Davis Cup has been stripped of its soul with new format, but slam-bang version has potential to re-energise event

The Davis Cup has been stripped of its soul, there’s no denying that. But I’m not sure whether that soul was worth saving in the first place.

Musab Abid November 26, 2018 09:41:52 IST
Davis Cup has been stripped of its soul with new format, but slam-bang version has potential to re-energise event

Tennis as a sport is defined by a lot of things — geometry, physics, precision, creativity, control, discipline, endurance, muscle strength. It’s a confluence of a wide variety of factors which serve to act as the perfect expression of human skill.

But you don’t often associate tennis with that most human of qualities — emotion. There’s very little emotion displayed by players on the court, and even lesser by their family and coach sitting in the stands. Thrown on to the battlefield without any kind of outside help, the players are rewarded for keeping their emotions bottled up rather than laid bare before the world.

Davis Cup has been stripped of its soul with new format but slambang version has potential to reenergise event

Croatia players celebrate after clinching the Davis Cup on Sunday. AFP

Unless, of course, it’s the Davis Cup. The 118-year-old tournament has seen a lot of show-time performances and momentous wins over the course of its storied history. But the most unforgettable moments have been the ones where the players have displayed the joy of victory or the pain of defeat in graphic detail.

Why is the Davis Cup more emotion-driven than the regular tennis tournaments? The crowd certainly plays a big role. Unlike the Grand Slams and other big tournaments, the spectators at a Davis Cup match are not expected to appreciate the sport for what it is; instead, they are allowed to unleash all of their inherent biases, and cheer for their national players with a fervour that borders on the vicious.

The fact that the tournament is a team effort, and not an individual one, is equally significant. When you are out there all alone in an ATP tournament, you don’t find see the need or the point of voicing your inner sentiments on the court. But in a team environment, you know your screams — of elation or anguish — will always be reciprocated by someone else.

That feeling of solidarity and support keeps building up until you reach a point where it doesn’t even make sense to act like a professional anymore. With the crowd baying for blood, teammates shouting out cries of encouragement, and adrenaline coursing through your veins, the match is not a match anymore, but a raucous, animalistic battle for survival. And when you win, you feel like the king — of not just the world, but also the wild, unshackled jungle.

That feeling was reserved for Marin Cilic this weekend, which marked the last-ever final of the tournament in its current format. Cilic has been known to choke under pressure — he even lost an eminently winnable match against Sam Querrey in the semi-final this year — but Sunday was destined to be his day.

As he pummeled Lucas Pouille into submission in the fourth rubber of the tie, while being surrounded by the loud exhortations of his teammates that tried — and failed — to drown out the cascade of jeers from the French crowd in Lille, he seemed like the only human in the world who truly mattered. Everything and everyone else was secondary; Cilic was the one true hero, the man who would not be denied.

Of course, we knew at the back of our minds that Borna Coric was as much a hero for Croatia this year as Cilic. Both Coric and Cilic went 5-1 in their 2018 singles rubbers, but in the nail-biting semi-final it was Coric who had done the bulk of the heavy lifting. The 22-year-old had kept the team afloat in Zadar despite the stumbles of his teammate, producing a dramatic five-set, fifth rubber win over Frances Tiafoe.

That phenomenon — players turning into heroes by winning gladiatorial battles — is probably the thing that will be missed most when the tournament moves to the radically new format next year.

As you are probably aware, the changes proposed by Gerard Pique’s Kosmos Group will make the century-old event so unrecognisable from its origins that it would practically seem like a new tournament. With best-of-five being eliminated and the year-long schedule abbreviated to a week, the epic nature of Davis Cup contests will be gone. In its place will be a quick, slam-bang affair that personifies our generation’s need to confine everything to small spaces and short spans.

The old format enabled journeymen to spring out of nowhere and grab the spotlight in a way that ATP tournaments never did. Davis Cup veterans like Radek Stepanek, Mardy Fish, James Ward, Leonardo Mayer and many others have achieved cult status in their respective countries, with barn-burning performances that nobody thought they were capable of.

Who can ever forget Stepanek’s rousing win over Nicolas Almagro in the 2012 final’s fifth rubber that earned Czech Republic its first title in over 30 years? Or Ward’s stunning take-down of John Isner in 2015 that paved the way for Britain to reclaim the trophy it once owned?

The new format won’t have much room for such heroics. The most relevant portion of the tournament — the final — will be played over a single week in November, among 18 teams, with each contest getting over in a day. When was the last time you witnessed a classic duel that was only one of five matches played in the day?

In the old format, each tie had the feel of a Grand Slam final, because there were never more than two matches held on the same day. In the new format, each tie will resemble the first round of a Grand Slam, where there are countless matches going on at the same time. The degradation in the size of the stage is tough to ignore.

We will also miss, at least during the November portion of the tournament, the football-like stadium atmosphere that used to characterise the tournament. The final will be played at a neutral venue, which means there will be no home crowd to show their vociferous, borderline-jingoistic support for their team. In other words, the Davis Cup crowd will now be much more like that at a normal Grand Slam or ATP tournament — polite, refined and a tad boring.

But like every good evolutionary process, this change — to be implemented from 2019 — has its pros too. Several of them.

For one thing, the workload demanded of the players will be much less than what it used to be. We like to eulogise how passionate the players are about attaining Davis Cup glory, but the fact remains that the schedule had proven to be too taxing for many of them.

Until this year, the four World Group rounds were held at four distinct points in the calendar — after the Australian Open, after the Miami Open, after US Open and after the ATP Finals. It’s not hard to see that the timing of the ties was especially inconvenient for players who reached the later rounds at the biggest of tournaments. Is anybody surprised that the Big 4, who regularly feature in grueling Slam semi-finals and finals, have all taken extended breaks from Davis Cup in the recent past?

The scattered structure of the old format also meant that it was exceptionally difficult for casual fans to follow the tournament. You have the first round in February, but you don’t hear a peep about the event for the next two months. The high-octane semi-finals are held in September, but then you have to twiddle your thumbs and wait until the end of November for the final.

Even hardcore tennis fans found it tough to maintain their enthusiasm for such a start-stop event; for casual fans, it was a nightmare. And anything about a sport that doesn’t appeal to a casual fan, is an invitation for the death of the sport.

There has been plenty of criticism for the way Pique & Co have casually abandoned the rich and long-lasting traditions of the Davis Cup. But to my mind, traditions are important only to the extent that they enhance the future viability of an event.

Wimbledon organisers receive widespread admiration for the way they have upheld their core values, and rightly so, because Wimbledon is what it is because of its traditions. Its standing as the most unique of all the Slams, and also its ever-increasing sponsorship revenue and profitability, are tied to its heritage. Without the constant reminders of its history and traditions, Wimbledon would never have become the larger-than-life phenomenon that it is today.

That’s not quite the case with the Davis Cup. The organisers were clinging to the traditions just for the sake of doing so; those age-old practices did nothing to advance the tournament’s future lifespan, nor did they do anything to bring new fans into the fold. The structure, format and schedule of the Davis Cup were preserved year after year just because that’s how things had always been. The tournament was like an unyielding dinosaur that refused to go extinct — existing in a void of its own, impervious to everything around it.

Sure, the epic battles and the carnival-like atmosphere will be missed. But it’s worth noting that the home-or-away system will be retained for the playoffs to be held in February, where 24 countries will fight for a place in the November final. It won’t be the same as before, but it will give us at least a small taste of what a rowdy tennis crowd can look like.

More importantly though, the new format is aimed at one thing more than any other: increasing broadcaster and sponsor interest. If that can be achieved along with attracting more top players and making the tournament easy to follow, then the change should be considered a grand success.

It goes without saying that the new format is not foolproof. For all we know, the mission to bring in more revenue may fall flat on its face, and the fans may become more indifferent to the tournament than ever before. But at least then the organisers can say that they tried something different; that they didn’t stubbornly hold on to the past even though there was a crying need for change.

The Davis Cup has been stripped of its soul, there’s no denying that. But I’m not sure whether that soul was worth saving in the first place.

And hey, if we want our fill of emotion from the sport, we can always implement on-court coaching across the board, or introduce some other change that makes the players more expressive. It’s always better to ring in innovations than to cling to ancient, impractical relics.

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