EXCLUSIVE: Former Davis Cup Heroes Speak Out On New Changes To Competition - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: Former Davis Cup Heroes Speak Out On New Changes To Competition

Ubitennis speaks with Mats Wilander, Thomas Enqvist and Mark Woodforde about the new format of the team competition.

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This weekend will see the start of a new era in men’s tennis as the revamped Davis Cup kicks off with the qualifying rounds taking place.

 

24 teams will battle it out for 12 places in the final of the competition in what is the new format of the event. Following approval at the ITF AGM in August, for the first time in history the finals of the competition will take place in one location over a week. A total of 18 teams are set to take part – 12 qualifiers, the four semi-finalists from the previous year and two wild cards.

The transformation has been far from simple with some players and their national association’s voicing opposition. Critics argue that the changes are too radical, ruins the tradition of the 119-year-old event, the scheduling eats into the off-season and the financial pledges that has been made are dubious. Investment firm Kosmos has pledged to invest $3 billion over a 25-year period with a promise that countries would receive more money. Something that has previously been disputed by the head of Tennis Europe.

Perhaps the best way to gage an idea of the current situation is to consult with those who has played in the competition for years. Thomas Enqvist has had the opportunity of being both player and captain for his country. The Swede compiled a win-loss record of 15-11 in the competition and won both of his singles matches during the 1996 final.

“Speaking from a player point of view, I think that all of us would say that it is a big honour to represent your country. My best memories in tennis come from the Davis Cup.” Enqvist told Ubitennis.

Sweden was one of the countries that voted for the revamp of the competition, according to a list published by the vice-president of the German Tennis Federation. The ITF never published a list of the countries that voted for or against the plans. Arguing that this was done for confidentiality reasons. Nevertheless, 44-year-old Enqvist is remaining cautiously optimistic about the changes. Arguing that people need to wait and see before they can judge.

“I think we have to give them time. We have to see. They have tried to put something on to make sure that all the top major players can play. Hopefully it’s going to be a good choice.” He said.

For Mats Wilander, the Davis Cup is one of the biggest events in a player’s career. Wilander is a former world No.1 player, who represented his country in 27 ties over a 14-year period. He helped secure the Davis Cup trophy in the final of the competition three times throughout the 1980s.

“The only reason why I am playing tennis is because of the Davis Cup.” Wilander states.
“The effect the Davis Cup has had on pretty much every player that is here today. My generation, the generation before and the generation after. The effect of the Davis Cup is much bigger than the effect of grand slams because you are watching your nation play.”

The ATP threat

If the changes aren’t enough to contend with, a new tournament poses as a potential threat to the existence of the historic competition. 2020 will see the resurrection of the World Team Cup. Overseen by the ATP,  who governs men’s tennis, the event has on offer ranking points and a prize money pool of $15 million. The tournament will be held at the start of each year, less than two months after the Davis Cup finals, in three cities across Australia.

ATP CEO Chris Kermode has previously insisted that the World Cup is not a threat to the other team events. At the official launch in November, Kermode told a crowd of reporters ‘There seems to be a fixation that the ATP Cup has caused the issue with the Davis Cup and this is not the case. If the ATP Cup didn’t exist, the Davis Cup still wouldn’t have a week in the calendar.’

Taking those words at face value, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. Should there?

“I think only time can tell. Maybe both can prevail. I have no idea.” Enqvist admitted.

Wilander is more up front with his views. For him, the decision of hosting the Davis Cup finale in a neutral country might come back to haunt the ITF in the future. Saying that the new format has unnecessarily placed the event in a competition with the ATP Cup.

“The ATP Cup is about the team of a country’s players. The Davis Cup has a brand and it’s not about the team, it’s about the country.” He explained.
“If Davis Cup goes to a neutral ground, then there is a big competition (with the ATP Cup).
“My suggestion would be that the semi-finals and finals have to be played home and away. Whereas the first two rounds can be played during a week on a natural ground.”

The removal of the home and away element to the Davis Cup finals may have a negative effect on the younger audience, instead of their goal of trying to make it appeal more to that target market. A somewhat ironic outcome. Wilander warns that under the new situation, less children might be inspired to participate in tennis.

“Would what be the effect if, lets say, Belgium plays away on a neutral ground? What will be the effect and inspiration for the kids in Belgium. Are they even going to watch it? Because they don’t watch Wimbledon, they don’t watch the US Open, they don’t watch David Goffin lose in the quarter-finals or semi-finals of the French Open. But they will watch Belgium play at home in Belgium, maybe even away in somewhere like France. That will inspire them.”

Woodforde’s call for calm

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Throughout the entire situation, Tennis Australia has been one of the most vocal opponents. Earlier this week, team captain Lleyton Hewitt slammed Kosmos founder Gerard Pique. Telling reporters that it was ‘mind boggling’ that the competition was being run by somebody who had little knowledge about tennis. Hewitt was among a group of individuals from Tennis Australia that signed a letter last year condemning the changes.

Not all people from Australia are against the change. Mark Woodforde argues that action had to be taken before it was too late. The 53-year-old is regarded as one of his country’s greatest ever doubles players, winning 12 grand slam titles in men’s doubles and a further six in the mixed. Alongside Todd Woodbridge, the pair won more doubles matches (14) in the Davis Cup than any other Australian duo.

“I didn’t want to see the Davis Cup competition disappear and that was my biggest fear.” Said Woodforde. “If there wasn’t any changes to make it a significant event again, we wouldn’t have a Davis Cup competition at all.”

Elaborating further, Woodforde argues that there will be a more ‘exciting’ element brought to the Davis Cup. Something others dispute.

“I believe it is the same Davis Cup book, but a different chapter. I think it’s going to be exciting. It’s innovative.” He said.
“I think there has been more negative comments about the format and the competition hasn’t even started. Those pessimist out there, I like to think that a lot of good things are going to be happening top the competition.” He added.

The opinions of Enqvist, Wilander and Woodforde are ones that reflects the current situation in men’s tennis. All are passionate about the sport, but trying to find a common ground seems to be a tough task. If the legends of the sport can’t reach an agreement, what hope does the rest have?

The future of men’s team competition is complexed and unclear. The only certainty is that disagreements and arguments between the key figures in the sport will continue for the foreseeable future. Whether we like it or not.

 

Davis Cup

India’s political gambit throws Indo-Pakistan Davis Cup tie into chaos

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The prospect of being sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) prompted the All India Tennis Association (AITA), the apex Indian tennis body, to agree to visit Pakistan for the Asia/Oceania Group I Davis Cup tie in September 2019. The tie – scheduled for 14th-15th September – would have been the first time since 1964 that India would have visited its neighbour and arch-rival to play the Davis Cup.

 

Up until last week, almost all details had been laid out. The venue had been decided – the tie was to be played on outdoor grass in Islamabad – and the visiting nation had announced its squad under the captaincy of Mahesh Bhupathi. And while security concerns remained a subject of discussion, they did not threaten any late-minute forfeiture of the tie.

The Cause of Problems, and the Aftermath

The Indian government’s decision to do away with a key article of the country’s constitution about its northern region of Jammu and Kashmir on 6th August, however, changed the dynamics of the Indo-Pak socio-political relationship yet again. On the said date, India’s home minister Amit Shah announced that Article 370 of the constitution would be abrogated. The Article, as it had come into effect in 1954 after being amended, gave Jammu and Kashmir special autonomy within the country’s geopolitical and social ambit. The Article was signed by the then ruler of the province Hari Singh who did not want to join either India or Pakistan at the time of India’s partition in 1947 after it gained independence from the British Empire.

Soon after India’s announcement, Pakistan – which regards Kashmir as its territory under Indian occupation – retaliated by snapping the existing diplomatic channels between the countries. It also approached the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) asking the UN body to take up the issue.

In India and globally, there is also fear that the Kashmir problem could thrust both nations into a war-like scenario yet again. Concerning sports, specifically tennis, in this case, the Indian tennis administration does not want its players to face any potential security threat in Pakistan on account of the altered landscape.

The AITA Stand

Yet, despite the worry of any possible breach of security, the AITA does not want to take any premature step vis-à-vis the tie either. On 9th August, when the author of this story spoke to the AITA, the association’s general-secretary Hironmoy Chatterjee said that the AITA was taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We are waiting for two more days,” said Chatterjee. “…I will wait for today because Saturday and Sunday, the ITF will be closed, so Monday (12th August), I will respond… (So) we will see the situation, how it turns in the next two days.”

Noting that the operations of the sole train service between the two nations had been stopped and the airspace between them had been closed by Pakistan, Chatterjee rued that the situation was “not very conducive at the moment”. According to him, if the diplomatic relationship between the sub-continental giants were to improve in the next couple of days, the Indian team would not fail to travel westwards.

“Thereafter (after two days), we will write to the ITF may be suggesting that looking at the situation they should (move the) tie to a neutral venue,” Chatterjee noted, emphasised that India was not considering forfeiting the tie at any cost. “We are very keen to play the tie because (it) is very important for us. There is a lot of difference at stake for them (Pakistan) and us. So, it is very important we play this tie.”

Finally, when asked if the AITA was worried about the ITF sanctioning Indian Davis Cup aspirations, Chatterjee unequivocally denied that the eventuality would come to that.

“It won’t come to that. It shouldn’t come to that because everyone knows the situation. The ITF also knows the situation,” he said before subtly punting the ball back onto the ITF’s side. “The ITF can’t put us into a situation where there is going to be a lot of anxiety. I don’t want that to happen. So, we will discuss it and will come to an amicable solution.”

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Gerard Pique Takes Swipe At The ATP Cup Over Calendar Scheduling

The Kosmos founder has made some comments that will likely not go down well with the governing body of men’s tennis.

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Barcelona F.C. player and Kosmos founder Gerard Pique has come out fighting against critics of the newly revamped Davis Cup.

 

The 32-year-old was an instrumental figure behind the controversial changes to the 119-year-old team competition. His company Kosmos has pledged to invest $3 billion over the next 25 years. From 2019, the finals will take place over a week and feature 18 teams taking part. Removing the concept of home and away finals. It will be played in group stages with a format similar to that of the FIFA World Cup.

Since the revamp was approved last year, there has been a mixed reception in the world of tennis. A series of high-profile figures has branded the revamp as too radical and accused the International Tennis Federation (ITF) of killing the competition. Ion Tiriac, who is the president of the Romanian Tennis Federation, recently sent a letter to governing body voicing his anger. In it, he wrote ‘I strongly believe that many players will not accept to play in this format and that the nationalist glamour has been lost forever.’

Speaking to The Times, Pique has insisted that the Davis Cup will be a hit despite its criticism. The first edition of the week-long finals will take place in November at the end of the season. It will be held at the Caja Magica in the Spanish capital of Madrid.

“I totally understand that when someone comes from another sport and if you change something that is very traditional like the Davis Cup for the better of the sport there will be some people who won’t buy it and they won’t believe in it,” Piqué said. “We need time to convince the people that this is the right way to go. What we need in November is to prove these people wrong. I cannot simply convince them with words. What I will try to do is put in all my effort and experience from other sports. We will try to do our best to create an incredible event. I’m sure we will convince some of them, but it is impossible to convince everyone.”

It isn’t just changing the attitudes of others that Pique and Co have to fight against. It is also dealing with competition from the ATP. From next year the ATP Cup will be held annually in Australia at the start of each season. Both prize money and, more crucially ranking points will be on offer for those taking part. The Davis Cup, which is run by the ITF, can’t award points.

Players such as Alexander Zverev has ruled themselves out of playing in the Davis Cup finals as it will eat into their limited off-season training period. However, Pique has suggested that the newly created ATP Cup is in an even worse position in the calendar. A comment that will not help the tentative relationships between Kosmos and the ATP.

“It is true that maybe some people don’t see it as the best place in the calendar for us, but if you want to create a big event, I prefer to be where I am than the ATP Cup.” He stated.
“It will be the first event of the season and the Australian Open is two weeks after. As a professional athlete, you cannot start the pre-season with a big competition because normally you use it for warming up, a little bit like the Hopman Cup in the past. We are at the end of the season. Maybe for the players it is a long season, but it is the last event and a different event because of the uniqueness of playing for your country and the atmosphere we want to create.”

There have been talks about there being just one team event, but at the moment it is unlikely. The ATP is not going to surrender a tournament they have just revived and spent millions on. The same applies to the ITF, whose current president is a key backer of the reform.

“We had so many meetings with the ATP to try to arrive to a deal to create one event or go together. This is something that we are still working on. I think that both competitions have pros and cons. In the Davis Cup, we have the freedom to go elsewhere every two or for years. This is something that it doesn’t seem the ATP Cup will do because they have to be attached to Australia.” Pique concluded.

The Davis Cup finals will take place between 18-24 November.

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EXCLUSIVE Interview With US Davis Cup Captain Mardy Fish: “If Davis Cup Fails, We All Fail”

Mardy Fish takes the reins of the US Davis Cup team and feels very strongly about the new format for the competition: “If you love Davis Cup you have to support it, even with this format”

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After Jim Courier’s resignation from the role of US Davis Cup Captain last September after the defeat in the 2018 semifinal against Croatia, the USTA decided to take their time and make some changes to the duties required by the role. Following Courier’s suggestion that “the new captain should be someone closer in age to the players”, the United States Tennis Association decided to trust former world no.7 Mardy Fish with this important responsibility, also making him a key figure in the Player Development Program, expanding the role of captain into a year-round presence at tournaments around the world to provide a bigger support to players.

 

While we were covering the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Mardy found the time to talk to Ubitennis over the phone from his house in California and provided some insight into this new adventure for him.

What can you tell us about your first few months in your new role?

It’s been a fun few months, adjusting from the role of peer to the other players to that of captain. I have found a lot of respect towards me from the other players and this is obviously a great thing. I have always been a huge fan of Davis Cup, I have always said yes whenever I had the opportunity to play it, and it’s an honor to be in this role.

You retired a few years ago from professional tennis: how do you feel about getting back on the road now that your life is structured in a different way?

My life at home has been quite established, with my wife and my two kids, but I have been doing a bit of personal traveling for some exhibitions and for golfing. This role will not require a lot of traveling, I will just do what I need to create some camaraderie in the team: I have spent a few days in Indian Wells, from Tuesday to Saturday, I will be a few days in Miami, then I won’t be around much for the European season and I will travel again to tournaments in the summer. I just need the players to know that they have my support and the support of the USTA if it’s needed.

What do you think about the new formula for the Davis Cup?

I think it’s too early to tell right now, we will find out how it goes. On paper the formula sounds awesome, the time was right for a change, although I’m not sure if it was necessary to make it as drastic as this. I know there are some people that feel very strongly against this new formula, but this means that people are passionate about Davis Cup, they really care about it.
The date in the calendar for the Finals is quite tough though. But at the end of the day, if it’s Davis Cup the majority of players will find a way to participate and I’m convinced we will get an excellent field.
As far as the US Team is concerned, I don’t foresee any availability issue from our players, especially the younger ones: they are very excited about playing for the USA, the National Team is in a lot of conversations among our players. I can’s speak for other countries, I know some of them have pledged not to play with the new format, but what we need to remember is that we are all responsible for Davis Cup: if Davis Cup fails, we all fail, we are all together on the same boat. For example, the Australian players are all very passionate about Davis Cup, they love it, and that is fantastic. But if they don’t support it, it’s not going to work.

With the new formula, a team getting to the final will need to play six ties in seven days: how important do you think it will be to have a ‘long bench’?

I think it will be important to bring players who play only singles and other players who play only doubles. I believe that teams that only have one or two players, as it could be for Russia, and relying on them to play both singles and doubles could get into a bit of a situation should they get to the business end of the competition, because their players may get there quite tired. We are lucky in that sense because we can have someone like Jack Sock who could play doubles leaving the singles guys free to worry about the singles.

Tennis politics have recently made the headlines with Chris Kermode not being renewed as the ATP CEO. What is your take on this?

I have spoken to some of the guys who are in the Players’ Council and once again I need to stress that they do what they do because they act with passion. They are passionate about tennis, they act out of love for the game even if their ranking is not high. I know Kermode personally from when he was the Tournament Directors at the Queen’s Tournament and everything was perfect for me; I don’t have direct experience with him at the helm of the ATP, I had already retired when he took the reins of the organization.

A few weeks ago the ITF decided the composition of the Round Robin phase of the Davis Cup Final and the US team will be in the same group as Italy and Canada. Can you tell us about these teams?

Well, Canada has the right mix of experience and youth: Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger Aliassime are going to be there for a long time, and Milos [Raonic] will be able to give them all the support they need. Similarly, Italy has an established core of players such as Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi that will be supplemented by Marco Cecchinato, whom I know him anyway because he is was my opponent in my last match ever at the US Open.
I am very confident about our chances in this group: we have three top 60 players who are still 21 years old or younger, who are Tiafoe, Fritz and Opelka. Tiafoe has just reached the Quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and that’s not a result that you can improvise, you need to beat good players to get there. They will be the core of our team for the years to come, and they will be helped by more established veterans like John [Isner] or Sam [Querrey].

 

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