What’s up with the Davis Cup?

26 March 2015 | Posted in SportsPro Blog | By Michael Long | Contact the author

What’s up with the Davis Cup?

Great Britain’s recent tie against the USA showcased all that’s good about the Davis Cup. For three days in early March, over 7,000 merry revellers, a raucous sea of red, white and blue, danced and sang their hearts out inside a packed Emirates Arena in Glasgow.

On a memorable opening night, James Ward, Britain’s rank outsider, channelled the torrent of hearty patriotism to beat American number one John Isner in a fittingly Isner-esque five-set epic. The match set the tone for what was to prove a thrilling tie that culminated in Andy Murray securing Britain a spot in the quarter-finals on the Sunday.

From start to finish, it was a joy to watch - and not only because Britain won. This was top-level sporting drama, played with the kind of passion even a neutral could appreciate. This was the Davis Cup, the flagship team competition in professional men’s tennis, at its finest. Clearly, this was not the forgotten event few attend and even fewer still care about, as the myriad naysayers within tennis would have you believe.

Quite the opposite, in fact. On the evidence of recent events, the Davis Cup is enjoying something of an unheralded renaissance. Shortly after Switzerland overcame hosts France in last year’s final in November, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) released a statement proclaiming 2014 ‘a vintage year for Davis Cup’ and it had the figures to prove it.

A record-breaking crowd of 27,448, the statement boasted, packed into Lille’s reconfigured Stade Pierre Mauroy on the Sunday to watch Roger Federer lead the Swiss to their first-ever crown. It was the highest attendance ever for an officially-sanctioned tennis event. TV and online audiences hit record highs too. Swiss broadcaster SRG saw market shares of over 50 per cent for the final, while France Television’s coverage commanded a quarter of French eyeballs on the Saturday.

November's Davis Cup final between France and Switzerland drew 27,448 fans, making it the best-attended officially-sanctioned tennis event ever.

Buoyed by its vintage year, the oft-criticised ITF has since come out firing as it seeks to silence the cynics who say it’s not doing enough to protect and grow tennis’s beloved Davis Cup. At the turn of the year the federation installed a new commercial chief in the form of Andrew Walker, the former ATP and WTA marketing executive. Then, in early February, the ITF announced a ‘landmark’ deal with BeIN Sports that will see the Qatari-owned media company market the global media rights to the Davis Cup and the women’s Fed Cup for the next seven years. Rights deals with broadcasters in multiple territories came thick and fast in the early weeks of the year and the message was clear: 2015 would pick up where 2014 left off.

Within weeks, though, just as it seemed the momentum was building towards another record-breaking year, the age-old cracks a bit of commercial progress had papered over began to reappear.

ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti’s recent admission that “Davis Cup is not a mandatory event and players do choose from time to time to miss a tie” only scratches at the surface of a problem that has long undermined the competition. When this year’s World Group kicked off in early March, Switzerland’s star duo of Federer and Stan Wawrinka were nowhere to be seen, opting instead to play lucrative exhibition events elsewhere and all but consigning their countrymen to a first round defeat to Belgium. For many observers, not least the tennis media, their decision was difficult to accept and yet strangely familiar.

By refusing to defend their title, the Swiss pair served a telling reminder that the Davis Cup, irrespective of its storied history and tradition, remains discretionary. Even for the defending champions, the 115-year-old competition was deemed to be an optional extra, little more than an onerous calendar-clogger.

Such flaky commitment from the sport’s biggest names is nothing new – top players, many of whom already juggle packed schedules, have often viewed the Davis Cup as a burden they could do without – and the ITF has grown accustomed to getting by with notable absentees. Though, in the Davis Cup’s traditional best-of-five format, having just one top player on the roster is enough to turn a mediocre nation into a competitive one, to its credit the federation is now looking beyond the pulling power of the sport’s biggest stars.

Switzerland's star pairing of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka chose not to defend their title this year.

A new fan-focused Show Your Colours marketing campaign, for example, can be credited with helping to drum up plenty of support throughout 2014, drawing as it did on nationalistic pride as opposed to promoting the competition, as is so often the case in tennis, on the strength of whoever is likely to be on the court. It was a simple yet refreshing initiative in an era when so much of the sport’s commercial success is reliant on the star power of a few. Yet the shadow of missing icons continues to loom large.

For all the advancement in the sport in recent years, the reality is that progress in tennis has become a byword for bowing to player pressure - witness the way players lobbied to increase Grand Slam prize money or to shorten the increasingly demanding season – and the majority of proposals put forward for rejuvenating the Davis Cup attempt to do just that.

Holding the event every two years, selecting surfaces that coincide with the regular tour to reduce injuries, giving the previous year’s finalists a first-round bye – all are solutions that have been mooted with player participation, and specifically player fatigue, in mind. Yet all – and many more solutions besides - have quickly been discounted on commercial grounds: switching to a biennial format would only hit the smaller tennis-playing nations where it hurts most: in their bank balances; creating a World Cup-style festival of tennis, perhaps a month-long event as has been mooted, would require a seismic calendar shift the financially-flush ATP and WTA Tours would not be willing to make; reducing the number of ties would only peeve the sponsors and broadcasters.

As the ITF grapples with how best to please everyone, any moves to revamp the Davis Cup are bound to be modest at first. Three years ago the federation used the Olympics as a means of improving participation in its annual competitions, with new rulings imposed after London 2012 requiring players to make themselves available to play Davis Cup three times in an Olympic cycle - up from two under the previous regulations - if they are to be eligible to compete in the next edition of the Games. But the change is somewhat superficial. So long as the competition is not mandatory, the players will continue to pick and choose when they play, as they always have done, leaving the ITF to tip toe around the big issue by making smaller, easier-to-make improvements elsewhere. The federation’s new partnership with BeIN Sports, for example, should take care of the broadcast side of things by increasing the global exposure and quality of Davis Cup coverage, provided it achieves what it is designed to do, but it is hardly groundbreaking.

A makeshift arena inside San Diego's Petco Park hosts USA v Great Britain in February 2014.

Another relatively modest tweak being proposed is to stage the final on neutral ground, at a venue decided several years in advance. Supporters of that proposal say it would give local organisers a greater chance of maximising their promotional activities ahead of the showpiece finale, but the downside could be that attendances at the event will suffer due to a lack of home interest. Whether the ITF would be willing to take the risk remains to be seen.

For now, then, the federation’s focus has to be on elevating the much-loved Davis Cup brand of tennis by ensuring more matches reach more people whilst creating a genuine spectacle that showcases a side of the sport not seen on the regular tour. Everybody agrees that the Davis Cup is a unique competition, with its own unique style and atmosphere, so why not play to its unique strengths?

As publicity stunts on the roofs of skyscrapers in Dubai or floating courts in Acapulco Bay have shown, tennis lends well to novel applications. Nobody is suggesting the ITF takes the Davis Cup to such extreme locales, but a bit of fresh thinking from whoever replaces Ricci Bitti when he steps down as president, probably later this year, surely wouldn’t hurt.

It is safe to assume that last year’s final was the best attended tennis match of all time not only because Roger Federer was there, but also because it was staged in a reworked soccer stadium capable of holding record-breaking numbers of spectators and creating the kind of one-off theatre rarely seen on tour. The US Tennis Association (USTA) received widespread plaudits for staging its home Davis Cup tie against Great Britain in 2014 at a makeshift arena fashioned inside a ballpark in San Diego. More of the same is surely needed.

Though they may pose more of an organisational and logistical headache, there is no denying that temporary venues in novel locations get people talking. By promoting the use of them, the ITF and host national associations have a clear opportunity to turn heads towards Davis Cup tennis without detracting from the competition’s cherished character. Who knows, even the top players may start to sit up and take notice.

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