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The Davis Cup Problem

The Davis Cup is the biggest and oldest team competition in tennis. It is the largest annual international team competition in world sport, with 142 nations competing for a spot in the year end finals. The latest instalment of the Davis Cup started yesterday and will span across the coming ten days.

In 2019, the Davis Cup changed to an 18-team event, held in one week at the end of the season. The new format was backed by Spanish footballer, Gerard Piqué, and his company Kosmos, who signed a 25 year deal with the ITF to acquire the rights for the Davis Cup Finals for $3 billion. Their vision was simple, to create the world cup of tennis.

However, prior to the tournaments relaunch back in 2019 tensions were high. Those who had spent years playing, watching and organising the old Davis Cup, felt that tradition had been ripped away from them. The traditional home or away, weekend-long ties building over a whole year to a showpiece final were pretty popular with fans and players alike. Fans were often loud and rowdy, the closest tennis came to a football style atmosphere. The new format took much of this away, it also included sharing the stadiums with other fans of various countries playing the same day, which definitely lost that classic Davis Cup feel.

Another problem area was that a rival new team competition, The ATP Cup, was set to launch five weeks after the Davis Cup final. Many top players voiced that they would not be happy to play what was basically the same event twice within such a short space of time. That's not to mention that the five week period between the events was the off season. The already questionably short rest period for professional players had been cut even shorter by new events either side of the break.

A proposal to move the Davis Cup to September made a lot of sense. However a third new team competition, The Laver Cup, beat them to that slot on the calendar. I like the Laver Cup. Actually I really like it. The premise and execution is, in parts, brilliant with its bench interaction and team focused fun the standout feature. It's also managed to achieve the seemingly impossible in creating a team event that the players care about. It's got the glamour of a big event, the balcoed out courts, the legendary players as team captains, the greatest players in the world of tennis giving advice at the change of ends. The players love it, but it definitely feels like am exhibition.

Both the Laver Cup and Davis Cup suffer from a lack of ranking points. A lack of ranking points reduces the pull that these events have when it comes to attracting the top players, although the Laver Cup hasn't had a problem with this so far, and it fuels the exhibition feel to the tournaments. Except from pride, there isn't a lot to compete for at these events. Whilst many of the worlds best players have competed in the Davis Cup in recent times, many stop playing after they win it. In the last decade it has felt like whichever top player decides to play it wins the competition.

Although handing out some points seems like an easy solution, it gets more complicated the more you think about it. The ATP doesn't want to skew their ranking points system, which is currently good at giving equal opportunity to all players. Some weaker nations might not qualify for the event, meaning players could be disadvantaged through no fault of their own. Similar problems arise when you think about how points would be distributed at the tournament.

The financial pull of the Davis Cup isn’t as great as the Laver Cup. Whilst players do get paid for competing in the tournament, it's a relatively small amount for the top players, especially when you consider the absence of ranking points. When Zverev and Federer fell out with Pique in 2019 over the new format, the two joined forces and did a series of exhibition matches in huge arenas around South America and Mexico. You wouldn't see the best footballers in the world playing an exhibition instead of the World Cup. Federer earned $8 million during the tour, much more he would have if he played the Davi’s Cup. The rebellious exhibition tour highlighted how unimportant these events are to the modern day player.

Federer and Zverev set a world record attendance of 42,517 live fans in Mexico City

Fast forward to 2021 and Sasha Zverev has taken a fresh swipe at the new format saying that he won't play the event because it's not the real Davis Cup. He's not the only player unhappy with the changes. One thing is for sure, team competition in tennis is a long way from it's ceiling right now. No ranking points, little financial pull for players and various events competing with each other in an already jam packed calender have left many tennis fans feeling a bit flat when it comes to the current team events. Whilst there doesn't seem to be an obvious solution, there is definitely an appetite from fans for a truly great team competition.


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