Back in the spring, the International Tennis Federation announced its intention of strengthening the link between a player's Davis Cup and Fed Cup participation to Olympic qualification. Prior to the 2012 London Olympics, players had to play two ties in the two years prior to the Olympics to maintain their Olympic eligibility. But in May, the ITF announced it would double those requirements for the 2016 Rio Olympics, requiring players to play four ties over four years to be eligible. The ITF made the decision without consulting the players, leading to Maria Sharapova having a one-on-one sit-down in Miami with the higher-ups at the ITF to discuss her displeasure.
"I’m disappointed," Sharapova told the press in Stuttgart. "I met with them one on one in Miami. They didn't listen to us at all."
Of course, moaning about the rule change in advance of the London Olympics would have been an unnecessary negative distraction, but now that the dust has settled, WTA Chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster has remained firm about the WTA's opposition to the ITF's new rules. In this interview with Steve Flink for Tennis Channel (well worth a read), Allaster explained the Tour's rationale for refusing to renew its agreement with the ITF, even after the ITF reduced the obligation to three ties in four years.
"The ITF decision on commitment to Fed Cup for the 2016 Olympic Games is a clear indication that they are not moving anywhere near the idea that Fed Cup and Olympic Games eligibility should be delinked.”
Allaster elaborates, “They think that it is fair and they believe playing the Olympic Games is a reward for representing your country. That is where we have a philosophical difference. We believe our athletes are playing for their country every day. I know when Maria Sharapova was in the trophy presentation after winning the French Open at Roland Garros, the Russian flag was raised. Draw sheets always have the athlete’s country beside their name. Compared to other professional sports, athletes at the caliber of ours in tennis do not have the same eligibility requirements with their national associations or their international federations. We think that is unfair.”
I've written on the topic of Olympic qualification before and my opinion that Fed Cup and Davis Cup participation shouldn't be linked to Olympic qualification for precisely the same reasons Allaster illustrates. There isn't a day that goes by that tennis players aren't playing with the flag on their sleeve. Fed Cup and Davis Cup are historically prestigious events in and of themselves, and the Olympics shouldn't be used as blackmail material to coerce player participation simply for the ITF's financial gain.
Naturally, the counter-argument is that we're talking about one week a year. On paper that's not a particularly burdensome requirement for a chance at an Olympic medal down the road. But if you refuse to take into account the fatigue of possibly having to fly halfway around the world to, say, Moscow or Sydney, to contest a tie, then you fail to understand the realities of life as a professional tennis player. Those trips can be onerous and exhausting. And with exhaustion comes an increased risk of injury. I can't fault players for being concerned.
Whether the WTA's decision goes on to undermine Fed Cup is to be seen. The decision not to renew its agreement with the ITF is not a toothless one, as it opens up the possibility of the tour staging its own tournaments during Fed Cup weeks, which have been off limits in the past, while still giving the players the option to play Fed Cup if they choose. As Allaster tells Flink, the WTA is considering holding its own international team event during these Fed Cup weeks. If the players buy into the idea of staging tour-level tournaments during Fed Cup weeks, the ITF is going to have an even tougher time delivering a relevant competition, with player pools being depleted beyond simple injury and fatigue.
“We ultimately want a successful Olympic Games and we want Fed Cup to be successful. We wish that we weren’t in the place we are today but it is clear that the ITF has made their decision to increase commitment and as a result of that we haven’t renewed our agreement. We are just going to cohabitate. They are going to do what they need to do and we are going to look at what options we might provide for our athletes."
This is a story worth keeping an eye on. With continuing calls to revamp the structure of both Davis and Fed Cup, the ITF's response was to strong-arm players into participating. It's possible that the ITF isn't all that concerned with the viability of Fed Cup, with Davis Cup being the higher profile, more profitable competition of the two. Its decision may have been geared more towards trying to get the men to participate, with the backlash from the WTA being nothing more than a pesky fly buzzing around its head. But based on Allaster's words about holding rival tournaments -- and they are just words right now -- the tactic might just backfire if the ITF calls the WTA's bluff. Whether the ITF cares is another question altogether.