualification carrot has had limited success in drawing top players into the Davis Cup fold with any kind of frequency. Yet, when countries who could field much stronger teams lose early because of spotty participation, the entire competition suffers.

To remedy this, the Davis Cup should end its practice of automatically admitting the eight teams who reached the quarterfinals in the previous year’s tournament to the World Group. In its place, it should give the four semifinalist teams first round byes and choice of ground for their quarterfinal matches. This would incentivize countries to field competitive enough teams to keep themselves in the top four, when possible.

2. Modernize, Modernize, Modernize

The terminology of Davis Cup, from ties to rubbers, is hopelessly antiquated, and needlessly so. It’s true that Davis Cup has a rich history, but much of that history comes from pre-tournament style play, and the modern tournament’s features should be open to change.

One feature that has been effective in both IPTL and WTT has been innovation in scoring. I’m not sure that we’re quite ready for all of the scoring experiments that have been tried in WTT and IPTL, but certainly the best-of-five format should be changed to best-of-three. While we may lose some five hour epics with the change, we may gain some more top players who don’t have to risk that kind of season-damaging exertion.

3. Streamline Relegation

One of the maddening things about Davis Cup is that a team that loses in the World Group continues to have numerous chances to play itself back into the World Group, with higher-ranked players swooping in barely in time to keep their teams out of relegation. One consequence of giving better byes to the four semifinalists of the year before is that there would only be eight other teams admitted to the World Group in a given year.

To get those eight teams, I would recommend a playoff featuring the four other quarterfinalists from the year before, plus the next four teams in Group I. And, the playoff should be played in a streamlined team format, similar to IPTL or WTT. While this may bother traditionalists, it would keep the stronger teams on their toes, provide a more competitive format for the range of teams that find themselves in the playoffs, and add some life to the first round of Davis Cup. Moreover, the variety of formats within a single competition is already in place within Davis Cup, as the Group III and Group IV matches are played in a completely different manner than the World Group and Groups I and II.

Finally, it would increase the penalty for teams that don’t at least make the quarterfinals in the prior year – they would have to fight for one of the four top spots in Group I to stay in the World Group, and would otherwise have to sit out – a taller order than the current system.

While none of these proposals will provide the satisfaction of a traditional tournament style competition, they can at least imbue all of the rounds of Davis Cup with some of the life that last year’s final gave us. Maybe not a fairytale ending yet, but it would be a start.


*Many will remember the egregious episode during the 2012 US Open, where Young faced Roger Federer in the first round. Then USTA Head of Player Development Patrick McEnroe was calling the match for ESPN, but rather than focusing on the admittedly lackluster tennis from a simply overmatched Young, the commentary focused painfully on Young’s “attitude” issues and lost potential.

2 Responses

  1. kwando
    kwando March 6, 2015 at 12:18 am |

    I agree with 1 and 3, but 2? No. No no no no no no no. I love watching the 5-setters. It just makes things feel more like there’s on the line. The five setters is what makes the Davis Cup for me so much more special. (Though, to be fair, I’d rather see more best of 5s in tennis in general, so, I might be a bit biased here.)

  2. Hartt
    Hartt March 7, 2015 at 2:14 pm |

    I love Davis Cup and don’t think it is necessary to always have the top players involved to make it interesting. Yesterday’s match where British player Ward, a player outside the top 100, came back from 2 sets down to win 15-13 in the 5th set against Isner, a much higher ranked player, provided compelling tennis and a great story.
    Also, for countries such as Canada and Japan, that are enjoying newfound success in tennis, Davis Cup is very exciting and helps grow the fan base. Davis Cup is often played in communities that don’t have local tournaments and so provides opportunities for fans to see top players, opportunities that would not otherwise exist.

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