The Davis Cup is back next week, but not as we know it. For the first time, it will be played over a week of intense competition without home/away ties and, for the first time in a while, with some of the biggest names on the ATP Tour.
It has its detractors and its backers, with some names such as Alexander Zverev opting to give it a wide berth, while others, Rafael Nadal included, are firmly behind it.
So, ahead of the competition, which features 18 teams and is played on indoor hard courts at Caja Magica in Madrid, here are five things to watch out for during the week.
The radical changes have been hugely controversial, particularly among fans, who are largely very unhappy that the chance to watch their team on home soil has been taken away.
Only the two group stage ties involving Spain have sold out, with organisers telling PA they were happy with afternoon sales but that morning ties were proving a challenge.
A major part of what made Davis Cup ties loved and treasured by players and fans alike was the partisan atmosphere generated. If these matches are played in half empty stadiums with little noise, the event will not be seen as a success.
Twenty-five ties will be crammed into seven days, with the 18 teams split into six groups. The group winners plus two best runners-up will progress to the quarter-finals on Thursday and Friday, before the semi-finals and final are played out over the weekend.
Traditionally, World Group ties consisted of four singles rubbers and one doubles, all best-of-five sets. Here, ties are made up of two singles rubbers and one doubles, all best-of-three sets. Whether some of the drama is lost, and whether doubles remains central to the narrative, are two of the big questions.
The impetus behind the switch to a World Cup-style event was to try to encourage the leading players to return to the event, with the commitment of top-20 players increasingly poor.
Organisers would have been very pleased to see most of the eligible top names present when the teams were announced last month. One black mark against the competition was that, under the old format, there was not a single meeting between the ‘big four’ of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
The latter three are all expected to represent their countries in Madrid. Federer won’t be present though as Switzerland have not qualified, although he hasn’t been a great advocate of the new format regardless.
Would the changes have been so controversial had the man behind them not been as high profile as Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique? Critics refer to the tournament disparagingly as the ‘Pique Cup’, and the defender has been involved in an unseemly war of words with Federer.
Pique’s Kosmos company has promised to plough a staggering three billion US dollars into tennis over 25 years but his investors will expect a lot back and, if income from ticket sales, TV rights and sponsorship does not live up to expectations, what does that mean for the future of the deal?
Kosmos is expected to put on a glitzy event, with Pique’s wife Shakira booked to sing at the closing ceremony.
The stakes would be high anyway but are even higher because of the looming shadow of the ATP Cup. The ATP and the International Tennis Federation, which oversees Davis Cup, have been engaged in a power struggle that has resulted in two near identical competitions being held within six weeks of each other.
The new ATP Cup will take place in Australia in January, boasting big prize money and ranking points. Perceived wisdom is that only one event can survive in the long term.
An underwhelming Davis Cup could put its future at risk, particularly with the ATP Cup offering rankings points as an incentive for the top players should it come down to having to choose between them.
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