by Rajagopalan Rohinee
A lot had been said about the reinvention of the Davis Cup when the discussions surrounding its reformatting raged in 2018. Across 1st-2nd February when the Davis Cup qualifiers were played for the first time, one finally got to see how the new format would pan out.
In the end, it became a guiding point illustrating how abruptly the results came about and how hurriedly the ties would end, from here on.
To elaborate with statistical context, three of the 12 ties – Brazil versus Belgium, Germany versus Hungary and Colombia versus Sweden – were determined in straight sets. Of the remaining nine ties, merely 20 rubbers went the distance to three sets. Within these rubbers that were played as best-of-three, eight were played in doubles. Germany versus Hungary was the only tie where only singles rubbers were played as best-of-three: the first singles rubber between Philipp Kohlschreiber and Zsombor Piros, and the second reverse-single rubber between Philipp Kohlschreiber and David Szintai. Moreover, across all ties, there were no upsets and the favourites ruled the roost.
The latter facet is the biggest differentiator between the past and present editions of the Davis Cup. Previously, the longer, best-of-five format gave the players enough room to try and eke out a comeback in a rubber, even when trailing by two sets. Not only for the unseeded teams and their players but especially for the higher-ranked players susceptible to nerves that were unique to the tournament.
Bluntly put, quantitative measurement of time – spent on the court – had brushed aside qualitative memories. And while this happened, opinions that were divided on the efficacy of the changes made to the tournament’s format – in terms of quality versus quantity (of time) – continued to remain diverged, both before and after the ties.
In the press conference after Italy’s 3-1 routing of India, Andreas Seppi said, “For me, I think it’s better to play shorter matches. The format is okay, and also in two days maybe it gives me more time to go to the next tournament if you want to play. Davis Cup (has) had a lot of tradition over 100 years, and sometimes changes are good and sometimes not.” On the other hand, while his team did him proud by winning all four rubbers it played in straight sets, Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt did not hesitate to call out Gerard Pique, the ardent promoter and investor of the revamped tournament in one of his press conferences, before the start of the qualifiers.
“Now we’re getting run by a Spanish football player, which is like me come out and asking to change things for the Champions League. He knows nothing about tennis,” said Hewitt. The former world no. 1’s observations extended his vocal criticism on a development he has regarded as interference to the continuity of the tournament. But where Hewitt’s stance remained unchanged – there were those who preferred to adopt a wait-and-watch approach with regard to the format’s effectiveness in the November finals. Like Simone Bolelli, who admitted, “This format obviously is different but for us this tie was good. I think sometimes it is good, sometimes it is not. But we have to try (in the final) and we will see.”
Bolelli’s measured words offer much-needed pragmatism as to how things would change for Italy, and for several other qualifiers, in the finals in Madrid. Where, they would have been reduced to relative underdogs across the finals’ week from being the favourites one weekend.
To that end, the illusion of open-endedness of the tournament created by the truncated results in the qualifiers stands to come to an end during the finals’ week. Because, the redesigned format endeavours to reward a team whose players are better-suited to the shortened game than to displays of consistency and endurance. And, to the detriment of those with vested interests in the re-imagined tournament, this further restricts its already-narrowed scope.