Mailbag: Evaluating the Revamped Davis Cup and its Future on the Tennis Calendar

Rafael Nadal led Spain to its sixth Davis Cup title, but how did the new format of tennis' team competition fare in its debut, and what will the future hold?
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Hey everyone. Quick bag this week. Happy Thanksgiving and its global equivalents….

• Coco Gauff was our most recent podcast guest and she was terrific.

• Next up, after the Thanksgiving break, Jamie Lisanti and I go through our 2019 award winners.

• Roger Federer, in NYC today, shoe dog: Roger Federer, Sneakerhead?

• Andy Murray’s documentary is out. Your serve, Naomi Osaka….

• Lots of coaching changes, especially on the women’s side. Mugu (Conchita Martinez), Angie Kerber (Didi Kindlmann), and Karolina Pliskova (Daniel Vallverdu), are among the new teams.

• Keep fighting, Jim K.

Onward….

Most of the questions this week were about the new (and improved?) Davis Cup. So here’s a catchall meditation, trying to incorporate as many of your points as possible. We'll do a full Mailbag next week:

• My two-word Yelp review of the Davis Cup 2019: conditional success. We don’t quite share Mardy Fish’s enthusiasm level. But overall, this was a win.

A lot went right. A lot went wrong. A lot must be improved upon. But in the end, the enduring image of Davis Cup 2019 will be Nadal, splayed triumphantly on the court, before a capacity crowd of screaming fans. Not abominable technology or thinly populated stands or teams forfeiting matches trying to game the system.

Let’s be clear: the flaws were manifold. And some of them were inexcusable, given how much time the organizers had to prepare. Matches that go beyond 4:00 a.m. not only tax everyone involved—from players to ballkids to media—but rob credibility and seriousness from your event. The technology was often jaw-droppingly bad. Unable to sell the U.S. TV rights to ESPN or Tennis Channel, the coverage was consigned to the cable hinterlands of FoxSports2, the ratings surely on par with a weather test pattern. (American perspective yes; but the Davis Cup’s dwindling profile in the world’s biggest commercial market was one of the reasons behind the format change in the first place.) The ITF’s Davis Cup website, excellent in the past, was often a full day behind in the results. Why? Because the organizers wanted their own site, which sometimes had the wrong team winning. Again, you expect some first-year hiccups. But not of this nature.

Let’s be clear on this, too: lots, though, went right. The “home” team won, which helped with atmosphere. There was dazzling tennis and few complaints about court conditions. The format was easy to follow. (Let us not gloss over just how problematic Davis Cup was in its previous incarnation.)

Above all: the players bought in. Most of the top stars came. They discharged their duties, not as though this were some end-of-season obligation, but as a meaningful competition. The Serbs cried. Nadal cried. Roberto Bautista Agut buried his father and won the next day. He made everyone cry. Canada put Felix Auger-Aliassime in the biggest match of his life. Andy Murray availed himself. Singles mattered. Doubles mattered. Captains strategized. Players agonized and exulted.

This was hugely important. You can have all the bells and whistles. But without the full buy-in of the players, you have an exhibition. With it, you have a competition. In tennis terms, the event pulled off the shots with the high degrees of difficulty. It missed the routine balls. The hope: when this event cleans up its game and eliminates the unforced errors, it will be even better.

Meanwhile, five questions to kickstart the Kosmos postmortem:

1) How did we whiff this badly on media technology? At one point, Gerard Pique was sliding into the DMs of media members, giving them IT tips and encouraging them to refresh the app. (A friend asked, “What’s next? Shakira helping to connect wires?”). Some of you wrote in complaining about the streaming. The website was an embarrassment, sometimes putting the wrong players on the wrong teams. How did the event fail to reach a deal with Tennis Channel—full disclosure: an employer of mine—and instead put the coverage on a channel few even knew existed?

2) What about the women? Tennis’s great virtue, its great market advantage over other sports: men and women playing simultaneously and as equals. Enough lip service, enough rhetoric about “the commitment to Fed Cup,” enough trotting out Billie Jean King for awards and photo ops. Get this done and make this dual gendered.

3) What do we do about location? It was either a stroke of master planning or master luck. But Spain’s romp at an event held in Madrid greatly helped this event. But had the final been, say, Canada against Russia, what would the atmosphere have been like?

4) What do we do about fans? There are few greater sports eyesores than empty seats. When Andy Murray took to Twitter essentially offering to buy British fans tickets, it made for a cute story but also a somewhat pathetic one. How does the ITF get fans in the stands? How do federations work to create a World Cup environment?

5) What do we do about the calendar? There’s no question that compressing Davis Cup into a one-week shootout was a wise decision. You have date certainty. You have place certainty. You have a model that’s easy for fans to follow. All of this was an upgrade. But how do tennis’s factions (oxymoron alert) work together and maximize value? I believe it was Matt Roberts of The Tennis Podcast who floated this idea, my leader in the clubhouse: The Davis Cup and this ridiculous ATP Cup merge. You then take the week in mid-September and then alternate years, holding the Laver Cup one year and the Davis Cup the other. This would a) accommodate all. b) create some scarcity which helps mystique c) enable the season to end a week earlier d) end the charade of three different team cups sandwiched between the U.S. Open and Australian Open.

On this last point, the market is a powerful force. I’ve heard different variations of this story, but at the ATP World Tour Finals last year, Djokovic basically called a meeting of tennis administrators and said, “Three team events are two too many. You guys figure it out.” He was right in his sentiment, if naïve in his confidence that tennis chieftains could set aside personal interests for the good of the sport. So here we are.

If the market can sustain three events, it will. If not, not. If Federer can bail on Davis Cup and pack a stadium in the Pampas and make $2 million a night, power to him. If Kosmos can put on a successful Davis Cup without Federer in the field, power to them. If Tennis Australia can somehow convince people that this ATP Cup has value (on the heels of Davis Cup; on the eve of a major; without Federer; with no historical heft behind it; absent the women), well, bless them, too.

The obvious solution: some form of good-for-the-sport compromise as the reader suggests. Again, I like the idea of taking the September date, holding the Laver Cup every other year, holding Davis Cup every other year. But in the absence of reason, the market will do its thing. And we'll decide whether or not tennis has room in its cupboards for all these damn cups.

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