Analysis: Is the Davis Cup at break point? Tournament under threat from Grand Slams and Masters Series
Grand old team event is losing its appeal as leading players pull out because of tour commitments. Would extra cash, a single venue or a calendar change save it?
It has been going for 114 years and remains the largest annual team competition in world sport, with 122 countries taking part, but the Davis Cup is at a crossroads. As Britain prepare for their first World Group quarter-final for 28 years against Italy in Naples this weekend, the competition itself faces major challenges. Will it continue down the path of the FA Cup, which is increasingly regarded as an irrelevance in football, or can it stage a revival like golf's Ryder Cup, which was in decline for many years but now generates huge interest?
The success of most sporting events is directly related to the quality of the participants and the Davis Cup's dramatis personae tells its own story. In the last five years the "big four" have missed as many Davis Cup ties as they played.
Since the 2009 final Rafael Nadal has appeared in only four of Spain's 13 ties. Roger Federer has missed four of Switzerland's nine and Novak Djokovic four of Serbia's 14. Andy Murray will play in his third successive tie in Naples but had appeared in just two of Britain's previous eight.
While players enjoy being part of a Davis Cup team, which can be a welcome change from the often lonely world of individual competition, practical considerations are often overriding.
Some of the old guard huff and puff about modern players' lack of national loyalty but these are different times, with many more tournaments offering large appearance fees, valuable ranking points or both. Just as the FA Cup has fallen behind the Champions League and Premier League in football's pecking order, so the Davis Cup has struggled to match the profile of the four Grand Slam events and the nine Masters Series tournaments.
An already compressed calendar has been further squeezed by the extension of the off-season. Most Davis Cup weekends now follow Grand Slam tournaments, adding to the inconvenience for the top men. Earlier this year, Murray played against the United States in San Diego only five days after the Australian Open finished.
The temptation might be to shrug shoulders and say that nothing is for ever, but many people – not just traditionalists – believe that the Davis Cup is worth fighting for.
Players and spectators love the boisterous atmosphere at Davis Cup matches and in such environments big upsets can occur. Every captain of an underdog team recites the mantra that rankings and form can count for nothing in the Davis Cup. Four years ago Lithuania's Laurynas Grigelis, the world No 521, beat Dan Evans to inflict Britain's most embarrassing defeat. Last year, however, Evans bridged a gap of 245 places in the rankings to beat Russia's Evgeny Donskoy and complete Britain's 3-2 victory. Nine weeks ago James Ward beat Sam Querrey, ranked 126 places above him, as Britain overcame the United States.
While the tournament calendar has expanded into new markets in Asia, it has retracted in others. In those countries which do not stage Grand Slam events – and especially those which do not host any top-level tournaments – the Davis Cup creates interest and generates revenue. The Czech Republic, the reigning Davis Cup champions, is a perfect illustration. The country which produced Jaroslav Drobny, Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova has a great tennis heritage, but today it does not stage a single tournament on either the men's or women's tours.
Radek Stepanek, who has won the deciding rubber for the Czechs in the last two Davis Cup finals, said: "Since we don't have many tournaments in our country, for the fans Davis Cup is very big. It's a chance for the people to see us – and to see top players from other countries."
Like many other countries, the Czech Republic is also a nation where team honours are regarded as the ultimate prize. Stepanek was aged only two when Lendl and Tomas Smid led Czechoslovakia to victory in the Davis Cup in 1980, but their success had a big impact on him. "Ever since I was a kid I always wanted to be the one holding the Davis Cup trophy," Stepanek said. "When I saw all the pictures from 1980 and heard all the stories about how big it was for our country, I wanted to win it really badly."
It is a competition to which even the humblest tennis nations aspire. When Cambodia made their debut in Group Four of the Asia/Oceania Zone two years ago it was the culmination of years of hard work by those who had rebuilt tennis in a country where all but three of the top-40 players had perished in the so-called "killing fields".
Francesco Ricci Bitti, the president of the International Tennis Federation, which runs the Davis Cup, underlined the competition's importance in terms of developing the sport worldwide. "If you are in a Grand Slam country the Davis Cup doesn't mean so much economically, but it generates vital revenue and support in many smaller countries, both from sponsors and governments," he said. "The Slovak Republic built their national tennis centre on the proceeds of their Davis Cup success."
So how could the Davis Cup be revamped? The most frequently mentioned ideas are staging it once every two years instead of annually or playing it at a single venue at one time rather than on a home-and-away basis throughout the year. But Ricci Bitti insists that both these aspects of the format are non-negotiable.
Something has to give. The "single venue" idea could be used just for the World Group. Perhaps the tour calendar has to be more flexible, or there needs to be greater reward – in cash or ranking points – for playing in the Davis Cup.
Ricci Bitti regrets the lack of some top players but insists no individual is bigger than the competition. He may be right but after one of the Davis Cup's greatest supporters of recent times, Tomas Berdych, opted out of the Czechs' quarter-final with Japan this weekend, it is time to reconsider how to keep players like him involved on a regular basis.
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