Johnny Nic on Davis Cup revamp: Sometimes change is for the best

Great Britain win the Davis Cup

The Davis Cup is 118 years old this year. The tournament was invented in 1899 by four members of the Harvard University tennis team who wanted to challenge the British to a tennis competition. The following year, the first match was played between the United States and that most old fashioned of terms the British Isles. It was held at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ever since then, it has grown and grown and grown into a huge competition that is played out across the year. It’s structure is somewhat byzantine with a 16-strong World Group of the best teams and under that are another four levels of 11 zones comprising 110 countries. Are you keeping up?

Since 1972 the USA have won it nine times, Sweden seven, Australia six and Britain just once. Teams can get promoted up from lower levels and others relegated, but it is has to be said, it is somewhat unwieldy and because all of these matches are spread out over a year, it loses the dynamics that exist within a normal tournament.

But all of this could be set to change in a long overdue reform to the Davis Cup. On Thursday at the International Tennis Federation’s annual meeting in Orlando, the 120 delegates will decide whether proposals to totally overhaul the tournament which have been made by federation chief David Haggerty are to be given the green light.

Haggerty’s plan is a good one, condensing into an 18-nation event played at a single, neutral venue at the end of the season. It would be more like any conventional knockout sporting tournament and as such would bring with it real tension, excitement and jeopardy.

He believes it will generate a lot more money which can be put back into the game and he’s probably right simply because this is an easily understood and structured competition which I’m sure fans would buy into. It also would provide a superb end-of-season closer, so players can throw themselves into it knowing they have some time off coming to rest.

This is how they’re proposing it would work: 18 teams would play. They would be split into six groups of three teams. Each group winners and two runners-up would then advance to knockout rounds. Simple.

Unlike the current Davis Cup ties, which comprise four singles and one doubles, ties would feature only two singles and a doubles game.

Of course traditionalists will hate the changes being suggested, fearing it is the death of the Davis Cup as it has been known for decades, and let’s be honest, it really is but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But it’s felt it will attract bigger sponsorship money and the world’s best players will want to be involved. Novak Djokovic is certainly on board with this. Speaking recently he said: “I think the format needs to be changed. And I’m all in favour of that. You play one year, and then the next year you don’t play. It’s just the scheduling of this kind of format so far has been pretty bad.”

It’s also got the backing of the ITF’s $3 billion partnership with the Kosmos investment group, which was founded by Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique and supported by Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani. Once the big money swings in behind a proposal, it usually makes it happen, but there needs to be a two third majority to pass this change. If that happens, the new look tournament would start next year in Europe.

Great Britain lift the Davis Cup
Great Britain lift the Davis Cup

With men’s tennis being so dominated by a handful of players who get to the semis and finals of most Grand Slams, the Davis Cup offers something really different. It’s a chance for players to turn out for their country and to play for something other than personal glory. It would also allow fans to really get properly involved in it from start to finish. It’d be far easier to brand and sell to advertisers and sponsors and all of that would lead to more money being generated for grass roots tennis. While some traditionalists might be up in arms about it, sometimes change is for the best, and this is one such occasion.

Follow John Nicholson on Twitter @JohnnyTheNic