Barcelona defender Gerard Pique and tennis legend Roger Federer have rarely been accused of sporting crimes over the course of their decorated careers, yet the duo have found themselves cast as villains of the piece in a tennis tragedy in recent days.
Not for the first time in recent history, petty politics are threatening to tear through the fabric of tennis heritage after the International Tennis Federation (ITF) signed a deal with the Kosmos investment group fronted by football great Pique that will see $3 billion over 25 years invested in a rebranded Davis Cup event, with traditionalists left to contemplate the end of one of the game’s great historical reference points.
There is no disguising the brutal reality that the Davis Cup has been diluted in its importance during an era when the game’s top players have chased personal glory with a little more relish than a national team prize that was once among the most coveted in the sport, but the changes to the competition have been hard for many to stomach.
The end of the Davis Cup as we have known it over the last century and more will see the long-established two nation final replaced by an annual end of season team tournament played in November, with 12 winners from 24-team home and away qualifying ties in February joined by the previous year’s four semi-finalists and two wild-card nations in a grand finale tipped to be staged in Madrid.
On paper, it may appear to be an exciting addition to the tennis calendar and that is certainly how tennis fanatic Pique viewed his company’s deal with the ITF when it was confirmed last week.
“This is a historic day and we are convinced that the agreement ratified today by the nations certainly guarantees the future of the Davis Cup and the development of tennis at all levels,” declared the 2010 World Cup winner.
“This is the beginning of a new stage that guarantees the prominent and legitimate position that the Davis Cup deserves as a national team competition adapted to the demands of professional sport at the highest level. It is a great honour for me to be part of such an important moment in the history of this sport that I love since I was little and without a doubt, both in the personal and professional field, this is one of the happiest days of my life.
“I think Davis Cup has untapped potential. We had to bring this competition again to the top of the tennis world. This is what we expect. Now we have a lot of work to do, with the federations, with the players. We want to know what the players want and make the best world possible.”
They were noble words from a sporting giant who may not have expected the backlash that followed the Kosmos announcement, with tennis greats Boris Becker and Leyton Hewitt among those expressing their bewilderment at a decision to transform a competition that has long been viewed as a precious part of tennis folklore.
Quite how Federer became embroiled in the criticism following the decision is a mystery and yet The Australian newspaper led the way with a feature entitled: ‘How Roger Federer helped slaughter the Davis Cup’.
Their report arguing that 20-time Grand Slam champion had ‘blood on his hands’ following the Davis Cup revamp was a little hard to justify, as they argued his silence during the negotiations over the future of the competition contributed to the decision being given a green light.
“I feel sad about not to have the Davis Cup as it used to be. It will never be the same,” declared Federer after the Kosmos plan was rubber stamped. “I just hope that every penny will be paid of that mass of money that has been paid for the next generation, because we have seen a similar situation way back when with the tour and it set us back in a big way. I’m all for innovation, and gotta give them a chance to some extent. It will be interesting to see how it’s going to work.”
Federer’s 70 singles matches in a stellar Davis Cup career with Switzerland suggest he should not be accused in such a manner, with his great rival Rafael Nadal representing Spain in just 17 ties over the course of his career and Novak Djokovic playing in 25 ties.
So while it’s impossible to deny that the absence of star names has affected the importance of the Davis Cup on the tennis landscape in recent years, yet all of the game’s modern ‘Big Four’ of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray have won the competition and were it not for an overcrowded tennis calendar, this new-look competition may well be an innovation worth a trial if it had the support of the top players.
That said, a war between the ITF, who run the game’s four Grand Slam events, and ATP chiefs who oversee the game’s regular Tour events looks set to undermine the new-look Davis Cup plan designed to kick into gear next year.
Under the ITF proposal, the Davis Cup will become an end-of-year festival of team tennis featuring the biggest names in the game and yet the ATP is pressing forward with their own plan for a World Team Cup competition at the start of 2020.
At least that is their vision and yet reality may be very different. If the game’s biggest names don’t currently have space in their dairies for the Davis Cup, they certainly won’t find time to play in two extended team events staged so close together.
Not for the first time, tennis administrators are pressing forward with plans to change the sport without consulting the key stakeholders it their moves could put the game’s ultimate team event in a perilous position.
If this comes down to a choice between an ATP team event and a new-look Davis Cup, the players may feel compelled to side with their own Tour rather than the rebranded ITF jamboree.
What a mess.
Follow Kevin Palmer on Twitter @RealKevinPalmer
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