Mailbag: First Thoughts on the New-Look Davis Cup

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• Our most recent podcast was with Sloane Stephens—fresh from hosting a diversity camp in Orlando— and she was great.

• Next up: Coco Gauff.

• We’ve all seen of ATP players pronouncing London Tube stations? This is pretty damn funny. But also pretty damn revealing in its own way.

• All hail Tommy Berdych, who announced his retirement this week, joining David Ferrer, Marcos Maghdatis, Mikhail Youzhny, Nicolas Almagro, Dominika Cibulkova, et al.

Onward….

Mailbag

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

So, this is the first ever multi-team Davis Cup Final under a multi-billion dollar alliance and there is no outlet in which anyone on U.S. terra firma can watch the U.S. team in action in Madrid, let alone any other Tie this week, including an absolutely epic tie today between Canada and Italia. This is the most outrageous, insane, ridiculous thing I have even seen in the incompetent world of pro tennis. Where is the USTA (the most important member NGB under the ITF) on this blackout? Last week we would have watched wall to wall coverage of the Houston and Champagne Challengers on U.S. soil, but this week we can’t watch the Davis Cup FINAL? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!?
Ronnie DiSimeone

• But enough with the nuance and the double-speak. How, Ronnie of the DiSimeones, do you feel about the new Davis Cup?....

What do want first, the good news or the bad news? The bad news: the roll-out has, indeed, been rough. Even conferring appropriate “first year hiccups” latitude, there have been a distressing number of glitches, many of them technical. The U.S. television coverage has been nearly impossible to find. You guys have complained, from all over the world, about the options and janky streaming. And if people aren’t outwardly undermining the Davis Cup, it hasn’t gotten a lot of support from within the tennis community. The ATP Tour, which of course has its own team cup coming up in—let me look for it—45 or so days, has been silent. Half the top ten has opted out. (Most notably Federer, who of course, has HIS own team event the week in September that Davis Cup covets.) Some federations have been more on-board than others.

The good news: the players have been generally complimentary, the fan support has ranged from meh to enthusiastic, and above all, the tennis and competitive drama has been first rate. There is, suddenly, a collective amnesia about the flaws of the “old” Davis Cup. This version will take some adjusting and go through its start-up growing pains. But simply gathering everyone on one site, for one date, in one easy-to-follow format is already a win.

I’d submit we’re in the first game of the first set. Let’s reserve some judgment. After this week we can have a postmortem and discuss various improvements. Some should be made. Others—like better broadcast and technology—must be made. But let’s appreciate the tennis. Let’s appreciate that change was inevitable. And let’s hope that the good folks at Kosmos, the backers, really have the funding they claim.

Please explain why a player is fined for “tanking” a match. If the player ends up winning but “tanks” a set or so, is it still imposed? Who decides what constitutes tanking? I believe tanking is the inability for a player to surmount adverse playing conditions mentally in that particular match—just as a player who gets physically injured cannot continue and gives up—yet we don’t fine the latter. Presumably any fine is imposed retrospectively—is there any avenue for warning players during the match to encourage them to modify their behavior? Do you think this type of sanction is peculiar to tennis as compared to other individual sports?
James, Melbourne, Australia

• Yeah we get versions of this from time to time. “What’s the problem with tanking?” You’re not cheating, i.e. enhancing your chances of winning through surreptitious rule-breaking; on the contrary you are undermining your chances. It’s an act of self-harm, so why penalize?

A few thoughts: 1) Sports are predicated on the idea that the competition is honest. If not, if the integrity is being undermined, the whole Jenga tower collapses. Mostly this means doping and paying college athletes and stealing signs and, generally, being the Houston Astros. But it also means not giving an honest effort. Underperforming can be seen as a kind of cheating. Fans have paid for tickets, networks have paid for rights, and fans have devoted emotional investment with an expectation that everyone is trying their best and the results are undetermined. Tanking is an affront to that.

2) Especially in this age of sports gambling, it’s easy to see how tanking can lead to match fixing. If tennis authorities didn’t sanction tanking—i.e. manipulating results—we would begin a jaunt down the slippery slope.

3) Tanking is deeply disrespectful to the opponents. They have come expecting to match will and skill with an adversary.

4) Other sports do have their forms of tanking. Collectively, NBA teams will lose on purpose to improve their chances in the next drafts. Let’s, though, differentiate “tanking” from corruption of, say, fighters taking dives or point shaving. In the case of tennis, when players lose on purpose (see: Kyrgios, Nick) because they are not in the right mental space, or they have a plane to catch or they have lost interest, it’s bad. When they lose on purpose because they are colluding with someone else, it’s far more sinister.

If you have a moment I’d like to offer a penny for your thoughts on the second most important factor in the GOAT debate in the event there is a tie in the most important factor—Grand Slams. How would you order the following in terms of importance?

Olympic titles
Year-end No. 1
ATP finals titles
Total titles
Winning percentage
Masters titles
Career earnings I think is a bit too arbitrary with the currency, economic and inflation variables, but I’ll ask your input here
Head-to-head
Davis Cup
Eye test / intangibles
Records, stats achieved: i.e fastest serve; quickest to Grand Slams, most Wimbledon’s or French Opens all time, clay court winning streak…
A combination of the above?
Ben Bittner

• I like this question. Because if it doesn’t force us to quantify GOAT credentials, it at least asks us to prioritize. A lot of these considerations are easily countered. As you note, career earnings, for instance, is silly unless we somehow convert to present value. The youngest player (Djokovic) will, naturally, make more than Federer, who won less than $1 million for his first Wimbledon title, never mind Rod Laver, who earned something like $1.5 million for his entire career. Head-to-head can be misleading too, as Fed fans have pointed out for years. (I agree, but only to an extent.) Given the rolling rankings, isn’t weeks at No. 1 far more important than year-end No.1? Anyway, here’s my order:

• Majors
• Masters titles
• Head-to-head (weighted)
• Longevity, span of majors
• Career titles, career record
• Eye test / backstory. (Agassi’s dip outside the top 100 works to his advantage or detriment? Discuss.)
• ATP WTF titles (would prefer it had been on the same surface for the last decade)
• Olympics
• Doubles prowess
• Davis Cup
• Career earnings

Turned to SI tennis page and nothing about Bryans retirement….Tennis Channel did a nice feature and interview of the Bryans. But one huge question was never asked. Will they play Davis Cup this December? With the new format of the competition condensed to one venue, you would think they would be available. And it would be great for one last hurrah for them in Davis Cup after all their success.
Russ

• Let’s all hail the Bryans. They announced on Tennis Channel last week that this would be their final year on the circus/circuit. Enjoy them while you can, the Serena/Federer/Nadal/Djokovic of doubles. And this is no victory tour: they report that they are working hard and hoping to recapture the No. 1 ranking. They have retired from Davis Cup so don’t be surprised if their final event is the 2020 U.S. Open. That said, maybe there’s a Davis Cup captaincy down the line?

What a week for single handed backhands at the WTF! When a single-handed backhand met a two hander in this tournament, the single hander won six of the seven matches. (Two wins each for Tsitipas, Federer and Thiem.)

This also means the decade ends on an interesting note with the decade's first WTF that features two single-handed backhands. In the ’80s, 8 of the 10 WTF featured two players with single handed backhands but the Thiem/Tsitipas final was the first since Federer beat Blake in ’06 to do so. Before that, you have to go back to 1996 when Sampras beat Becker.

However, it seems with Tsitipas, Shapovalov, and Thiem, we will see this kind of matchup again. Could the single hander make a return? It really does seem that way.
Rohit Sudarshan, Washington, D.C.

• Great pull. And of course, this was sent before the all-one-hander final. We salivate like Pavlovian dogs over the one-hander. But sports are a bottom-line business. If the one-hander is effective and helps optimize chances of winning, it will continue to be employed. If it’s simply a piece of performance or an aesthetic flourish, it will become obsolete. Small sample size, but the result this week reinforces the former. The one-hander has a place in the modern game. It gives the practitioner more reach. It can be more versatile than the two-hander. It changes the geometry, especially on the swooping crosscourt. Like a free dish, it usually comes with the bonus of an excellent slice. (@mortsubite added: It’s the half second that the opponent’s brain uses to process the grace and aesthetics that puts them at a disadvantage.”)

Long as you brought it up, have we—as a tennis community—done enough to acknowledge the end of an era? And the start of a new one? Consider this: at the start of the decade, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic began 1-2-3 in the rankings. Boy, who can remember those halcyon days? Oh, wait. Seriously, though. Djokovic had just one Major. Serena had 11. Coco Gauff was in kindergarten. And Federer was, allegedly, winding down his career.

Worth noting: the 2019 ATP final marked only the second time since 2002 when none of the big three made it to the final. (Davydenko def. Del Potro in 2009; Dimitrov def. Goffin in 2017.)
Teddy C., NYC

• Thanks. Noted.

Who do you think wins a "major" title first, Stefanos or Giannis? Do you see them both eventually winning their "major" title? Love your weekly Mailbag.
Suhrittam Sanyal (Suhritt)

• It’s apples and oranges. Or figs and dates, as it were. But this underscores a point we often make about tennis: it doesn’t take much to change your GPS coordinates. Giannis would have to make it through a regular season and guide his team to the playoffs. Then he would have to win 15 playoff games over four rounds. An awful lot has to go right.

Contrast this with tennis’s Greek Freak. Without minimizing what it takes to win a Slam, he gets hot for two weeks, wins seven matches and…presto! And he gets four chances each year to do it. As a probability exercise as much as anything else, my money is on Tsitsipas.

Side note: both have made it to the semis. Tsitsipas in Australia, 2019. Giannis took the Bucks to the Eastern Conference finals last season.

So, is Rafa’s volley still underrated when every time he hits a nice one Annacone, Courier, McEnroe, Gilbert, Martina tells us his volley is underrated? Just joshing here. It IS a thing of beauty…
Ann C.

• Fair point. At what point do so many people claim Rafa’s volleys are “underrated” that, by definition, they begin rating? For kicks, watch him play doubles at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Not only was he the best doubles players in the draw; it seemed like every time he volleyed or hit an overhead, the strokes would result in a he-did-NOT-just-do-that highlight.

Quick Shots

• Our friend (and fine college player) Ryan Rodenberg is at it again.

• The ATP and Emirates announced a renewal of their highly successful partnership, with the award-winning airline signing on as Premier Partner and Official Airline of the ATP Tour for an additional five years, beginning in 2021. The Premier Partnership renewal underscores over a decade-long commitment to the sport by Emirates.

• Helen of DC take us out:

What's with all the consternation over the ITF and ATP hosting similar events a few weeks apart? Competing ITF and ATP events aren't really a new thing—back in the 90s, there were basically competing “year-end finals.”

Let me take you for a quick spin in the wayback machine, dials set to December 1992. I was studying abroad, in a small town outside Munich. My parents arrived for a visit right after the U.S. had won the Davis Cup, in Fort Worth, and we learned that the “Grand Slam Cup” was just getting underway in Munich. My parents ended up attending some of the matches and really enjoyed it.

Looked up the dates: the Davis Cup finals were December 4-6 and the Grand Slam Cup was December 8-13. Both came after the Tour Championships, which were November 16-20 in Frankfurt. The Grand Slam Cup, an ITF event, was basically a big exo/payday for top players.

Funny one—we found out about the Grand Slam Cup when we saw a spot on German TV about the players arriving. McEnroe, Agassi and Sampras were all supposed to be on the same flight, but when it arrived, only Sampras was on it. He explained that McEnroe and Agassi had stayed in New York to continue celebrating the big win, but had told him he was too young to tag along.