Tennis faces tough times

Tennis faces tough times

Tennis faces tough times

With an overstuffed calendar and heavyweight competition from other global sports, the last thing professional tennis needs is two similar men's team events within a few weeks of each other.

"Agreed," said David Haggerty, the president of the International Tennis Federation.

Yet there have been indications that this is exactly where this great but too-often divided game is heading.  Surely not even tennis can't be this clueless.

But big money and the survival instinct are powerful forces. Both are in play when it comes to the Davis Cup and the would-be World Team Cup.

The Davis Cup, the premier men's team competition since it was founded in 1900, is owned and operated by the International Tennis Federation, which depends on the event for much of its annual income.

Under pressure from sponsors and disgruntled top players, the ITF has proposed a drastically new and reduced format in a 25-year, purportedly $3 billion partnership with the investment group Kosmos. The plan is to create a one-week event involving 18 teams at the end of the season, in late November or early December.

If approved by the ITF member nations later this year, the new version of the Davis Cup would begin in 2019.  

The World Team Cup was routinely staged in Düsseldorf, Germany, in May before being discontinued in 2012. It was diverting but never considered the premier team test. Now the leadership of the men's tour, the ATP, is looking to revive it on a grander and more lucrative scale in cooperation with Tennis Australia. It would place this one-or two-week event at the start of the season in early January as part of the lead-up to the Australian Open.

If approved by the ATP leadership, the new-age World Team Cup could begin in 2020.  

Something clearly has to give, and though Haggerty and ATP executive chairman Chris Kermode met at Indian Wells last week and agreed to keep each other informed, nothing has given yet.

"They will compete, but one's going to end up swallowing the other eventually," Milos Raonic, the Canadian star, said of the two events. "Because I don't think in any sport, two team competitions, other than something as big as soccer, really survive."

Particularly when they could be just five weeks apart, and particularly when there is also a third  men's team competition happening nearly every September: the new Laver Cup, created by Roger Federer and his management company, Team8. The event matches a European all-star squad against an international squad; it was a hit in its debut in 2017 in Prague and is set to head to Chicago this year.

"We take three days out of the year, so don't worry about us," Federer said. "I think it's a great event. I think the players really enjoyed themselves. I hope it's going to be forever successful. We have no guarantee, like no tournament really has, except maybe Wimbledon, to be honest."

To be just as honest, who knows where sports or grass-court tennis will find themselves on the popularity charts in 100 years? But what is clear is that in the much shorter term, it is pure folly to create a glut of men's team tennis events that will only end up diluting the interest in all of them.

"The fans aren't going to understand," said Jeremy Chardy, a veteran French player. "It would seem bizarre to have essentially the same thing twice in a row."

This would-be turf war is nothing new: In the 1990s, the ITF backed the creation of an end-of-the-year individual tournament called the Grand Slam Cup, which came after the ATP's Tour Finals. The Grand Slam Cup, open to the most successful players in the year's four major tournaments, offered huge money for the time - $2 million to the winner - but no ranking points without ATP support. It lasted until 1999 before reason (and economics) prevailed, and the two events essentially merged.

Why go through it all again? The current conflict also seems like a late-in-the-game scramble to capitalise on the golden era of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic before it starts to fade to sepia, which could be very soon.

Need of the hour

What the sport really needs for the long term is one, just one, clearly defined and fully supported team event, preferably not an annual one. In an ideal world, it would include the women. Combined events, including the Grand Slams, are among tennis' greatest strengths going forward, with women's sports set to take on greater importance and market share.

A combined team event of true import - not the low-key Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia - would set tennis apart from all the other sports that stage their World Cups for men and women separately.

Badminton already has proved that the combined model works by bringing men's and women's national teams together with its biennial Thomas & Uber Cups, which will be in Bangkok in May.

But even a single men's team event is looking like a pipe dream for tennis at the moment. Part of the problem is that the Kosmos group was deeply involved in negotiations with Kermode and the ATP to revive the World Team Cup before running into resistance from ATP board members representing the tournaments.

Kosmos, which is headed by Barcelona soccer star Gerard Piqué and backed by Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani, then resumed negotiating with Haggerty after the ITF had rebuffed an initial approach.

The bottom line: Kermode, a popular leader so far, is now vulnerable for having let Kosmos get away, and Haggerty and the ITF are now vulnerable because their organisation's cash cow, the Davis Cup, is steadily fading as the major stars decline to make it a consistent priority.

If the World Team Cup comes into existence and provides nearly the same prize money as a revamped Davis Cup along with the ranking points that the Davis Cup cannot provide, it is a potential existential threat.

That would be true whether or not the Davis Cup adopted a new format. Even if the Davis Cup stays put with four weeks of world group competition spread throughout each season, top players, presented with a less-demanding option to represent their nations annually, would be more likely to choose the path of least resistance.

"I don't know if it would be great to play both competitions in the same year," said Feliciano López, the 36-year-old Spanish veteran, conceding that "two in five weeks would be too much."

Hear, hear. Clearly, the time for compromise and vision is now. Unfortunately, pro tennis' numerous governing bodies are better at defending their territory than doing what is best for the sport.

 

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