DAVIS CUP – Will Tennis’ Greatest Gamble Pay Off?

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DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images

Bill Simons

When I was a boy I imagined.

On a summer vacation in Matis, Canada, as my moderately decent forehand whizzed crosscourt, I had a mid-August dream. My new-found Canadian friend and I envisioned that someday we’d face each other in the Davis Cup – Canada vs. the USA. What fun!

It didn’t happen. Boys become men, reality tends to punch dreams in the nose. Other players were better, far better. But I could write a bit. So, I traveled the world – from Longwood to La Jolla, from Seville to Zimbabwe – to cover the Davis Cup. After all, the competition had long been the gold standard of the game. For decades it stirred emotions. France’s Four Musketeers, America’s Big Bill Tilden and the stylish Jack Kramer, Australia’s glorious gentlemen Laver and Emo. Its stars were luminous. Ashe, Johnny Mac, Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, those brothers Bob and Mike and a couple of Andys, Roddick and Murray, all wrote memorable chapters.

For players, there was nothing like sporting the colors of their country and competing before a packed house of shrieking fans or going to distant lands to try to uphold their national honor. Arenas around the world rocked, passions soared, fans were left hoarse – there was nothing quite like it – such raw sentiment.

But there were problems. Play dragged on for much of the year. The top stars – Roger, Rafa, Nole, Murray and Delpo – all had their days of sweet triumph. But after that, they would abandon playing the Cup. Boosting their rankings or resting their weary bodies became priorities. Lesser stars like David Goffin and the German Jan Lenard Struff stepped up and embraced glory in many compelling moments. 

But the conventional wisdom became that the Davis Cup had lost its luster. There were many questions, but few answers. For years, officials did nothing to upgrade the struggling event. Suggestions to change the schedule, have the matches be best-of-three sets or forgo play during Olympic years fell on deaf ears. Into this vacuum entered a lightning bolt – the Laver Cup. Created by Federer and his team in 2017, the annual exhibition was fun, creative and cutting-edge. Players relished the instant, border-free camaraderie. Fans loved all the razzle-dazzle and seeing a range of charismatic stars, all in one dramatic setting. Davis Cup authorities were caught flat-footed. They would have to respond – but how?

Jose Jordan AFP

Enter a Spanish soccer superstar and a Japanese billionaire who headed the deep-pocket Kosmos group that had been shopping around big-ticket game-changing ideas. The financiers suggested a radical remake that scrapped most of the home and away matches that were the Davis Cup’s distinctive signature. Instead, 18 nations would gather in one site, Madrid, for a week-long round-robin competition. An astounding investment of $3 billion over a whopping 25 years was promised. Here was the biggest rewrite in tennis history, a hefty gamble, a mid-course °180 like no other. Worldwide, tennis lovers wondered whether it would work. Critics shouted loud. Traditionalists, like me, howled.

Clearly, hefty changes were needed. But France’s Lucas Pouille said the new format was a death sentence. “Obviously they cannot call it a Davis Cup anymore. When you’re not playing at home, or in the country against whom you’re playing, then it’s not a Davis Cup…Everybody who lived a Davis Cup tie knows…it’s not going to be the same…It’s a shame because the atmosphere you live when you’re playing for your country…is just unbelievable. There’s nothing to describe the emotion. Maybe it’s going to be a nice competition, but it’s going to look more like an exhibition.” 

Yannick Noah offered a terse apology: “They sold the soul of a historic event. Sorry, Mr. Davis.”

But, not so fast. Sure, for 118 years the Davis Cup was described in two familiar words, while this year’s November 18-24 extravaganza is a nine-word mouthful, Davis Cup by Rakuten – The World Cup of Tennis. Still, let’s give it a chance. Held in Madrid’s Magic Box tennis center, who knows, it may turn out to be magical. A week from Sunday the ITF’s daring organizers may well be gloating as they turn Noah’s apology on its head and ask, Who’s sorry now?

Still, questions loom. Fervent, flag-waving Spaniards will emerge en masse for the home team. But will other tennis lovers flock to Madrid and pack the stands to watch Kazakhstan battle the Netherlands? And what will the TV ratings be when America faces Canada and Italy in the opening round? Plus, what will happen if Captain Mardy Fish’s young team of Reilly Opelka, Taylor Fritz, Sam Querrey and Frances Tiafoe fails to advance to the weekend’s semis?

Time will tell. A week from Sunday we should know clearly whether the greatest gamble in tennis history will turn out to be a tennis feast or a fantastic fizzle.

 

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