Imagine Lionel Messi skipping the FIFA World Cup, Lewis Hamilton resting instead of racing the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, or Rory McIlroy deciding that he just didn’t feel competing at the Masters this year. Quite simply, you can’t. These situations are ludicrous – top athletes actively deciding against competing in the premier tournaments of their sport, never! And yet, this is a problem that plagues tennis’s Davis Cup: the supposed World Cup of the men’s game.
Tennis – The Global Game
The first week of the 2016 calendar sees several Brits aiming to kick off their season in style, with the traditional three ATP 250 events for the men, and three corresponding WTA opportunities for the women. Further down the scale, the Futures circuit remains relatively quiet, while there’s a big opportunity for national players to make their mark at the first Premier competition of the AEGON British Tour.
With Great Britain capturing their first title in 79 years, there a was deserved cause for celebration, but now that enough time has passed for the dust to settle and the hangovers subside, perhaps it is worth looking at what being a Davis Cup Champion actually means.
Tennis is a truly global game, of that there is no doubt. The ATP Tour travelled to six continents (still waiting on that Antarctic Open), and visited 31 countries in 2015. Within the top 100 ranked players, there are 39 different nationalities represented, with 14 of them in the top 20 alone. It is rare for a sport to have such a diverse mix of nationalities mingling at the peak of the game, competing across the globe, especially when compared to team sports, so regularly dominated by the same nations, generation after generation.
There’s No “I” In Team
In spite of this however, seldom is the outright international aspect of tennis acknowledged, confined to a small abbreviation next to players’ names on the draw sheet. Players play for themselves, for their name and reputation, not their countries. In a way, this adds to the global appeal of the game: you don’t have to be from a certain country to have an invested interest in a player, you can simply just enjoy their style of tennis or their personality. On the other hand, it seems like a trick has been missed by the ITF.
With the rest of the season so heavily defined by individual honours – most notably the four Grand Slams that represent the pinnacle of the sport – tennis is crying out for a relevant international tournament (sorry, Hopman Cup). One that consistently attracts the big names, and is seen as an honour to compete in and not a hindrance.
There’s something for everyone. Fans get the chance to cheer for their countries, experiencing a new atmosphere, more raucous and flamboyant than the restrained masses regularly associated with the sport. Players are given the chance to enjoy genuine team spirit, something Andy Murray has commented on being one of his favourite aspects to the Davis Cup, opening their arms to more than just their nucleus of coaches and trainers. And finally, national governing bodies can only look to prosper from the growth of such an event, inspiring current and future generations and giving them a goal to aspire to, whilst also encouraging potential funding.
The advantages seem both numerous and obvious, and yet despite its 115 year history, the Davis Cup doesn’t hold nearly the same prestige, media attention and public intrigue that is lavished on the Grand Slams.
The Davis Cup – An Unnecessary Distraction?
The calendar year is currently moulded around the four behemoths of tennis: the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, with the rest of the schedule littered with more tournaments than you can shake a racquet at. Top players are regularly playing upwards of eighty matches per season. A tiring ordeal in itself, not to mention training, media commitments and travel, and twelve months suddenly seems like a remarkably small period of time. Perhaps understandably then, players are not overly keen to add to their already bulging schedules with unnecessary distractions. The Davis Cup is often seen as one of these distractions.
It offers little in the way of ranking points, and prize money is unheard of. For players who are aiming to reach of the peak of the game, a commitment to the Davis Cup is rarely an advantageous move, when crucial ranking points or warm-up tournaments could be focused on instead. To put it into perspective, the total worth of ranking points collected by Andy Murray from his eleven wins in 2015 was 500, the same as his win at Queen’s Club that required a fraction of his time commitment. This puts the Davis Cup no higher than joint-14th on the most high profile tournaments in terms of points on offer; hardly befitting of the ‘World Cup of Tennis’.
As such, skipping the Davis Cup is a perennial issue. In 2015, Murray was the only top 10 player to consistently turn out for his country, despite nations such as Switzerland, Czech Republic and Serbia possessing such a pedigree. It seems to be the case that top players almost take it in turns to commit to the Davis Cup. 2015 was Murray’s turn, the year before it was Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, while in 2013 there was both Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych providing a degree of legitimacy to proceedings. The crux of the problem, simply, is the lack of consistent participation from the top players, with the Davis Cup providing nothing to encourage it.
A Shuffle of the Schedule?
A change to the schedule and format is perhaps the most obvious of remedies to the problem of top players struggling to find the time for the Davis Cup. Few other sports have major international tournaments every year, instead displaying a showcase every two or four years. If this were to be done with the Davis Cup then it could relax the schedule of players in years where it was not played, thus re-energising them for the seasons in which it was taking place. Furthermore, there would be less of a perception that players could choose to compete when they desired. If it was to only take place once every four years then most would only have a shot at it about two or three times in their career, thus giving it a more desirable and exclusive aura: just look at the Olympics, for which many are adapting their schedules to accommodate.
Of course, with this comes further complications. Would it be restricted to a certain period within the year or would it be played throughout the season, as it is now? The former would make it more of a recognisable event, but the time period needed to create a truly global tournament involving matches lasting three days is near impossible to conceive. There would also be the issue of qualification to a ‘World Cup’ format, with the 130 nations currently on the ITF’s radar needing to be whittled down to a more manageable twenty or so.
The addition of greater ranking rewards could perhaps provide the incentive needed to attract the world’s best. Providing a greater reward for such a commitment is undoubtedly sure to make players think twice before blowing it off for a week-long training block in Dubai. This again is not without its problems: finding an appropriate level of reward for the Davis Cup could prove problematic with such dysfunctional organisations as the ATP and ITF, while also running the risk of losing the ‘essence’ of the Davis Cup, reducing it to ‘just another tournament’.
Undoubtedly, the Davis Cup is not perfect; few things in life are. It is frustrating simply because it has so much potential. Tennis is a sport crying out for international competition, and Great Britain’s triumph is an example of just how special these events can be. But with so many problems, it is important to not get carried away. Being a Davis Cup champion does not acknowledge you as the best in the world; it merely acknowledges you as the most committed.