By David Murray
On the face of it, the Davis Cup represents the tennis establishment!
Over the course of its 118-year history, winning the Davis Cup has been one of the pinnacles of men’s tennis. The ties are like nothing else in tennis with their raucous, partisan atmosphere and a surface chosen to suit the home team. Britain winning the Davis Cup in 2015, the first time since 1936, is viewed as one of Andy Murray’s finest achievements, if not finest, being involved in all but one of GB’s winning matches across four rounds of play.
However, all is not well with the competition!
Its best of five, five-set format is unattractive to broadcasters with matches too long; the best matches on a Friday, and Sunday’s matches often being dead rubbers. The method for picking the home team is difficult to explain and creates TV scheduling problems. The scheduling often falls across other major events making it hard for the Davis Cup to stand out in an increasingly busy sporting calendar.
To add to these structural problems, the best players are reluctant to commit to its heavy work load, often having to play on surfaces that do not suit their physical preparation, at a time when they already play too many tournaments. The Davis Cup is losing its relevance, and, without change, risks being relegated to the sporting wilderness.
It is in this context that the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the Davis Cup (and original tennis) governing body, announced, in February, a restructured competition starting in 2019, alongside a 25-year $3 billion partnership with the Gerrard Pique-fronted Kosmos investment group.
The proposal is to have one traditional home or away knock out tie in February, followed by an 18-team final in November, to be held in a pre-agreed venue, creating effectively a tennis World Cup. With a fixed place in the calendar, and the first two editions promised to European countries, the format should be more attractive to broadcasters, than currently.
The proposal will be voted on by the ITF’s members at their AGM on 16 August.
While this seems straight forward, it is complicated by a number of factors.
Firstly, the Association of Tennis Professionals (the ATP), the players’ governing body which runs the week in, week out ATP Tour, has announced its own plans for a World Cup to take place at the start of the season. As the players’ own organisation, this may be more attractive to them, both because it could offer ranking points and also the players will be fresh. An event at the end of the season cuts short their much-needed holiday after a gruelling season – at the end of the ATP Tour Finals the players are on their knees.
The other issue is how genuine is the Kosmos offer. Members will presumably be presented with more details of funding guarantees, and what rights they will be giving up, at this week’s AGM. Many will not have made up their minds. The more established members have more votes, with the Grand Slam nations (plus Germany) holding the most.
Indications are that the French Open, US Open and Wimbledon are behind the ITF plan; whereas the Australian Open supports the ATP plan. These are not the Federations but carry huge weight in influencing them. Smaller less well-off members will likely be swayed by the money on the table.
Even if carried at the AGM, there is no guarantee that the plan will ultimately be successful.
Will Kosmos invest $3 billion without a guarantee that the top players will attend? Eventually, a compromise with the ATP will need to be brokered as history demonstrates that competing events generally fail.
Let us hope that it does not take blood on the court for both parties to realise this; as, ultimately, the future of the Davis Cup – and the ITF itself – is very much at stake!
David Murray is a co-founder of the Sports Rights Consultancy Fozmuz Limited; lectures in negotiation at Salford and Liverpool Universities; offers negotiation and influencing coaching through The Better People Organisation; and is a Sports Rights Consultant for the Law firm Shoosmiths. He may be contacted by e-mail at ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.