It is a pity it had to come to this, but with Davis Cup withering and rival events surfacing, the feeling was that something had to give. In what would arguably be the biggest change to the Davis Cup since its creation, the International Tennis Federation announced plans to transform the annual national-team competition through what it called a 25-year, $3 billion partnership with an international investment group headed by the Spanish soccer star Gerard Pique.
The lucrative proposal, which requires final approval in August by the I.T.F.’s general membership, would change the top level of Davis Cup into a week long event in November involving 18 nations, with best-of-three-set matches played.
The plan is to implement the overhaul, but approval, in light of the general membership’s conservative voting record, is far from guaranteed.
“It’s politically tricky and no sure thing that this gets rubber-stamped,” Jim Courier, the American Davis Cup captain, said in an interview on Monday while expressing support for the plan.
Currently, 16 men’s teams play in Davis Cup’s top division, known as the World Group, in a home-and-away format over four rounds interspersed throughout the season, and all live matches are best of five sets.
Some former Davis Cup champions, like Yevgeny Kafelnikov of Russia, consider the proposal a travesty.
“Terrible,” Kafelnikov said in an interview Monday. “The value and spirit of the whole team competition is gone.”
But like many influential figures in the game, I.T.F. President David Haggerty is convinced that big moves are necessary to keep the event relevant. Haggerty said the proposal had received unanimous support from the I.T.F.’s board of directors.
Though mild-mannered in person, Haggerty is unafraid to make bold moves (if this one fails, his bid for re-election in 2019 certainly will suffer, too). A former tennis industry executive and a former president of the United States Tennis Association, Haggerty was among those who pushed successfully for a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open and for the U.S.T.A.’s vast new complex at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla.
“Certainly this is a big decision for the I.T.F.,” Haggerty said by telephone from London on Monday. “We know the environment has changed in tennis over the last few years. Players are playing later in their careers. It’s a very physical sport, so I think many factors were taken into account.
“At the same time, if you go back 50 years ago, in Bournemouth they had the first Open tennis event. There had to have been a number of tennis leaders sitting around saying, ‘Jeez, tennis is O.K., do we really need to make this change? What is it going to do to us? Is it good or bad?’ You never know, so that strength of conviction, they had that at the time. They took a risk, but look how tennis has changed. Perhaps in the future, we will look back on this and say the I.T.F. board took such a risk.”
Haggerty also wants a more solid financial base for the I.T.F., which has become the weakest pillar among the sport’s bloated network of governing bodies.
The money could be transformative: Haggerty said the partnership with Kosmos, the investment firm headed by Piqué and backed by the 52-year-old Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani, would provide more than $20 million in prize money for the players in the final phase each year.
If the $3 billion figure is correct, it would also provide the I.T.F., whose main source of revenue is Davis Cup, with an unheard-of influx of cash to fund its own activities, which include developing the game world wide and running amateur and lower-level professional circuits. Haggerty also said that federations would benefit.
If the overhaul is approved, only the seasons ahead will determine who was correct in their assessment: the Kafelnikovs or the Haggertys. But one can understand the lure and the timing. Despite pockets of passion, and a compelling, Davis Cup traction globally.
There were certainly less extreme potential solutions: A partnership with the ATP Tour; shifting the Davis Cup dates away from such proximity to Grand Slam tournaments; or switching to a biennial format that might have lured the biggest stars.
But after being thwarted last year in an attempt to tweak the format with smaller changes, like using a neutral-site final and best-of-three-set singles matches, Haggerty doubled down and pushed instead for more radical change.
At least initially, the event would most likely be held, Haggerty said, and because of the number of courts required, it would most likely be staged outdoors.
“The next step in my view to make this event all it could be would be to include the Fed Cup in this tennis extravaganza,” Courier said, referring to the I.T.F’s women’s team competition. “That should be the ultimate goal.”
For now, the I.T.F. is focused on expanding Fed Cup’s top division from eight to 16 teams, although Haggerty expressed support for a similar, single-site Fed Cup competition in the future.
In the Davis Cup proposal, the plan is for the 18 national teams to be divided into six groups of three for round-robin play over three days. Each team would have four players, and each encounter would include two singles matches and one doubles match. Eight teams would advance to the quarterfinals (the six group winners plus the two best second-place teams) and would be guaranteed a spot in the following year’s final phase.
During the week, the strongest eight of the 10 eliminated teams would then play for a place in the following year’s competition against the eight teams who have come through home-and-away qualifying during the Davis Cup’s traditional dates earlier in the season. The semi finals would be played on Saturday, and the final on Sunday.
“The nice thing is that by the end of the week, you’ll know the 16 teams playing in next year’s event,” Haggerty said.
He said the 17th and 18th teams would be selected by the I.T.F. and Kosmos “based on criteria to be determined.”
Such an overhaul would have been unthinkable in Davis Cup’s heyday, when its prestige was on par with the four Grand Slam tournaments in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. But those moments are long gone, even if Davis Cup continues to generate big crowds and enthusiasm in several countries, including France, which won the title for the 10th time last year.
But many leading players and tennis officials have been clamouring for a change in format for decades. In this golden age in the men’s game, the biggest stars — including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — have all been part of winning Davis Cup teams but have rarely participated at the same time as one another and have faced each other too rarely in the event.
Also, rival national-team events with shorter formats have surfaced, including the Laver Cup, which was started successfully last year by Roger Federer’s management company, pitting a European Team against an International Team.
But the biggest threat was the ATP’s recent interest in relaunching the single-week World Team Cup, which could have further reduced top players’ interest in committing to Davis Cup. Piqué’s group, with support from Djokovic, first negotiated with the ATP and its executive chairman Chris Kermode about creating such an event before turning to the I.T.F. in late November.