Tennis' troubled team events
By Joel Drucker
Special to ESPN.com
Nothing in tennis gets the blood boiling more than a lively Davis Cup series. Usually solitary warriors, the players join forces and cheer each other on. Flags wave, fans scream and when all these emotions enter the picture, the possibility of stirring drama increases. Each year, on every continent, there are tales of Davis Cup matches that prove legendary basketball coach John Wooden's remark that "sport doesn't build character, it reveals it."
Sadly, the Davis Cup is in disrepair. For more than 75 years, home nations have manipulated the court surface in their favor. The structure of the competition is such that it's difficult to follow and hard to promote. And worst of all, an increasing number of players simply don't play. This year, for example, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal -- who would have been slated to face one another in the first round -- declined. Yes, each is free to choose, but surely it's a shame that a competitive event which can be so compelling fails to put its best step forward. Earlier this year, 19 of the top 20 men's players signed a petition urging the ITF to schedule Davis Cup rounds closer to the conclusion of Grand Slams. But the ITF declined.
Serena Williams will play in the Fed Cup for the U.S. for the first time since 2003.
In order to keep countries from monkeying around too much with their courts, the ITF will soon decree that the speed of any hard-court surface (indoor or outdoor) used for Davis Cup fall into a certain range.
But the Davis Cup is as healthy as Jack La Lanne when compared to Fed Cup, the women's team event a noted analyst once dubbed "Fed-Up Cup." This weekend the U.S. hosts Belgium, theoretically a superb matchup given the presence of Belgian stars Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Neither will play. Lest you think Venus and Serena Williams are on board this weekend because they're deeply committed to the event, guess again. One major reason the sisters are playing is that by participating in Fed Cup this year, each will be eligible for the 2008 Summer Olympics (yet another big-time opportunity for tennis that's even more of a joke).
Bringing change to tennis' team events tragically showcases tennis' U.N.-like discord. When matters of marketing and popularity are brought up, many have countered that's largely an American problem, a function of the tiny role tennis plays in our country's sports landscape. Smaller tennis nations in particular count on hosting Davis Cup rounds to generate revenue. But as U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said, "When you have guys like Nadal and Federer not playing, you know it's more than a single nation. These guys are trying to do the best job they can to manage their schedules, and so it's tricky to also make time for Davis Cup."
"Our sport deserves a first-rate Davis Cup format," ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale said.
Over the years, Drysdale has been one of many who has proposed a completely different approach. According to Drysdale, "The semis and final should all take place at once, at the home site of the defending champion. This way there's an appropriate buildup all year long."
Hall of Famer and longtime U.S. Davis Cup stalwart Jim Courier has an even more ambitious vision. Borrowing from such examples as golf's Ryder Cup and soccer's World Cup, Courier believes the Davis Cup "should take place no more than every other year." The competition would call for a two-week event with 16 teams competing in one host nation. Earlier rounds would still be hosted at other nations. The Fed Cup would occur at the same place, a bit staggered in time.
"The goal is to have something that allows media and fans to easily focus and understand both of these events," Courier said.
Another reforming voice comes from Billie Jean King. More than 30 years ago, she launched World Team Tennis, the co-ed team competition that she believes has a format that would be an ideal fit for the Davis Cup, Fed Cup and yes, the Olympics. A team tennis match consists of one set apiece of men's singles, women's singles, men's doubles, women's doubles and mixed doubles. Typical matches last just over two hours. An added benefit, said King, "is that these are the kind of values we want to transmit through sports: men and women, working together." It's a captivating idea. Imagine, for example, an Olympic gold medal coming down to a mixed doubles match between Venus Williams-Andy Roddick and Marat Safin-Maria Sharapova.
Instead, on Monday, ITF president Ricci Bitti released a statement that would no doubt earn applause from politicos of any ideology: "The ITF wants to assure the players that we have listened to their views about the scheduling of Davis Cup … we are confident that we can come to an agreement including the possibility of ranking points that will please all of our constituents: players, national associations, sponsors, media and the public."
Just don't bet on the glacial world of tennis to melt any icebergs. Reform for the Davis Cup and Fed Cup will come more slowly than the muddiest clay court imaginable.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.