Davis Cup and ATP Cup show how the public love team competitions
Merging the Davis Cup with the ATP Cup makes sense in the future – but finding a place in the calendar remains the biggest challenge
If you thought the future of the Davis Cup had been settled with last November’s introduction of a new format, bringing together 18 countries competing in a week-long finals event at a single venue, then think again. Talks are under way between the International Tennis Federation, which runs the Davis Cup, and the Association of Tennis Professionals, which launched the 24-nation ATP Cup in Australia at the start of this year, to discuss how the two competitions might be merged into one.
With the two broadly similar events staged just six weeks apart, most agree that is one team tournament too many. However, finding a way of combining the two represents a huge task, despite David Haggerty, the ITF president, suggesting that agreement could be reached as early as this June.
All parties should recognise one indisputable fact: players and, even more importantly, the public love team competitions. Meanwhile the short format of both the Davis Cup Finals and the ATP Cup, with each contest decided in one session by two back-to-back singles followed by a doubles, is clearly more suited to a modern-day audience than the old Davis Cup schedule of five rubbers played over three days.
Both events had teething problems which could be resolved without much difficulty. Absurdly late finishes (the Italy-US match in Madrid at the Davis Cup Finals ended at 4.04am, while the Britain-Bulgaria contest in Sydney finished at 2.47am) can be avoided by earlier starts, using more courts or replacing third sets with tie-breaks.
The Davis Cup’s six-group format was messy, while a competition in which teams could withdraw from rubbers, thereby handing their opponents 6-0 6-0 victories when games and sets won can decide who qualifies, evidently needed modifying. The number of spectators in the stadiums was often disappointing, as was the case at some ATP Cup venues. As for the feeling that the women’s Brisbane International felt like a sideshow while the men took centre stage at the concurrent ATP Cup, the sensible solution would be not to have the two events in the same city at the same time.
None of those issues need prove terminal to either event, but the problem of how to fit team competitions into an over-crowded calendar remains the big issue. Throw into the mix the annual Laver Cup, another event which fans worldwide have greeted enthusiastically, and you have three team competitions in four months, each of which has individual merits but which collectively pose a big challenge.
The positions in the calendar of both the Davis Cup Finals and the ATP Cup are uncomfortable. The Davis Cup Finals take place at the end of November, three weeks after some players have ended their regular seasons. Those who also play in the ATP Finals the previous week have a gruelling fortnight at the end of an 11-month campaign.
For some players one of the big attractions of the ATP Cup is its round-robin format, which guarantees them at least three matches in the first week of the new season. However, some players – particularly those who progressed to the knock-out stages – found the event too demanding at a time of year when their bodies are readjusting to competitive play. Alex de Minaur missed the Australian Open after suffering an abdominal injury during the ATP Cup, in which he played five matches. Players enter tournaments in the first week of the new season hoping to get matchplay under their belts in readiness for the year’s opening Grand Slam tournament; getting drawn into overly physical and competitive contests is not what they want.
All this contrasts with the Laver Cup’s comfortable place in the calendar, at a time when the Grand Slam season is over and the final push through Asia and back into Europe has yet to start. Late September would actually be the perfect time to stage a merged Davis Cup/ATP Cup, perhaps even played over two weeks.
However, there are vested interests who might resist any such suggestion. The Laver Cup’s organisers include Tennis Australia and Roger Federer’s management company, Team8, who have both invested heavily in it. Tennis Australia can also be expected to defend their corner with regard to the first two weeks of the year, having put so much into establishing the ATP Cup.
Would an end-of-year slot not be a better time to stage the Laver Cup? For all its appeal, this Ryder Cup-style competition already feels like other exhibition events played at this time of the year. Besides, only 12 players take part. The Davis Cup and ATP Cup involve many more competitors and are thus better suited to being played in the middle of the calendar, even if players from nations which have not qualified or top 50 players whose rankings are too low to earn entry because their country has multiple highly ranked players might not agree.
Assuming that the ATP would not contemplate major changes to their calendar, the easiest fix to the current situation would be to end the men’s season with the ATP Finals, merge the Davis Cup with the ATP Cup at the start of the new year and keep the Laver Cup in its present position.
However, “easiest” does not necessarily mean best. The start of a new season, so close to the Australian Open, is not a good time to stage a meaningful team event. Besides, would committing the Davis Cup Finals to a long-term future in Australia be a sensible outcome for a historic competition which has traditionally been contested in countries around the globe? If staging the Finals in a single venue in Europe was unfair on those fans who have enjoyed watching Davis Cup competition in their own countries, how would they feel about having to travel to Australia to attend?
These are difficult matters to resolve. They highlight, once again, the problems that arise from having too many governing bodies and not enough co-operation between them. Whatever decisions are reached, you can be certain that not everyone will be happy with the outcome.
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