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Mailbag: On the Past, Present and Future of the Davis Cup

In this offseason mailbag, Jon Wertheim discusses the new Davis Cup and answers questions on Martina Navratilova, Naomi Osaka, Nick Kyrgios and more.

Hey everyone. Time for an offseason Mailbag. But first, as always…


• A Sportsperson of the Year vote for Naomi Osaka.

• Our most recent podcast guest: Jimmy Arias, the new head of player development at the famed IMG Academy.

• Next up: a wide-ranging, free-flowing conversation with the irrepressible Mary Carillo.

• Two player sightings sent in by readers: 1) Serena practicing on Thanksgiving day in Florida, with Richard Williams picking up balls in the backcourt like old times. 2) Nadal playing low-stakes craps in the Bahamas, "having fun, but not really knowing what he was doing; wearing a baseball cap so not recognized by other players or by the dealer."

• We now return to regularly scheduled programming.


Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

We had a bunch of question about Davis Cup, or “the last Davis Cup,” as a few of you wrote melodramatically. Croatia routed France in the final last week. But the real story was the reaction—nostalgic, mournful, angry—to a competition that will look very different in 2019. Yannick Noah, the outgoing French captain, was especially vocal in his dissent.

In 2019, the Davis Cup will, of course, be played in a one-week, 18-team tournament at a neutral site. Best-of-three will replace best-of-five. The other great difference will be financial. This new format will, allegedly, bring far more revenue to players and federations.

I’m of two minds here. The traditionalists seemed to have forgotten just how much prestige and relevance the Davis Cup had lost. Players de-prioritized it. Fans were confused or indifferent. Ratings fell. Change was in order. 

But the current situation reminds me a bit of Brexit. “The current arrangement stinks! Dammit, we are casting a vote for change.” Yet the details were sketchy, the financial projections may have been unduly rosy, and once emotions cooled and the pragmatic realities have set in, there is considerable buyers’ remorse. “How the hell did this pass? What now? Can we revote? Is a soft Davis Cup an option?”

My take: Some of this wistfulness is a bit much. We forget the half-filled stands and the stars’ complaints and the fact that France won the Cup last year without confronting a top-40 opponent over four rounds. But the onus has shifted to the ITF. They did their canvassing and whipping and got their votes for change. Now they need A) to reassure “stakeholders” that the financing is legit B) soothe over wounds with the players and C) Most importantly, put on a winning event in year one.

In a recent letter, someone noted the amount of support Federer gets regardless of where he plays, and I guess one could argue that could hurt or hinder his competitive drive. But what about an all-time great who got very little love in her heyday? I'm talking about Martina Navratilova. When you go back and look at some of those mid-80s matches against Chris Evert, Martina was the de facto villain. Fans weren't booing, but many weren't applauding when she won points or even the matches. Martina definitely got some love later in her career, but in her prime, winning all those big titles in the face of what can only be called hostility? Well, that for me only adds to her greatness.
Jason Rainey, Austin, Texas

• Interesting point. I tend to agree. Though you could do some devil’s advocacy work and argue the reverse. Playing as the fan favorite brings its own set of pressures, especially in an individual sport. There’s a fine line between support and expectation. I don’t know how Chris Evert mediated this, but I suspect that for some players, they wouldn’t mind getting “very little love.” If motivation and conviction and sense of mission are essential for athletes, what’s a more likely source: an atmosphere of comfort? Or an atmosphere of friction?

If you’re Navratilova, you tell yourself, “Use the crowd as motivation. Exact your revenge. Silence the haters—or whatever it is we call them in the 1980s.” If you’re Evert, you tell yourself, “Use the support to your advantage. Let the crowd carry you through the inevitable lulls. Give ‘em what they came for and don’t let them leave disappointed.” Point being: both players—“home” and “away”—need to frame the circumstances to their benefit.

Back to Martina: I sometimes wonder how differently she would be perceived and received today. Our views on sexuality have changed. Our views on the outspoken, activist-athlete have changed. Our views even on something as silly as muscular women have changed. The half-empty explanation: what a pity she didn’t get her full due when she was in full flight as an athlete. The half-full explanation: she was way ahead of her time and it’s great that The Republic of Sports now recognizes as much, according her the admiration and affection that should have come her way when she was No.1 in the world.

Jon, I know you have spoken about how prize money makes for a good barometer for players. How come you don’t make a bigger deal about Novak Djokovic surpassing both Federer and Nadal in prize money?!
Michael O., Connecticut

• I’m not sure if you mean 2018 prize money or career prize money. Though Djokovic is tops for both. For career it’s

Djokovic: $125,772,589

Federer: $120,514,916

Nadal: $103,251,975

I’d be a tad cautious here. For one, we—unlike the WTA and ATP— might want to PV this and account for the fact that more recent titles come with higher paychecks. We could also pick this apart and note currency fluctuations. In a weak year for the Aussie dollar, for instance, the title in Melbourne might be 20% less than it was the previous year.

I do, though, think that overall prize money is an effective way to compare players. But it’s essential that they are contemporaries.  Sascha Zverev won more money for taking the title in London than Rod Laver made in his entire career. Novak Djokovic won more money as runner-up than his coach, Marian Vajda, won in his career. All this speaks to the present value of money, but also to the growth of the sport. Something would be profoundly wrong if Djokovic didn’t make dramatically more than Pete Sampras or if Serena didn’t make more than Billie Jean King.

Jon, here’s a simple question for you. Nick Kyrgios: Buy, sell, hold?
John Thomas, San Francisco

• Hold is always the fallback answer. Kyrgios is the most volatile element in tennis’ periodic table, but he is too talented to dismiss entirely. But at age 23, now down to No. 35 in the rankings, and often injured, I’m not sure it’s wise to buy.

RAPAPORT: The Nick Kyrgios Experience

Hi Jon, 

It seems like the overall general opinion among players and fans is that the season is too long. The players end up getting injured, and fans can't miss a sport that never goes away. So I took five minutes to think up of a shorter schedule that still hits all the continents.

January: Australian Open 

February: Asian swing

March: Mini U.S. & South American swing

April and May: Europe Clay swing

June: French Open & Europe grass

July: Wimbledon & 2 week mid-season break

August and September: North American hard court swing & U.S. Open

October, November & December: Offseason/team competitions

The main difference is moving the Asian swing from October to February and doing away with some of the excess European tournaments in late July and November. Also, the U.S. Open would cap off the year in late September, possibly giving cities like Chicago, San Francisco, or Vancouver the opportunity to host tune-up tournaments in early September. Plus the tournaments that get chopped,could instead become top-notch Challengers, giving up-and-comers much needed money. Thoughts? 
Lukas, San Francisco

• Sounds reasonable to me. Staying in Asia after Australia makes particular sense. The problem: if we’re starting from scratch, this is swell. If there’s an existing calendar with events that have built equity and invested in infrastructure and paid a sanction fee, you are begging for litigation—anti-trust and otherwise—when you suddenly strip them of their event. 


Something to mull over while we are in that in-between period.

We know you want to hold off on GOAT talk until their careers are over, but please consider answering this one now.  

My real question is this:  Who would you choose as GOAT if the final Slam standings, when all is said and done, are the following?  (all other factors such as Olympics, composition of Slams,  year-end titles, Masters 1000s, weeks at No. 1, head-to-head, Davis cup, doubles success, niceness to ball boys etc. are not significantly different than they are at the moment)

1. Federer 20, Nadal 20, Djokovic 20

2. Federer 20, Nadal 20, Djokovic less

3. Federer 20, Djokovic 20, Nadal less

4.  Federer 20, Nadal 21, Djokovic 21

I would say:


2. Nadal

3. Djokovic

4. Djokovic

This is based on all the other non-Slam factors.  I personally don't believe either of the other two will actually reach 20, but that's another topic altogether.

I can see where others would have differing opinions, so just wondering what your take would be.

Robert, Toronto

• The counterfactual to the hypothetical. This is a law professor’s nightmare. But, I admit, a fun exercise for us tennis fans.

My two GOAT caveats: 1) As you note, this is a fluid situation—as Tony Snow would say—so why don’t we wait until all the careers are finalized? Six months ago, Djokovic wasn’t even in the GOAT pasture. Now he’s returned to the flock. 2) The fun—and frustration—is the absence of agreed-upon criteria. Does Nadal’s clay-weighted success work in his favor or show a lack of versatility? Does head-to-head matter?

One question that I put to you (and goes to the heart of Robert’s exercise)…What do we make of Djokovic’s two-year swoon and journey outside the top 20? Was it an extended walkabout unbecoming a GOAT? Or was it an admirable comeback that only cements his credentials?

Not sure Osaka will get the SPOTY award from SI. Who was the baseball player who beat Steffi Graff for the award in 1998 (the year she won the Grand Slam and Olympics)?

• Orel Hershiser. Osaka is a long shot for SPOTY but I did feel that her 2018 merited mention.  And not to be too much of a company man, but I gently point out that this occurred just three years ago

Does Jamie (producer) have a Twitter or Instagram account?


• Naturally. It’s @jdlisanti. Follow her.

Shots, Miscellany

• Non-tennis, but here’s my friend Alex on caring for a sick spouse.

• Frederik Rosengren—not exactly a hothead—doesn’t like the new Davis Cup. And neither, apparently, does Novak.

• Catching up with Denis Shapovalov.

• Sixteen-year-old Ryan Fishback, of Geneva, N.Y., and 15-year-old Valencia Xu of Livingston, N.J., each won the USTA Boys’ and Girls’ 18s National Indoor Championships singles titles this past weekend. Xu won consecutive USTA National Indoor Championship Titles after winning the Girls’ 14s singles title a year ago.

• Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing Rowan Ricardo Phillips's new book, THE CIRCUIT: A Tennis Odyssey. Rowan is the sports columnist for The Paris Review. 

• The USTA today announced its new slate of Board of Directors, including the election of Patrick J. Galbraith as USTA Chairman of the Board and President.  The new board has been elected to a two-year term that begins on January 1, 2019. 

• The 2019-2020 USTA Board of Directors:

Patrick J. Galbraith 

Michael J. McNulty III 

Dr. Brian Hainline 

Laura F. Canfield 

Thomas S. Ho 

Jeffrey M. Baill 

Violet Clark 

Charles Gill 

Eleni Rossides 

Brian Vahaly 

Kurt Zumwalt 

Katrina Adams

Liezel H. Huber 

Neha Uberoi 

Sam Warburg

Reader Riff

Here’s Skip Schwarzman off of last week's reader riff. 

Bauche did a fine job of expressing what many of us have felt about tennis’ recent innovations, those both already in effect and the ones being suggested. Basically, these ideas will alter tennis’ fundamental nature.

Let me add two thoughts, if I may: 

1. We need to recognize that the driving force behind much of this is television (sorry Jon, and Tennis Channel), which in large part doesn’t care one whit about tennis’ fundamental nature if said nature works against ad revenue. I give TC a 1/2 pass on this accusation given its history of promoting tennis, the on-air talents’ deep involvements with the game beyond TC, and its dependence on the tennis and nothing but tennis. Still, ad revenue is ad revenue, and TC is not a charity. How much does tennis (as if it’s a monolith) want to hand over the development of the sport to the exigencies of television?

2. So much of the motivation behind these innovations is, in my opinion, a feeing that tennis is not all that it could be in regards to its position on the sporting hierarchy. Tennis is behind football, basketball, soccer, golf, and even hockey and baseball. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that besides golf* it’s the only individual sport of the group. Me, I think that’s what should be celebrated. If that condemns tennis to being the world’s top niche sport, then so be it. I don’t believe that’s a bad thing. Instead of implicitly apologizing for what tennis is not, the sport should find ways to promote all the ways in which it’s special.

* An interesting thing about golf and television, which is how the vast majority of fans see the pro game: broadcasts are a constant individual sport’s version of Red Zone TV. What golf broadcast follows 1 player, or group of players, from shot-to-shot? Never happens. In some ways golf on television is the original click-through-to-the-most-exciting-parts media presentation, which is what everyone says tennis needs to adapt to in the modern, short-attention-span world. Of course, that doesn’t translate to traditional tennis matches. Yet, will the new format Davis Cup, with so many “meaningful” matches during the Festival Of Tennis, innovate with a similar kind of broadcast format to golf's? Heaven forbid.