Davis Cup Finals 2019: Competitive and dramatic on the court; chaotic, shambolic organisational nightmare off it

  • 119-year-old tennis' team format, Davis Cup, employed a revamped format for the 2019 edition with matches played in Madrid

  • Davis Cup moved from a home-and-away format to 18 teams playing in a single city for a week

  • Spain emerged champions in the first season of the overhaul by beating Canada 2-0

After a week's action inside Caja Magica in Madrid, Spain were crowned champions for a sixth time. They beat Canada who had progressed to the final of the Davis Cup for the first time. Rafael Nadal and Roberto Bautista Agut got the job done by winning the two singles matches, in straight sets, making the doubles, which was scheduled third, completely irrelevant.

“A lot of things we’ve been through – Roberto's father passed away; Marcel (Granollers) yesterday had a stiff lower back and couldn’t move; Pablo (Carreno Busta) got injured in singles," said Nadal following the win. "I could not be happier. An unforgettable moment here in this amazing stadium. The crowd was just a joke – we can’t thank enough all of them. And our team spirit prevails,” he went on to add.

 Davis Cup Finals 2019: Competitive and dramatic on the court; chaotic, shambolic organisational nightmare off it

Only two matches, both featuring Spain, were sold out during the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid. Getty Images

The "joke" terminology that Nadal alludes to is more of a Spanish thing which can be translated as 'unbelievable'. For Spain, the home team, it was a week of packed stadiums - right from the second day of the new format. For others, however, it was less than impressive.

The objective behind the overhaul of the Davis Cup, a 120-year-old tournament, was to make it more appealing to the masses — to attend and on TV. Neither of the two aspects translated as hoped for the Kosmos Group.

With temperatures dropping to near freezing levels in the Spanish capital, the turnout was miserable for the group stages particularly in the morning sessions. Only 12,114 were in attendance (72% capacity) for Croatia vs Russia, Italy vs Canada and Belgium vs Colombia on the opening day. The organisers expected things to get significantly better on the second day which featured Spain against Russia. 20,200 walked through the doors on the second day - almost 12,000 for the Spain tie - which meant a dreadful 8,000 for the remaining five ties spread across morning and evening sessions.

Prior to the semi-final against Spain, Great Britain team noticed the severe imbalance in support and offered free tickets. Andy Murray put out a message on social media for fans to get in touch if they wanted a ticket for the match. Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) agreed to honour the pledge and as per BBC, 900 tickets were snapped up thereafter. The tickets for the semi-finals were on sale for a steep 75 euros (~ Rs. 6000).

Through the course of the week, an estimated 1,90,000 attended the 25 ties in the 'World Cup of Tennis' over the seven days - helped significantly by Spain's run to the title — an average of 27,142 per day. This is poorer in comparison to 2,42,883 for eight days of action during the ATP Finals in London and mostly at par with the average of 25,000 for the 2017 Davis Cup final (France vs Belgium in Lille). The reason for the poor turnout could be lack of interest in other teams, could be far too many matches in a week or it could be the steep 45 euro (~ Rs. 3,500) tickets for non-Spain ties.

Things weren't great on TV either. Davis Cup had been broadcast on TV in India on Neo Sports in the past but this time there was no feature. USA, where it did find place on the television set in an important market, broadcast was on Fox Sports 2 — away from the traditional ESPN or Tennis Channel — and it was only for the ties which featured the American team. Fans wishing to watch the matches online were geo-blocked by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). If you were among the lucky ones to not be geo blocked, one would have to fork out a steep 5 euros (~Rs. 400) for a single tie or 40 euros (~ Rs. 3100) for a yearly subscription. Neither of the two options were enticing enough to be availed.

One complaint with the old format was that it wasn't TV-friendly with rubbers played over best of five sets and it could take a while to find the eventual winner. The new format culled the ties to just three rubbers and each for best of three sets. But as it turns out, and the organisers found out, three matches of best of three sets can take quite a while too. It doesn't help that the matches are taking place on three courts and are stacked one after the other. If one gets delayed, so does the next and the one after in a domino effect. This is exactly what happened on Day 3. Netherlands vs Great Britain lasted almost nine hours and resulted in a two-hour delay to start time of the evening match. The domino effect saw USA vs Italy finish at a ludicrous 4 AM. An evening prior, Spain vs Russia had finished at 2 AM. Not surprisingly, players and coaches weren't amused. “The scheduling is a big problem,” said Australia's Lleyton Hewitt after they lost to Canada. “You know, for us to have had to play these three nights in a row, it’s not ideal. Yeah, I understand it’s the first time and you’re going to have hiccups and you’ve got to learn from it. But there’s been a lot of small problems, that’s for sure.”

One Cup too many!

Spain's Rafael Nadal reacts after defeating Canada's Denis Shapovalov in their tennis singles match to win the Davis Cup final in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Rafael Nadal clinched the singles rubber to win the Davis Cup Finals in front of home fans. AP

Many of the top players resisted the idea of playing Davis Cup consistently due to it being held on four separate weekends which could lead to hopping onto long haul flights to play on different surfaces. Davis Cup Finals aimed at removing that handicap with one city, on hardcourts, played in a single week. With the tournament in Spain, Nadal joined in and Gerard Pique worked hard at getting Novak Djokovic on board with the Serbian team. It did help that Janko Tipsarevic, a long-time friend, was retiring at the end of the tournament and it was an emotional affair for a close-knit group. Key names that did stay out were: Roger Federer's Switzerland did not qualify, Alexander Zverev opted not to play in the new format (the duo played a series of exhibition matches in South America), Daniil Medvedev pulled out with injury, Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas' Austria and Greece respectively did not make the final 18 nations.

For Davis Cup to somehow draw big names continuously, the timing for the tournament has to move from November to September — right after the US Open. Presently, late November finish to the season eats into the time off for the players who would have to get going once again by end of December. The issue here being the plethora of team events for the men. Laver Cup (the brainchild of Federer) takes place in September which leaves no room for the Davis Cup. ATP Cup, the men's tennis body's team event, replaces the Hopman Cup and plays its first edition from 3 January, 2020. That means three team events in four months, including the off-season, for the top players to grapple with. Many have suggested clubbing the ATP Cup and Davis Cup Finals and Pique, on the face of it, remains open to ideas. "There will be some changes, so we hope we can sit down again," Pique said. "I think that in the future we are really open to trying to get a new deal, to make a unique competition, a super event of two weeks and try to find the best time in the calendar."

Tsonga (Japan) vs Tsonga (France) - what now?

Australian Open and IBM split in 2018 and it resulted in a nightmare experience for fans. Scores were all over the places, player names were messed up and users were inundated with error messages. Davis Cup Finals, trying to latch on to reduced attention spans, didn't help itself with one faux pas too many. Scores were incorrectly attributed and one of the most prominent errors was that of incorrect names going for respective nations. During the France vs Japan tie, Jo Wilfried Tsonga took on Yasutaka Uchiyama and Gael Monfils faced Yoshihito Nishioka. The app, however, said Tsonga vs Tsonga and Monfils vs Monfils which made things incredibly confusing. One would think the errors would be ironed out following the group stages but they continued to the knockouts. Argentina were given as the quarter-finals winner over Spain by a 2-1 margin when in fact it was the other way around.

Away from the scores on the app, the scoring and tiebreakers for the round-robin had everyone confused. As with round-robin format, the math can be complicated. USA played Italy till the wee hours only to realise late into the doubles match that they didn't have a chance of qualifying to the knockouts. The Davis Cup Finals website didn't shed light on the format either which didn't make things easier for the new tournament.

What's worse than tanking?

Colombian singer Shakira and her husband Barcelona soccer player Gerard Pique wave from the stands while watching the Davis Cup final in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique is the brains behind the revamped Davis Cup format. AP

Another aspect which needs figuring is the fate of the deciding doubles. In the previous format, doubles carried 20 percent weightage but now it is 33 percent. In both formats, though, it could seal the fate of a team — keep the tie alive in the previous version and clinch it in its current avatar. Yet, in this version, it remains vital to the grand scheme of things with the two best placed runner-ups progressing to the knockouts.

Canada gave the USA a walkover in the doubles and was counted as a 6-0, 6-0 unlike the rest of the year where it is not counted towards head-to-head. The next day, Australia played one game in the doubles, versus Belgium, before 'retiring'.

"I personally don't like that. I mean, that shouldn't be allowed to be honest. I just feel it's not fair that the opposing team gets 6-Love, 6-Love because they are going actually head-to-head now against Italy. And then the winner is going to be second, but then that 6-Love, 6-Love might make a big difference in the calculations for the second-best teams in the group," said Djokovic.

The tournament may have worked on the court with plenty of emotions on display and great quality matches, but away from it, there are quite a few concerns for the Kosmos Group and ITF to figure.

P.S. Special mention to Roberto Bautista Agut. He lost his father over the week — just 18 months after grieving the demise of his mother — left camp on Thursday, returned for the final on Sunday and won the first fixture against Felix Auger-Aliassime to put Spain 1-0 ahead. Maybe the title win is just the kind of boost he needed with his wedding a week away.

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Updated Date: Nov 26, 2019 14:01:48 IST