The Davis Cup, as we know it, is doomed, voted out of existence by the International Tennis Federation in August in favor of a shorter-form version that is set to launch in 2019.
The long form still has a couple of rounds and months to go — call it a lame-duck Cup. The emotions are decidedly mixed this week for the semifinals of what has been tennis’s premier team competition since 1900.
In Zadar, Croatia, on the Dalmatian coast, the host country is playing the United States, whose captain, Jim Courier, was a strong proponent of the changes and still wants more reform by including Fed Cup, the women’s team event.
“I applaud the ITF for making this move,” Courier said. “My hope is that they eventually find a format that can also include the Fed Cup being played alongside the Davis Cup during the same time and location to make it a festival for national team competition.”
In the other semifinal, Spain is facing France without Rafael Nadal, who is injured again. France’s captain, Yannick Noah, and his players were among the most vocal opponents of the Davis Cup changes, even if their tennis federation and its president, Bernard Giudicelli, voted in favor.
In the new version, there will be an 18-team final phase at a single site instead of the current format, in which two finalists play on one of the nations’ home turf. The best-of-five-set matches that have been part of Davis Cup’s gladiatorial identity since the beginning will be replaced by best-of-three contests. Instead of five matches in each nation-to-nation duel, there will be three (two singles and one doubles).
“Shame on all these players, leaders and media who have just sold the soul of the Davis Cup,” Noah tweeted in French on Aug. 16, the day of the vote.
Noah’s dismay is understandable: The old-style Cup has brought him and France a lot of joy in the last 30 years, including a teary and transcendent upset of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and the United States in a smoky Lyon arena in 1991, which was unforgettable for those of us in attendance, too.
Lucas Pouille, the top-ranked French player, had once talked about mobilizing players to fight the new format.
“I realized that it served no purpose because we players did not have our say,” Pouille said in an interview with Le Monde, the French newspaper. “It was not useful to waste everyone’s time when it was already settled in advance. We were not consulted at all. The French Federation voted for it when I don’t know a single French player who was for it.”
It will be intriguing to see how the crowd and players react to Giudicelli over the weekend. France, in this horse-trading context, may still end up hosting the first final in the new format next year. Lille and Madrid are the two announced contenders. Lille is where France won the Cup last year for the 10th time and where it will host the Spaniards this weekend.
“To know it’s the last one in this format gives you more motivation,” Pouille told Le Monde.
Others, like the top Croatian, Marin Cilic, have expressed similar sentiments, but Courier said the Americans were treating this as pressing business as usual.
“The upcoming change in format doesn’t change the equation for us,” Courier said. “We’ve been urgently chasing the title each of the eight years I’ve been captain, and with some good play this weekend, we’ll be one step away from it.”
For all Courier’s commitment and leadership, it has been a disappointing run during his eight-year tenure: some close defeats at home and not one final, even though the game’s best players like Roger Federer have hardly been fully committed to the event during this period.
The Americans, who have not won the Cup since 2007, will be underdogs on the outdoor clay in Zadar.
Their best singles player and leader, 10th-ranked John Isner, is at home in the U.S. awaiting the birth of his first child. Their best available doubles team, Mike Bryan and Jack Sock, who won the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles this year, will not be able to play together in Zadar because Sock is out with a hip injury.
The Croatians have two strong singles players in the sixth-ranked Cilic and the 18th-ranked Borna Coric, as well as one of the world’s leading doubles players in Mate Pavic. He usually teams with Oliver Marach of Austria on tour but is expected to play with Ivan Dodig for Davis Cup, unless the captain, Zeljko Krajan, decides to have Cilic play doubles.
For some, the most intriguing pairing in Zadar was always going to be chair umpire Carlos Ramos and Katrina Adams, the president of the U.S. Tennis Association. Adams openly suggested sexism had played a role in Ramos’ clash with Serena Williams during the U.S. Open women’s singles final, which Williams lost to Naomi Osaka on Saturday after receiving three code violations.
Ramos, who will be in the chair for the Davis Cup in Croatia, spoke with Adams on Thursday, and The Associated Press reported overhearing Adams offer an apology for the fallout from the Open final. Adams denied an interview request, seeking to confirm the report.
With Isner and Sock out, Courier has called on Ryan Harrison, 26, and Frances Tiafoe, 20, a talented youngster ranked 40th who has a tough assignment for his Davis Cup debut: facing Cilic on the road Friday.
“One thing we know and love about Davis Cup is that it’s rarely predictable,” Courier said.
It is usually meaningful, however, and there may not be much at stake in the other tier of matches being played Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In a normal year, the eight teams to win in the qualifying round this weekend would next year advance to the World Group, the top level of the competition.
With the changes, the winners will be guaranteed only a seeding in the opening round of Davis Cup next February: a 24-team, home-and-away round that will determine 12 of the teams that advance to the newfangled finals.
To make matters more confusing, the losers in this weekend’s qualifying round will also still qualify for next year’s opening round if their Davis Cup rankings are high enough to make the cut.