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Last week's Davis Cup ties were rousing good fun, but as usual they flew under fans' radar, renewing calls for change
SO HERE'S the good news: The U.S. pasted Spain last weekend in the quarterfinals of Davis Cup competition. Playing on a slick indoor court—about as antithetical to Spanish sensibilities as an early dinner—James Blake and Andy Roddick won their singles matches in straight sets on Friday and Bob and Mike Bryan sealed the deal in the doubles on Saturday. The bad news: Odds are you're learning about this result for the first time right now.
Tennis has never been more globalized. The top 10 male pros represent eight countries. The ATP circuit threads through dozens of nations on six continents. If ever a sport were well suited for international team competition, this is it. Yet, tennis being tennis, the opportunity is being squandered; Davis Cup teeters on the brink of irrelevance, done in by an absurdly protracted schedule. Consider: The next round of play ( U.S. at Sweden, Germany at Russia) won't be held until late September. Huh?
Blake calls Davis Cup "the rocket-science event," referring to the expertise needed to follow the format. (There are seven weeks between the first two rounds, then five months until the next one; 2007 ties are played simultaneously with qualifying rounds for 2008.) Then again, credit Blake—who earned two of the four U.S. points against Spain—for at least dignifying the event with his presence. Neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal, the world's top two players, found Davis Cup worthy of their time last weekend.
Suggestions for improving the event have come from all corners. Most entail adopting concepts from other cups (the World and the Ryder, to name two): for example, holding the event every other year to heighten anticipation. Another idea is to confine the competition to a single stretch of the season, rather than spread it out over the year. Yet another: Ivan Ljubicic, who heads the ATP players' council, claims that 19 of the top 20 players recently signed a document requesting that Davis Cup rounds follow Grand Slam events, ensuring greater consistency in the schedule. "Until a few weeks ago they didn't want to talk about it," Ljubicic says. "Now they're open to discussion."
The they in question is the International Tennis Federation, which governs Davis Cup and has been stunningly resistant to change. As the ITF sees it, the cup format has worked fine for more than 100 years; why tinker now? Conversely, the ATP could help by shifting the dates of some tournaments to accommodate a revised Davis Cup calendar. But it's not volunteering to do so. Welcome to Tennis Politics 101.
The great pity is that Davis Cup is a gem of an event and, even in its current state, has plenty to recommend it. With its overlay of nationalism the team competition makes for gripping theater. The vibe at the U.S.- Spain matches in Winston-Salem, N.C., was altogether different from the atmosphere at regular tournaments. "It's a great event to attend in person, but it has no [traction]," says U.S. captain Pat McEnroe. "That doesn't make sense."
He's right. With a few sensible format changes—say, adopting a Final Four format, with one month of hyped action—the Davis Cup would no longer be half empty.
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