The twittersphere was awash on Sunday night with memos to the International Tennis Federation that it should be taking a long look at the Ryder Cup and realise that the Davis Cup (and to a lesser extent, Fed Cup) need updating and reforming if they’re not to look like arcane competitions by comparison.
Well, where do we start. The Ryder Cup has probably the most perfect competition format of any sport. Everything builds to the Sunday, with team spirit and teamwork paying off over the first two days and then each of the 12 players on each side having to cope with the pressure of being on their own, yet playing for their team, in singles on the final day. Very few sporting events can rival it for drama, if you’re a European or an American.
The Davis Cup is the oldest and most prestigious team competition in tennis but in this era when tennis has become so much more a physical sport, getting the best players to commit to each tie is nigh impossible, at least for those who are reaching the finals weekend in almost every tournament, like the top four have done over the past few years.
Everyone seems to feel that the Davis Cup needs change. But what? For all its flaws, it deserves respect and to completely rip it up and start again would surely be unnecessary. Look at the effort players and teams do put in to it; how much they hurt when they lose and how much joy they show when they win a big tie or win the competition.
It is asking too much, I would have thought, to replace it with a Ryder Cup-style competition. There are not enough Americans to make it worthwhile at the moment, for a start, but it’s unfair on the Rest of the World players and you’d have the obvious thorny issues of who picks the teams and how do players qualify for it.
But, there are plenty of things tennis can learn from the Ryder Cup. First, it’s place in the calendar – once every two years. That makes a massive difference; unlike in tennis, players can build towards it and the status of the contest increases as a result too. The World Cup is the pinnacle of footballing success but it would be reduced in status if it were held too often, rather than its current once every four year-format. The Olympics mean more to athletes because it’s every four years.
Former world No 1 Pete Sampras told The Tennis Space this summer that he felt the Olympic tennis event should be a team competition, rather than an individual one, because it was not the pinnacle of the sport. I am sure Andy Murray might disagree after winning the gold medal in the singles, but you can see Sampras’s point. You’d get more of a team spirit, a team ethic going and that could create real drama.
What stops the big guns playing each tie is generally that it interrupts their ability (at least in their mind) to peak for the four grand slam events each year. If they play all Davis Cup ties, they feel, then their form might be compromised. While the Fed Cup format is far better – outside the top group, the teams are grouped together for a week and play three matches, and in the top group, there are just three rounds – Davis Cup involves committing to four matches, perhaps all a long way from home, if you want to win it.
Players have discussed the idea of making the matches in Davis Cup three sets instead of the current five. The ITF don’t want to do that because they see it as dumbing down but they may have to listen to their players if they want it to live on. Something’s got to give, you feel, but the fact that the ITF, which also runs the grand slams, constantly competes with the ATP and WTA Tours for its standing, doesn’t help to produce logical and rational decisions for the good of the sport.
Ask most of the top players and they will tell you they are in favour of making the Davis Cup every two years. That would give them more chance to actually look forward to it but I think it needs more. I think the format is fine outside of the world group, where many of the nations actually need the money created to help to fund the sport in their country. But how about this? Put the semi-finals and finals together into one week at the end of the season. That way, four teams would be involved and it would have more of a competition feel, than just a one country v another feel.
Nothing’s going to be perfect, there is an awful lot of self-interest at heart and you’re not going to please everyone. But players love playing team competitions and if the organisers are brave enough and humble enough to find the right format, then the top names will play.