Blueprint to improve team competitions comes under much scrutiny

2/11/2008 - Tennis
Less than three months removed from capturing the Davis Cup championship, Patrick McEnroe, left, successfully led the U.S. squad to a 4-1 first-round win over Austria. AP Photo/Hans Punz

If there is one thing all the interested parties probably can agree on, it is that there likely always will be some debate in tennis as to what format is best for Fed Cup and Davis Cup.

Upon conversation with anyone who willingly takes a stab at suggesting possible alternative setups for the Fed Cup for women or the Davis Cup for men, it is immediately apparent that all are well-intentioned in their desire to keep these two international team competitions viable.

The Fed Cup operates on an eight-nation, three-round, "home and away" World Group format that plays each tie over two days -- two singles matches on Saturday followed by two reverse singles matches and a concluding doubles match on Sunday.

The Davis Cup, which garners more attention and is a far better ticket-seller than Fed Cup, operates under a 16-nation, four-round, "home and away" World Group format. Each series features best-of-five-set matches played over three days -- two singles matches Friday, a doubles match Saturday and two reverse singles matches Sunday.

It should be said from the outset that the International Tennis Federation, under whose auspices the Fed Cup and Davis Cup fall, is confident that both competitions are success stories, holding especially firm to the belief that the idea of one nation hosting a visiting nation is the cornerstone that sparks fan interest. Although the ITF always has maintained that it is open to plausible format change, its officials say any new slant must make sense financially and enhance the events' value to fans.

Basically, the ITF's tenet is: Why fix what isn't broken?

And to substantiate its position, the ITF distributes a good percentage of the profit from these competitions to fund programs, including grassroots projects, in an effort to bring the sport to nations around the globe.

The ITF tends to hear more disgruntled chatter regarding Davis Cup than Fed Cup, but remains stoic in backing the tried-and-true blueprint for what is billed as "the largest annual international team competition in sport."

Among the many Davis Cup incarnations that have been floated out there are: a one-venue, one-week concept similar to what Fed Cup had in the past; an every-other-year approach styled on the Ryder Cup; a once-every-four-year approach modeled on the World Cup, as well as the notion that neither Fed Cup nor Davis Cup should be held in an Olympic year.

Before the 2008 first round, ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti released a statement to the media -- one of many through the years -- in support of the Davis Cup status quo.

"The vast majority of our member nations believe in the current format and the 'home and away' beauty of the competition is very important," Bitti said. "The professional tennis calendar is annual by definition and the average commitment that we ask of players for Davis Cup is much less than any other team sport where competition is often spread over many years. Some people have suggested changing the format, but I have never heard anyone coming up with a really interesting alternative. We are ready to listen to any idea for Davis Cup, but they should be financially interesting as well as feasible from a sporting point of view. Around 130 nations take part in Davis Cup on an annual basis, and for many of these nations the competition represents a significant source of income for the development of the sport."

Although many of the top men have answered the rally call to Davis Cup on a frequent, if not every tie, basis, the competition has seen many stars send their regrets, claiming it's too difficult to fit the competition into their already-too-busy schedules.

It's hard not to notice that Roger Federer has absented himself from the first round of Davis Cup the past few years and that his presence in the relegation round last year in hopes of securing Switzerland's spot in the coveted 2008 World Group failed. Britain's No. 1, Andy Murray, stayed away from Buenos Aires this coming weekend, a decision that drew the wrath of his older brother, Jamie, who played doubles. And it's no secret that superstars such as Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors did not regularly support the American Davis Cup effort.

But in contrast to the above players, the reigning Davis Cup champions, and first-round winners over Austria this past weekend -- Andy Roddick, James Blake and Bob and Mike Bryan -- are dedicated to defending their title. History also shows that numerous former world No. 1s, such as Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander and Boris Becker, traditionally made a habit of proudly representing their countries.

Courier, a four-time Grand Slam event champion who was on the winning U.S. teams in 1992 and 1995, supports the competition but believes there's a better format to be had.

"Davis Cup and the Slams, that's what you remember," Courier told ESPN.com of his career highlights. "You make your name in those events, and you make your living elsewhere. But I think the Davis Cup needs to emulate the World Cup format to create value for the Davis and Fed Cup competitions. I think it could be every other non-Olympic year or every four years."

U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe, who previously has vocalized the need for change, chose not to address the issue before taking his team to Austria. But once in Austria, Blake didn't hide his opinion that there's an absurdity in the American team's having to defend its title -- a record 32nd Davis Cup title for the U.S. -- only 10 weeks after winning it.

"You know, it's tough, I think," Blake said. "Tougher for the fans to realize than it is us. Because for fans to see how excited and how thrilled we were to be Davis Cup champions just a couple of months ago and realize we're already playing again is just crazy. … It just shows how seemingly endless the schedule is. And that maybe there could be calls for reform and maybe having the finalist nations get a bye or have [Davis Cup] every two years. But this is something we need to discuss with the ITF, and hopefully they'll understand the point of view from the players' side as opposed to just the organizers' side."

The ITF has experimented with different mutations for the Fed Cup, but it has settled on the current formula since 2005. The Fed Cup began in 1963 as a weeklong, knock-out event and held to that format though 1994. From 1995 to 1999, the ITF used a formula similar to the current one, but between 2000 and 2004, it briefly tested playing the semifinal and final at the same venue in one week, which proved to be unsuccessful.

Indeed, when host Russia lost in the semifinals of the 2003 Fed Cup, France defeated the United States 4-1 for the title with about 75 French fans in attendance for the final two days in the cavernous Olympic stadium in Moscow. Current Fed Cup captain Zina Garrison was the U.S. coach under Billie Jean King in that 2003 final, and she doesn't have fond memories of the experience: "Remember when we played in Russia that time and the Russians lost? The place was empty for the final, and it was horrible."

Explaining the decision to hold the Fed Cup as played now, Bitti said, "The ITF felt there were limitations to the weeklong format, in particular a decrease in local interest in the event if the home team lost early. The ITF and its Fed Cup committee strongly believe in the current home-and-away format that has been so successful in Davis Cup."

Garrison, serving in her fifth and final year as Fed Cup captain, understands the drama of "home and away," having just led the U.S. to a 4-1 win over Germany in La Jolla, Calif. Yet, having played under the one-week, one-venue formula, she believes that option to be more player-friendly.

"As far as getting players, sometimes it's very difficult," said Garrison, who acknowledged that Serena Williams passed on the quarterfinals because she was hard-designated by the WTA Tour for this week's Paris Indoors, a tournament she ended up withdrawing from anyway. "I know that they're trying to figure out ways to make money on it and for it to grow and that's somewhat difficult."

Former player Mary Joe Fernandez, a television commentator who will assume the role of U.S. Fed Cup captain in 2009, can make a capable argument for a number of different formulas.

"I think for the top players, the ideal format is the one-week format because there are so many tournaments on the calendar it's hard to be able to commit to three different [Fed Cup] weeks during the year," Fernandez said. "I think for the spectators and for the team itself, these weeks are fantastic. The practice weeks, getting to know each other and having that bonding, is phenomenal. And home and away is something to look forward to, so I've always liked this formula better."

It is a given that Davis Cup and Fed Cup tend to have a stronger following abroad than in the U.S., so for much of the rest of the world, there isn't as much concern about what to do with the two competitions. And as Lindsay Davenport says, "Hopefully, we'll figure something out. Obviously, it's successful in other countries; we just have to build up the popularity here in the States."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter who spends much of her year covering tennis around the world.