Mailbag: Despite thrilling final, Davis Cup still needs to change current format

A list of reasons why, despite a remarkable final weekend, the Davis Cup model needs to be altered. Plus, predictions for Novak Djokovic's 2017 season, IPTL news and more.
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Lots of people want to change the format, make it shorter in a neutral site in a format more friendly for the top players to show up and play.

This past weekend Davis Cup final is the epitome of all that is good with this format: the crowds going crazy yet with good sportsmanship (yes, they booed first serve faults and erratic ball tosses from the opposing players, but that was it), the whole stadium rocking, the incredible amounts of emotion in all players, the drama, even the length of the tie (nobody seemed upset about the long five-set matches . . .) and what about playing in a city/country that doesn’t isn’t a central country, with a Slam or a Masters tournament. All the changes are about making the Davis Cup more like a Slam, obviously in a place that can hold it (back to the same old places: USA, France, England, Australia, maybe Spain, Germany and Italy). After seeing a final last this past weekend, and quoting Steve Tignor: "The rest of us watching from the outside were left to ask, as we are at end of most tennis seasons: Tell me why, again, we would want to change anything about the Davis Cup?”
Octavio Falcucci, Hershey, Pa.

• Fair enough. Let’s pause to recognize that this was an exceptional weekend for Davis Cup that, as Octavio nicely puts it, went through a handy checklist of everything we want in a sporting event.


Okay, that pause over, let’s resume attacking the format. I would caution against being seduced by one dazzling weekend and consider the broader problems and logistical challenges and the diminished prestige Davis Cup has endured while the ITF has fiddled. Whether or not the Laver Cup will be a glorified exhibition or a realistic challenge to Davis Cup remains to be seen. But the early support/fear speaks to a recognition that the current model ain’t working. Some thoughts:

a) Perish the idea of the neutral court. Fans are parochial. Croatia versus Argentina falls flat if it’s being held anywhere other than Croatia or Argentina.

b) Less is more. Holding the competition every other year (a la the Ryder) will add anticipation, induce top players and perhaps even make up for the lost revenue.

c) No, really, less is more. There’s value in scarcity. The notion that Davis Cup 2017 is slotted for February is ludicrous and only adds to the confusion and distillation.

d) Rethink country designations. The world is flat. The best male player under 20 is a Russian/German based in Monte Carlo. The best female player under 20 is a Japanese-Haitian based in Bradenton, Fla. Again “borrowing” from Ryder Cup, pit regions against each other. Europe/North America/South America/Australia/Asia might work better than individual countries.

e) Include women. A dirty tennis secret: the Fed Cup is a financial drain that exists mostly because euthanasia would be terrible PR. Combining men and women—playing on one of tennis’ great virtues—makes sense.

This is the first round of agenda items. As we get deeper we can make more granular suggestions.

Argentina beats Croatia to win first Davis Cup title

Since you did not mention this explicitly in your closing thoughts on the ATP Finals, I will go ahead and say it: the pursuit of all-time greatness is over for Djokovic. I am not saying that just based on the vacuous loss to Murray or any eagerness to jump off the Djokovic train early or because I dislike him (I am a big fan actually). It’s just a sad fact of tennis that the decline from greatness comes quickly—Federer won multiple slams in 2009-10 and only one in the next six years. Nadal won multiple slams in 2013-14 and hasn't made it past a quarter final since. I believe Djokovic is now at the same point. He will still win a title here and there and perhaps another Slam too, but his GOAT credentials are not going to change fundamentally from now on. Specifically, I have a tough time seeing him go beyond 13 Slams and 72 titles overall. Your thoughts?
AM, San Diego

• I didn’t mention this explicitly for a good reason. I don’t believe it to be so. Six months ago, Djokovic was Facebook to everyone’s else MySpace, Google to their Bing, Pearl Jam to their Limp Bizkit, Hamilton to their Jersey Boys. I'll stop now. But he was really tuning the competition. A few months of a drop-off shouldn’t disqualify him. Two more majors and he ties Nadal. And—at the time of elongated careers—he’s not yet 30.

I will grant you this: Djokovic’s career is less an arc than a series of lightning bolts. And you could make a case that this cuts against his GOAT credentials. He breaks through in 2008 winning the Australian Open. He then goes 11 Slams without lifting another trophy. He slays in 2011, compiling an all-time great year. Then he retreats winning “only” one Slam in each of the next three years, dropping 5 of 6 major finals at one point as well as failing to medal in the London Games. He slays in 2015, coming within a few sets of pulling off THE Grand Slam. Then 2016 was a tale of two splitties, as it were. Almost untouchable Jan.-June. Then strangely vacant from July.

Right now Djokovic represents one of the more intriguing (most intriguing) storylines heading into 2017. You could see him recovering, regaining his equilibrium, repairing his spirit and turning in another three-Slam season. Like our skeptical reader, you could also see him regressing. As they used to say: stay tuned.

Mailbag: Closing thoughts on ATP Finals, plus research on retirements at Grand Slams

What surprises you more: Novak Djokovic getting knocked off the top perch in the ATP rankings or Serena losing the No. 1 ranking in the WTA this year? Granted, I’m shocked that Angelique Kerber was the player to dethrone Serena, but given Serena’s age and history of injuries, I’m more surprised to see Novak bounced off the top spot. He came into 2016 looking like he had a very viable shot at a calendar year Grand Slam, only to drop a spot in the rankings during the waning weeks of the tennis calendar.
Teddy C in NYC

• This is a variation of our conversation last week. Serena losing the top spot is a surprise. But she’s—and maybe you’ve heard this figure—35 years old now and, more important, plays so selectively that she leaves little margin for error. Play seven tournaments all year and you’re flirting with a palace coup.

Six months ago, Djokovic was dominating tennis the way chartreuse dominates the color scheme of the balls he was striking with such precision. If someone had said to you in mid-June, “By Thanksgiving, Djoker will win no more Slams, lose in the first round in Rio and give up the top ranking,” she would have stayed overnight for observation. More surprising still: it’s as though he’s fallen like Theranos. Djokovic reached the finals of the U.S. Open, the last match in London and won in Canada. But he’s lost edge; Murray has gained edge and, against all odds, we have a new No. 1 heading into 2017.

Roberta Vinci will play at least one more year

If you look at recent years, the top players in the teams who make the Davis Cup final have shown to have much better results the next season. Murray obviously performed better in 2016, but even Goffin has reached a career high ranking this year after losing the Davis Cup final to GB. Especially since Cilic and del Potro have performed well this year, should we expect both to contend for majors next year?
Vivek, Houston

• Boy, I feel for Cilic right now, Between his five-set loss at Wimbledon, a rough loss to Monfils in Rio, a five-set loss to Jack Sock in Davis Cup and then the crushing loss in the Davis Cup final to DelPo, that’s a lot of doubt creeping into your psyche and occupying your thoughts come the next close match.

Interesting theory. My corollary: for as flawed as Davis Cup format might be, you sure can’t argue with the results. Who are the best, say, half dozen players over the last decade? Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka and del Potro. Note that each has experienced Davis Cup glory.

ATP announces 'Next Gen' finals for 21-and-under players

Hi Jon. Look forward to reading your Mailbag each and every week!Milos is clearly doing something right if he finished the year at No. 3. It can't just be a fluke to have that high a ranking. I too used to think he was just a Big Server, but he really has improved his groundstrokes and strategic thinking. At the ATP Finals a few days ago, he lost to Novak in twp tie-breaks, and he held his own from the baseline against Andy in a great four-hour battle. No shame in that.
Nancy Ng (Montreal has the worst roads, Canada)

• I see both sides of this. Neither Raonic’s game nor his persona comes with a lot of special effects. And it is a bit odd to see a player with the No. 3 ranking have only one title to his name over the last 12 months. (Sharko tells us that the last No. 3 to record this distinction was Marat Safin.)

But, as we said last week, we come to praise, not bury Raonic. He’s a real craftsman who treats his game the way a software engineer would a piece of programming. 

Here's a special mystery guest (he didn’t want his name used) weighing in: “Totally agree on Raonic overachieving. When he came on tour his groundstrokes would routinely hit the bottom of the net or end up five feet long or wide. On Saturday he was taking it to Murray from the baseline. Not hanging in there or surviving but dictating play for long stretches. I don't think anybody saw that kind of potential.” 

Murray ends season as No. 1, beats Djokovic at ATP Finals

Not hearing a lot about the IPTL this year. Have players actually decided against playing in the IPTL this year, so they are refreshed for 2017? 
S.K., New Jersey

• Well….I think you hit “send” too soon. Roger Federer and Serena Williams are both, reportedly, down to play in the 2017 season. The bad news: the IPTL—like virtually every start-up league—has some financial hiccups and had to contract to four teams for this season. The good news: it chugs on, spreading the gospel to new markets, capitalizing on go-go Asia and putting some coin in the pockets of players.

Just wondering, because I've read a couple different answers, nothing I'll take as definitive... Do weeks as No. 1 accumulate during the "off season"? For example, when the 2017 season starts in January, will Murray have eight or so weeks at No. 1 under his belt as opposed to two? If so, perhaps that's simply one of the many benefits of finishing the year at the top...

L.T., Toronto

• They do, yes. You get credit for the dead weeks.

Djokovic suggests round-robin format for Olympics, Davis Cup

Playing Stef Kozlov in Columbus Challenger final. How is Tennys Sandgren pronounced? It can't be Tennis, right?
James, Oregon

1. Indeed it is. Those are some prescient parents.

2. Note the audio icon under Djokovic’s name. In many cases, if you want a pronunciation, you can go right to the horse’s mouth, as it were.

3. Long as you brought him up, keep an eye on Kozlov. He’s been a bit overshadowed by Fritz and Tiafoe but here he is, 18 years old and—after winning Columbus—up to 116 in the rankings.

Shots, Miscellany

• Thanks to those of you who wrote in about the I-5 Killer story. Just one of those stories that writes itself.

• This is apropos of very little but I was really moved—haunted is too strong a word; but not by much—by this Moth story.(Go in at the 30:00 mark.)                           

David Walsh is the Sunday Times journalist who helped uncover Lance Armstrong’s doping program. And his reporting is matched by his writing. This is a beautiful essay. It is also a window into the darkness of Lance Armstrong’s soul. You undertake your risk/reward calculus and determine that you should dope? Immoral, but not irrational. You call your teammates liars, destroying their careers and reputations? Bad, but, well, self-preservation can make many people behave regrettably. Sue (and risk bankrupting) people less powerful than you, all the while calling them prostitutes and alcoholics? When you know they are speaking the truth and you are the one occupying the moral low road? Now we’re squarely in evil territory.

Mailbag: Who has the best chance of winning a Grand Slam title in 2017?

But trashing your opponent by making unflattering references to their recently deceased 12-year-old son? That’s simply unforgivable. (All the more so, when—again—you know that they are the ones trafficking in truth, and you are not.) Look, Lance Armstrong is a small man, largely irrelevant, thoroughly disgraced, exposed not simply as a fraud but as a fraud with the darkest character. Still, this small glimpse is so telling, so disturbing, so enraging. Display this level of psychopathy and you have forfeited your right to author a redemptive ending.

• Had to get that off my chest.

• On a lighter note: Roger Federer visits the chocolate factory!

• Up top, Madison Keys. Nice job hosting her first Fearlessly Girl summit.

• Aga Radwanska wins Shot-of-the-Year award. Of course she does.

• Will changing tennis’ format lead to more interesting matches? No, says The Economist.

• No wonder careers are running longer. Tennis players die old.

Beyond the Baseline Podcast: USTA chairman, CEO and president Katrina Adams

•  “As a warm Thanksgiving morning gave way to a cloudless afternoon at the beautiful Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, two familiar names were once again added to the coveted Turkey-AM trophy...each for the third time! In a final that featured a rematch of an earlier encounter in the WOOCHEOL KIM Group, wildcard team David Higdon and Gary (JoPa) Jurenovich bested Sammy Evans and first time participant Joshua Rey 5-2. While their round robin match ended deadlocked at 3-3, the final was a different story as former champions Higdon and Jurenovich took advantage of their big match experience to race out to a 4-1 lead and then closed out the match over the group champion Evans and Rey with little difficulty.”

• Press releasing: At the Davis Cup final, the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the ITF honored former Croatian Davis Cup great Ivan Ljubicic with the 2016 Davis Cup Award of Excellence. The ITF and the ITHF annually present the Davis Cup Award of Excellence to an individual from the home team who has made a lasting impact on that nation's Davis Cup history and who represents the ideals and spirit of the Davis Cup competition.

• Still press releasing: Sixteen-year-old Andrew Fenty completed a successful two week trip to Mexico by claiming the doubles crown at the XXX Yucatan Cup Grade 1 ITF with Israeli Yshai Oliel on Saturday, the triumph in Yucatan followed on from Fenty and Oliel securing the title at the Aiberto Juvenil Mexico Grade A ITF in Mexico City on Nov. 20.

•The Shenzhen Open celebrates its fifth anniversary by announcing a 50% increase in prize money and the participation of three of the world’s Top 10 players. The season opening tournament is to be played at the Shenzhen Longgang Sports Centre from Dec. 31, 2016 to Jan. 7, 2017. The Shenzhen Open 2017 will offer a total purse of $750,000, the highest of any WTA International Series tournament, and announces that the event’s two most recent champions, Aga Radwanska and Simona Halep, as well as rising British player Johanna Konta, will be playing in the tournament.  

• Eric Buzkin from Long Island has this week’s LLS: Eric Clapton and Fernando Verdasco.