Stuff The Lack of Tradition, The ITF’s World Cup Tennis Finals Proposal Is Full of Problems

Stuff The Lack of Tradition, The ITF’s World Cup Tennis Finals Proposal Is Full of Problems

If you are a dedicated follower of tennis you know that on Monday, February 26th the International Tennis Federation (ITF) proposed radical changes to the 118 year old international Davis Cup competition, in cooperation with Kosmos Investment Group, who’s pumping a $3 billion investment into tennis over the next 25 years.

You can find our history of the Davis Cup here. The proposed new format is below (and in the Davis Cup history, too):

  • The establishment of a season-ending World Cup of Tennis Finals (WCTF) that crowns the Davis Cup champions.
  • The WCTF is played at a neutral site, chosen well ahead of time, and lasts 7 days.
  • 16 countries go to the WCTF based on their performance to date, similar to the current World Group. These 16 countries, plus 2 that are selected by the ITF, are placed into 6 round robin groups of three teams each.
  • The 6 winners of the round robin groups, plus the two teams with the best losing records, are fed into a quarterfinal knockout tournament.
  • The winner of the knockout rounds is the year’s Davis Cup championship team.
  • All team competitions consist of 2 singles matches and 1 doubles match, all matches are best of 3 sets.
  • Promotion/relegation rules will again be in place, giving national teams not part of one year’s WCTF to gain entry in following years

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Davis Cup moving to a 1 week event at the end of the year is LONG overdue. Now just make it every other year and we are cookin.

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This proposal’s changes from current Davis Cup, summarized:

  • The home/away match setting is eliminated in favor of a site chosen well ahead of the WCTF dates, which would likely be a neutral site (but does not have to be)
  • Best of 5 matches are reduced to best of 3
  • The current competition’s 4 singles matches at each team meet – opening day + Sunday’s reverse match-ups – are reduced to 2 singles matches
  • Next year’s 16 teams competing in the WCTF are known almost a year ahead of time
  • Two teams are entered in the WCTF, the new format’s version of the World Group, by being selected, not via competition

I’ve written about why I believe the calls to change Davis Cup are generally bogus. It’s not necessary to go through that again. The fact is this ITF proposal is full of fundamental problems, inherent in the proposed structure, and the ITF’s proposal conveniently glosses over all of them.

(1)  How in the world are the players expected to compete at the pace of the schedule being proposed?

The WCTF – an 18 team construct of 6 round robin groups feeding a quarterfinal knockout draw – is to take place over 7 days.

In every round robin group of three each team plays two matches. Therefore each team’s player has two matches. This happens in the first 3 days. Two matches in 3 days, an OK schedule for a professional tennis player.

But then the quarterfinal matches follow, when a player has 1 additional match for each knockout round; meaning 3 matches for the players on the two finalist teams. Finalist team members will play 6 matches in 7 days, a schedule more grueling than any Grand Slam or Masters tournament, and that’s without considering how to fairly schedule teams for day and/or night matches throughout the week.

If the WCTF actually happens, somehow, it’s not hard to imagine there’ll be something like Tiebreak Tens introduced to solve this scheduling nightmare, distancing the WCTF even further from its storied Davis Cup history and competitive roots.

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Jurgen Melzer‏ @jojomelzer Feb 26 Replying to @MardyFish

I usually agree with u… but not on this one… smaller countries losing their chance to see their stars on home soil…plus home & away atmosphere is gone…wasn’t that what DC was all about?

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(2)  What site, anywhere, has the facilities required by the WCTF?

To simultaneously play the WCTF’s six round robin groupings you need at least 3 stadium courts, if not six. The WCTF could get by with 3 if they play two different team-duels per stadium, one in the afternoon session and another in the evening.

Beyond that, with 18 teams you need at least 9 practice courts; with two teams sharing the same court, 8 players practicing for 90 minutes requires 12 hours of a single court’s availability.

Outdoors? I have one word for that idea: rain.

Indoors? Only Melbourne and Madrid have three covered stadium courts. And the practice courts would have to be indoors as well, and reasonably close to the stadiums.

All together, a site will need a minimum of 3 stadium courts and 9 full-time practice courts. An outdoor-only site is unacceptable due to the chance for rain to wreak havoc on the schedule.

(3)  National squads of only two players will be made extinct as far as the WCTF round is concerned.

While only a few such squads have had success winning the Davis Cup – Czech/2012 and 2013, Croatia/2005, to name two – no two players could compete for all the matches required to come through the WCTF. Smaller countries, unable to field a team of two strong singles players plus a solid doubles pairing, will never be able to break into the WCTF.

(4)  The home/away flavor of the competition will be lost.

 There are theoretical plusses to the idea of a neutral site announced well ahead of the competition’s actual dates: more sites are available when there’s more time to plan (subject to #2, above), and fans have more time to arrange travel plans.

But the hew and cry among Davis Cup combatants over this change tells us that we’ll be losing something truly special. They’re upset at losing the chance of playing at home, of being lifted to victory on the wings of a hometown’s encouragement. They bemoan missing the chance to notch a huge win at an away match while battling both the other player and the hometown crowd.

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Tim Mayotte‏ @TimMayotte Mar 1

I want 2 invite all Davis Cup players, former, present, to tweet their favorite moments playing 4 their nation. @USTA, @USDavisCupFans, @ITF_Tennis. Mine was playing in Mexico City in a Bull Ring with Mariachi Band. 15,000 crazed fans! Scent of bull fights in the red clay.

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(5)  The WCTF format banks on a national team’s fans committing to travel to a neutral site; no team’s fans will be in a hometown setting; each team’s level of audience support will depend on how many choose to travel. What cannot be calculated is how those fans will allot time for their tennis holidays. Will the finalist teams have any fans left on site to fill the stands, or will they have booked return travel before the finals, not knowing if their team was going to make it that far or not? Will other teams’ fans bother to take their seats at the final? Will television really pay to broadcast scenes of empty stadiums?

(6)  The WCTF looks to expand tennis’ reach via television. Asia is already proposed as the neutral site for the first year, 2019. Will significant worldwide tv audiences tune in, given the time differences? For the sake of discussion we’ll use Beijing as a potential site. Consider:

 2 PM/Beijing/on Thursday is:

  • 1 AM New York City / Thursday
  • 10 PM Los Angeles / Wednesday
  • 6 AM London / Thursday
  • 3 AM Buenos Aires / Thursday
  • 9 AM Moscow / Thursday

Aside from the time zone issue, no one’s demonstrated that tv’s tennis audience is large and rabid enough to make weekday viewership a solid bet; not a lot of tennis eyeballs driving tv advertising ratings at 1 AM in NYC on a Thursday.

(7)  A week’s competition means teams will have to arrive at least 2 or 3 days ahead of the first day’s matches; 10 days. The ATP November calendar already has the end of the Paris Masters, and the Next Gen Finals followed by the Nitto ATP Finals. Where will the WCTF fit in?

Admittedly Davis Cup already takes up 4 weeks of the annual calendar; one in January, one in April, the third in September, and the finals in November. Those weeks would be freed up. Current Davis Cup ties begin on Friday and end on Sunday. That necessitates players’ arrivals on Wednesday, with departures on Monday. So, in truth, Davis Cup “weeks” right now are less than a full 7 days, though subject to individual choices. The WCTF’s playing schedule requires 7 days of competition plus early days for practice and acclimatization, all in a month that’s already jam-packed. Some serious juggling of the ATP’s current tournament calendar will be required.

(8)  At the World Tour Finals, with its similar format of round robin play that feeds a knockout round, criticism has already been leveled at a competitor’s chance to take a strategic loss, on purpose, to give them a better position in the knockout round. Does tennis want to create yet another scenario that calls into question how hard fought a contest really is?

a) In a 3 team round robin group, each team could finish with 1 win and 1 loss; how to determine who’s won?

b) If there are round robin groups whose losers have similar outcomes, how will the ITF determine who have the two 2nd best team records?

Will we have to count sets won, games, points? It may happen that teams have the same numbers…then what you do, flip a coin?

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The spirit of the Davis Cup will be forever gone.

– Amelie Mauresmo 

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(10)  Two of the 18 WCTF teams will be selected? What does that mean? How will they be selected? On the basis of team charm? Written essays? Swimsuit competition?

What happened to the idea of sport being a meritocracy?

All I can say is, “sheesh.”

 

My thanks to Ubaldo Scanagatta for pointing out a number of the match scheduling and won/lost calculation problems in the WCTF proposal. Also to Graham P for the linguistic consultation.

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