The Lack Of Appeal In The Davis Cup
By The Way - Weekly Columns
By Hannah Smith Tennis is all about quick recovery – between points, between sets, between matches, and between tournaments. So naturally, less than 24 hours after the last ball was hit at the Australian Open, attention has already turned to the next event on the calendar: The Davis Cup. Or at least, it has for some players. A quick look at the team nominations for the first round this coming weekend shows that under half of the world top 20 players will be competing for their countries – and just 3 of the world’s top ten (likely whittled down to two should Melbourne runner up Cilic withdraw in the coming days). In the course of their careers, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka have all lifted the Davis Cup, yet over the past couple of years, the biggest names in tennis have been conspicuous in their absence from Davis Cup squads. Novak Djokovic is the sole member of the big five to have represented his country since playing the mandatory tie needed to qualify for the Olympics in 2016 (though, in fairness, all five players have spent a significant portion of that time out with injury). The Davis Cup remains synonymous with brilliant fan atmospheres and team celebrations, however there is no questioning its declining popularity over the recent years. In 2017, changes to the event were tabled to try and make ties more appealing for fans and players alike, including an increase in squad size, and a shift to best of three sets which was eventually voted down by the committee. So what are the issues facing the Davis Cup, and what can be done to resolve them? Arguably, questions over the Davis Cup feed right back into the wider debate surrounding the gruelling ATP schedule. One of the more outspoken players regarding the overloaded tennis calendar, Rafael Nadal, criticised the proposed changes to the Davis Cup format last year, arguing that it was unrealistic to expect top players to play four Davis Cup ties every year in addition to their individual tournament schedules. It’s an argument that is hard to object to, with two of the four Davis Cup rounds taking place the week after a Grand Slam. Players such as Kyle Edmund, who reached the semi-finals in Melbourne and has committed to turning out for Great Britain in Spain this weekend, are generally outliers, with those who reach the latter stages of slams generally opting for rest and recuperation instead. It seems flat out illogical to schedule these ties so close to Grand Slams and expect the best players to make themselves available. In addition to the timing of the rounds, the issue of surfaces also comes into play here. In Davis Cup, the home team selects the playing surface, meaning players frequently are forced to shift their game from hard to clay, for the sake of one or two matches. Maybe that doesn’t seem like too big an issue in the grand scheme of things, but given the detailed nature of player training schedules nowadays and the desire to prevent injuries, it must be something that is factored into the decision-making process. There have been a number of ideas suggested in order to better accommodate the Davis Cup within the wider ATP calendar. Last year, Nadal proposed that one Davis Cup cycle could be spread over two years, with teams playing two rounds per year instead of four. And in the lower zone groups of the Davis Cup, this year will see trials of two day ties instead of three. More radical proposals include a complete overhaul of the Davis Cup format in favour of a new ‘World Cup of Tennis’ at a neutral venue, though this idea has proved wildly unpopular among both players and fans. Nadal’s suggestion of a biannual event is an interesting one, and probably the most logical of the above proposals. The other reason often given for players not turning out to Davis Cup matches is the lack of points and prize money to be gained from playing ties. However, I would be surprised if this was a major issue for players. Despite their position outside the ATP system, team events remain popular – look no further than the recent Laver Cup to see how much players enjoy the opportunity to play for more than just their own success. Indeed, the team format of Davis Cup seems to bring out the best in certain players. In recent years, both Andy Murray and Nick Kyrgios, players who have seemed at times to struggle with the isolated nature of tennis matches, have thrived in the atmosphere of Davis Cup matches. I’m sure the world’s top players would love to play in more ties, but in an era where maximising recovery time is crucial to prevent injuries and prolong careers, the Davis Cup is inevitably first on the list of casualties. All this isn’t to say there aren’t still reasons to get excited about the Davis Cup this weekend. Fans will get to see plenty of great players in action, including the most exciting stars of the next generation, with Sascha Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, and Denis Shapovalov all leading the line for their countries. And no matter the squads, spectators can always be relied on to cook up a great atmosphere. But if the ultimate goal is to ensure that the Davis Cup can attract the world’s greatest players, the ITF must recognise that changes must be made.
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