The Davis Cup final next week is an enticing prospect if you’re a Spanish or Czech tennis fan. If you’re British, too, you might be forgiven for throwing the 100th final a sideways glance on the basis that it’s being held at London’s O2 Arena from 16 to 18 November.
Except it’s not. It’s being held in Prague’s O2 Arena. Close, but no cigar for the Brits.
But for tennis fans everywhere, the Davis Cup final is the last throw of the dice as we head into the Mad Max afterworld of the offseason. This is when the wind and rain whip wickedly across the barren courts of the Northern Hemisphere and we sustain our tennis dreams with the player biographies that tumble from Santa’s sack.
The Davis Cup final will be a nicely presented, lightly whipped tiramisu after the comfort food of the World Tour Finals (WTF).
If only everyone felt the same way. Because, for the past few seasons, getting the Big Four players— Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal—to join this party has been about as easy as securing a Greek bridging loan.
So, what are the issues? Oh, nothing much. Just the fact that playing Davis Cup means taking up to four long weekends a year out of a playing schedule that's already jam-packed. Top players are all about peaking for the four Slams, and Davis Cup is about as compatible with that as a KFC Party Bucket diet.
But, to my mind, the problems with Davis Cup are more fundamental. For example: which other major sporting event do you know of that builds to an anticlimax? Can you imagine 50,000 paying spectators on the last day of the Ryder Cup watching dead rubbers?
Let’s say Spain wins both singles this Friday and then wraps up the doubles on Saturday. Now, imagine you’re Juan Garcia, a good-natured IT professional from Madrid who plays a decent club game on weekends. You’ve saved up your euros all year and managed to land yourself three tickets to fly your tennis-mad niños to Prague for Sunday’s reverse0singles matches.
That’ll be Sunday’s less-than-decisive reverse-singles matches. You see, David Ferrer and Co. were chucking each other in the air and quaffing bubbly by the end of Saturday afternoon. What are you going to see? Fernando Verdasco and Marcel Granollers playing a pair of dead best-of-threes, with Rafa clapping politely from the stands.
So, what’s required? Something that makes Davis Cup more of an event. Maybe something akin to football’s World Cup, a major jamboree held every two or four years. Fitting this into the schedule? Consider this year’s Olympics. We crowbarred that into the English summer quite nicely. So there’s your slot for one or two weeks of intense international team tennis. Let’s take it round the globe, too—spread the word and spread the cash.
Now to the format of individual matches and those tiresome dead rubbers. Any ideas? How about putting the teams into initial round-robin groups of four, with the format reduced to a more bite-sized two singles and a doubles? Then make every rubber count by basing progression to the knockout stages on number of rubbers won.
As for those knockout stages, well, let’s just dispense with those dead rubbers, eh? They make After the Lord Mayor’s Show look like Rio’s Carnival. With matches held entirely within one day, rather than fragmented over three, nobody would be missing out on meaningful action. The final? Sure, go for the best-of-five format—but again, let’s throw out the dead wood. Just play till someone wins.
There are numerous other issues with Davis Cup. But, for me, these are the two thumbs that throb the reddest. The Davis Cup is ailing, but it’s a venerable and revered patient. Let’s give it the shot in the arm it so badly needs and deserves.