By Martyn Herman
MADRID (Reuters) – From the moment the International Tennis Federation (ITF) agreed in 2018 to a radical makeover of the historic Davis Cup, opinion among players, pundits and fans has been divided.
The demise of the World Group, introduced in 1981 with home and away ties played on three separate weekends and culminating in a November final, in favor of a week-long, 18-nation event, was regarded as sacrilege by many.
Others, including ITF president David Haggerty and Gerard Pique, whose Kosmos Tennis company are bankrolling the revamped competition to the tune of $80 million every year for 25 years, say it marks a new, exciting chapter.
Madrid was chosen as the first host for the soccer World Cup-style showpiece and this week, in La Caja Magica stadium, the 119-year-old Davis Cup has been under scrutiny like never before.
ITF Chief Operating Officer Kelly Fairweather told Reuters he would give the first edition 7.5 marks out of 19. So what has worked, and what needs to be improved?
DID THE TOP PLAYERS SHOW UP?
One reason for the revamp was that while golden trio Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have all won the trophy, they stopped showing up for national service under the old format as they managed their schedules.
Nadal’s presence in Madrid was a no-brainer and the Spaniard played like a man possessed, winning eight of eight matches to lead Spain to the title.
Djokovic shed tears with his Serbia team mates after a heartbreaking quarter-final defeat while Andy Murray sealed one point for Britain and spent the rest of the week biting his fingernails on the bench acting as cheerleader.
Federer and Stan Wawrinka’s Switzerland failed to qualify and did not get a wildcard while Alex Zverev rejected Germany’s call outright. Eleven of the world’s top 20 players were there though and the quality and intensity of the tennis was sensational.
DID THE FANS SHOW UP?
Spain’s matches, all on the 12,500-seater central court, were sold out, but other ties were played in half-empty arenas.
French fans, usually Davis Cup diehards, boycotted the event in protest at the new format, with doubles player Pierre Hugues-Herbert joking after the team’s group clash with Japan that it was the first time he had heard himself sing La Marsellaise.
Belgian, Canadian, Argentine and Kazakh fans were the noisiest, apart from when Spain played. Britain’s sizeable contingent swelled for the semi-final against Spain after the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) stumped up for tickets.
Kosmos said around 130,000 tickets were sold.
DID THE FORMAT WORK?
Squeezing 25 Davis Cup ties into a week on three courts proved almost impossible, even with each one boiled down to two singles and one doubles. Evening ties routinely ran into the small hours and on Wednesday Italy and the United States played until 4.07 a.m. — the second latest finish in professional tennis.
Six three-team groups proved complicated, especially as two of the best runners-up progressed to the last eight. There was also controversy when Canada conceded a doubles rubber to the U.S., handing out a 6-0 6-0 gift. Thankfully the Americans exited or the integrity of the event would have been disputed.
WHAT ABOUT TV COVERAGE AROUND THE WORLD?
Discovery-owned Eurosport signed a two-year deal to show the finals in six of its European markets and 41 television channels, reaching 171 countries, aired the action including Fox (U.S.), TF1 (France) and Channel 9 (Australia).
However, the event went unnoticed in some countries and Fairweather said more needed to be done. “Selling something that’s unknown can be tricky. But now we can start selling for next year.”
HOW DID IT FEEL?
Having 18 nations in one place at the same time gave the event an immediacy and intensity the old format lacked. If anything the pace was a little too frenetic at times and a 10-day event would have allowed more breathing space.
“It felt like a Davis Cup tie except, for some reason, it feels like there’s more on the line because all the players are here. It felt bigger,” Canada’s Vasek Pospisil said.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
The big question is how will the Davis Cup Finals fit in with the ATP Cup taking place in six weeks’ time — a similar event but over 10 days and three cities in Australia.
Pique and Djokovic say the two cannot co-exist but a solution must be found.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Clare Fallon)