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Tebbutt: The new Davis Cup

Sep 18, 2018
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

The United States played a Davis Cup tie in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1980 and John McEnroe and a hitting partner named Scott Davis were on the team. All the publicity material surrounding the event focused on ‘Copa Davis’ – and it’s not surprising that his teammates soon found a nickname for Davis… “Copa.”

Copa Davis – just that extra syllable makes it sounds a bit more fun than Davis Cup – has changed a lot since 1980. That included the introduction of the 16-nation World Group in 1981. Now, beginning in 2019, the World Group is passé and 24 countries will play what’s called a ‘qualifying round’ in February to earn a spot in the year-end Davis Cup final in November. The field will be made up of this year’s four semi-finalists – Croatia, France, Spain and the United States, the 12 qualifying round winners and two wild cards.

Those wild cards are to be announced before next week’s draw for the qualifying round pairings.

As a result of its 3-1 victory over the Netherlands on the weekend, Canada will be among the 12 seeded countries at No. 11. The No. 22-ranked Netherlands is unseeded but is part of the qualifying round. By a quirk it would host Canada if they were drawn – a one in 12 chance – to play each other.

There were also quirks in Monday’s new Davis Cup rankings. Despite defeating the Netherlands, Canada dropped three spots from No. 14 to No. 17 while Sweden rose from No. 21 to No. 15 by beating Switzerland. The Swedes have not been in the World Group the past two years while Canada retained its World Group position (or 2019 qualifying round spot) for an eighth consecutive time by beating the Netherlands. Sweden defeated Ukraine and Portugal in Group 1 Europe/Africa zonal play earlier in the year before overcoming Switzerland 3-2 on the weekend.

That World Group Playoff in Biel, Switzerland, was somewhat farcical because the top players of both teams decided not to play – brothers Elias and Mikael Ymer for Sweden and Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka for the Swiss.

With these two nations, both past champions, not having their best players, the tie came down to a fifth and deciding match between No. 1211 Sandro Ehrat, 27, for the Swiss and No. 1094 Jonathan Mridha, 23, for the Swedes. Both Ehrat and Mridha rank No. 11 in their own countries but were involved in the deciding match won 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(4) by Mridha.

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

The absences of players like Federer and Wawrinka is really what has driven the change in the Davis Cup format. The competition has lost credibility – and marketability – with the top stars in the game regularly choosing not to play.

Last week during Davis Cup in Toronto, Milos Raonic gave his thoughts on the changes. He suggested that two fewer weeks on the yearly calendar for teams qualifying for the finals would be appreciated by the players. But he also said there’s still the problem of possibly having long travel and a surface change for the qualifying round the week after the Australian Open. He also wondered about players finishing their year – everyone except the top-10 involved in the ATP Finals in London in mid November – after the Paris indoor event in early November. He speculated that the latter group – at least 40 players – would then have to crank it up again for the Davis Cup final when they might already have been in their off-season training phase preparing for the new year leading up to the Aussie Open.

After all that, he surmised about the new Davis Cup set-up, “there’s no perfect solution. Is it better? I don’t know. Was a change needed? Yes.”

He then added, what many people are thinking – “only time can really tell.”

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

Next year’s Davis Cup ties will be best-of-five matches played over two days with four singles and a doubles in a best-of-three sets format.

And there are those two ‘wild card’ countries to be announced sometime before the draw on September 26th at 3 p.m. (10 a.m. ET in Canada) at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) headquarters in London – and to be streamed live on the Davis Cup website and the Davis Cup Facebook page.

Could that country known for chocolate, cheese and fine timepieces be in the running for one? Though ranked No. 12, Switzerland is not seeded for the qualifying round because of its loss to Sweden two days ago. And would Federer and/or Wawrinka play? In particular, the then 38-year-old Federer, if he qualified for the 2019 ATP Finals, might not be gung ho about playing another high-stakes event the following week at the very end of the season.

And might Canada be eligible for one of the two wild cards with Raonic a proven quantity on the tour, and Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime widely viewed as the most dynamic duo of emerging young stars in any country?

Here are the conditions to be eligible for a wild card as stipulated in an ITF release on Monday – “to be eligible to receive a wild card, nations must be ranked in the Top 50 on the Davis Cup Nations’ Ranking of Monday 17 September OR have at least one player ranked inside the Top 10 of the ATP World Rankings.”

These are the obvious candidates (surnames only and rankings) for those two wild card spots: Switzerland – Federer (2) & Wawrinka (88), Serbia – Djokovic (3) & Krajinovic (35), Argentina – del Potro (4) & Schwartzman (14), Great Britain – Edmund (16) and Murray (308), Germany – A. Zverev (5) & Kohlschreiber (36) and Russia – Khachanov (24) and Medvedev (33).

With Raonic at No. 20, 19-year-old Shapovalov at No. 34 and 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime at No. 144, it would appear projected form for a year from now would be Canada’s best hope for a wild card.

The whole idea of awarding wild cards for an event that’s still 14 months away – and with players that have not even committed to participate – is problematic.

And crucially, at some point soon the ITF is going to have to find a better date than at season’s end immediately after the ATP Finals.

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

Summing up in the vein of ‘I couldn’t have put it any better myself,’ here’s what fine American tennis writer Steve Tignor wrote about the future of Davis Cup after the United States lost a dramatic 3-2 tie to Croatia on the weekend, featuring a topsy-turvy five setter in the deciding match between Borna Coric and Frances Tiafoe:

“The the thing that matters most for the future of the Cup is that the players feel the same way about the new format as they feel about the old format.

“Will they consider Davis Cup as important and career-defining as they do now? Will they feel the same emotional connection to a one-week event that they do to a four-weekend event? Will they prioritize it? It’s possible—the Olympics are a single week held every four years, and the players have embraced that.

“If the passion from the players for the new Cup is there, the fans eventually will be, too.”

An additional question remains, as it might soon for the four Grand Slam tournaments – how will getting rid of best-of-five sets, and never again having the epics that have come to define Davis Cup at its most compelling, affect the event?

Maybe having 18 nations at one site, with the world spotlight on them, will compensate and create a spectacle that will take on a life and an excitement all of its own.

TORONTO POST CARD

Toronto is the only major city in Canada with an extensive network of streetcars. In recent years larger, longer vehicles have been introduced. This one runs along St. Clair Avenue.

GRACIAS MAURICIO

We have to give a huge thank you to tennis photo/videographer Mauricio Paiz who has provided great pictures for this blog and who was also a creative force behind the vlogs we did at Wimbledon, the US Open and last week at the Davis Cup in Toronto.

Here are all nine of last week’s Davis Cup vlogs with links:

Shapovalov nicknames: 

Raonic Grand Slam trivia:

Auger-Aliassime ‘English’ (francais):

Nestor/Pospisil doubles signals:

Toronto Film Festival & tennis: 

Canadian Davis Cup Cheer Squad:

Mary Pierce (english):

Mary Pierce (français):

Referee Remy Azémar (français):

(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)