Much the same as other mild controversies in professional tennis (tiebreaks in majors, time violations, injury time outs, etc.) the Davis Cup has become another controversy - well, not necessarily a controversy but more of an issue. Now that modern day professional tennis has, it seems, a tournament every week and the top players take more and more time off to heal their bodies surrounding the most important tournaments on the calendar (the majors), the Davis Cup has been shunted off to the sidelines as an afterthought.
It never used to be this way. Before tennis entered the open era in 1968, the Davis Cup was a big attraction on the tennis calendar. It was (and still is) the preeminent men's international team competition. Through most of the 20th century, it was a fiercely contested battle of the best players on the planet, dominated by Australia, Great Britain, France and the United States. Then, something happened that changed tennis forever and ultimately saw the Davis Cup bumped to the sidelines - the arrival of open era tennis in 1968: professionals, huge money and prestige. It was also the end of an era of the big four nations. The following year, a number of new countries joined in the competition, making the Cup more competitive. A lot of people don't know that before 1971, the reigning nation went directly to the final. The change of having them compete throughout the year also made the Cup more competitive.
The last major change to the Davis Cup format occurred in 1981 with the current World Group format. It has been 35 years. I think it is now time for another change to reflect the times. Although the Davis Cup is still an important event on the tennis calendar, the shine has come off the Cup. I think for a lot of players, although they would like to play Davis Cup, their first thought is always, 'how is this going to fit around my schedule?' If Davis Cup can't fit around their schedule, they simply don't play. To be frank, there are simply more important (and lucrative) events like the majors. The majors are the biggest events on the calendar. Players want to come into majors in top condition and come out of majors uninjured. If both don't happen and Davis Cup is the following week, you probably aren't going to see them there. Thus, in order to make the Davis Cup more attractive, not only does the schedule need to change, but the format as well.
There has been talk of combining the Davis Cup and the Federation Cup (the women's team competition). This could work but I think the logistics of it all is just a bit much. This idea probably formed from the success of linking the Masters and Premier events together on the tour. The problem is that both team competitions have gotten way too big. Remember that in the beginning, both had only a handful of countries involved. Now with close to 150, the logistics of having all these countries play at a certain week during the year is a nightmare for schedulers.
I like the idea of having the Davis Cup concentrated over a week in one location. Perhaps the semifinals and final can be played that way. Again, with so many countries involved, it would be close to impossible to do this in the early rounds. Having a neutral site be the host for this type of format would take some gusto out of the Davis Cup. It is well known that fans of host countries can get a bit raucous and at the same time, inject some verve and excitement into the game. Players rely on that spirit in team competitions to pull them through matches and it can make a difference in the outcome of the tie.
What about offering serious ATP points for players who not only play, but are successful in Davis Cup? This would attract a more serious and dedicated lot of players. It doesn't have to be 1000 points like the Masters, but anything substantial to reward the players for showing up. Right now, it's a bit of 'the Davis Cup has no ATP points, so why would I show up when I could earn points playing in a tournament the same week of the Davis Cup?' Matches could be shorter as well. I know there would be an uproar over having best of 3 instead of best of 5, but at least have all matches go to tiebreakers.
The Davis Cup has been the victim of tennis' success. What started out as a way to promote the sport internationally has become only an afterthought in the minds of occasional sports fans. With a myriad of other sports options these days, it certainly can become the job of Davis Cup to promote the sport once again. The problem is that the main ATP tour has become so big, so successful and so lucrative that the Davis Cup and other non-tour related competitions and exhibitions are left to lag on the sidelines. When I heard that there was going to be another team tennis competition (the Laver Cup), my initial reaction was "oh no, not another one". Fix the Davis Cup first, then move on to start another team competition.
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