By Jane Voigt
March 12, 2017 — Seems like everything today is based on viewership. Need an extra boost of self worth, check your Twitter feed. Want to impress your friends? Tell them how many ‘likes’ you got on a Facebook post. Have a hot product? Get people talking about it, sharing it, buying it.
Tennis is no different. And, that’s why Davis Cup has been under fire for years to rework its format and its frequency. Otherwise, this 117-year-old nation-to-nation competition faces a serious threat of disappearing.
Here are some reasons why:
- Only diehard fans watch it.
- Tickets are expensive for the average person, so seats are left empty adding to the perception that it’s not important to the game or sport.
- The 3-day format four times a year keeps players out of tour competition where they would earn money and points.
- The honor and satisfaction players derive from representing their country in international team competition is a keen incentive. However, the wear-and-tear on their bodies is the same.
- Rubbers, as Davis Cup matches are termed, are 5-sets. Who has time to watch a 5-set match? And if viewership is low who will guarantee to broadcast matches that could extend hours beyond tight schedules?
- Top players forsake Davis Cup for tour events and/or rest.
The ITF has taken a small step to control the length of each match. It introduced a fifth-set tiebreak last year. Gone is the possibility of extended sets where a team had to win by two games. On Thursday, the ITF also voted “unanimously in favor of a proposal that would switch matches to a best-of-three” format, The New York Times reported.
These are steps in the right direction, if Davis Cup wants to retain and increase viewership. The changes also should keep it viable in a market saturated with sports that retain huge fan bases.
The full membership of the ITF will vote on the proposal in August. It will require a two-thirds majority to pass.
In Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open, Dave Haggerty, president of the ITF, told the Times, “I think the main drivers of our strategy are to increase top player participation and enhance the experience for the fans, the spectators and the broadcasters. Two five-set matches in one day can be very exciting, but it can also be very long. You lose TV audiences, so we think the quality of the two two-out-of-three-set matches will far outweighs what people feel they may not be getting.”
The new president of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli, agreed with Haggerty, writing on his Facebook page, “We have to evolve with our time,” and “Fewer people stay seated for eight hours to watch tennis.”
One of the more serious issues for Davis Cup, too, is the fact that top-ten players don’t participate. Only Novak Djokovic played Davis Cup in the opening round this year. With the abundance of tournaments available to watch and fans that want to see top players in action, this fact should motivate ITF board members to vote for the proposal.
Other tennis pundits have suggested Davis Cup should only run once every four years, like soccer’s World Cup. Or, at least, not annually. Other suggestions have been to shorten the 3-day weekend to two days, the way Fed Cup is organized for women. And, finally, to promote the event and increase income for the sites hosting Davis Cup, others suggest venues should be chosen well in advance. That would help promotion. Currently a location is chosen by “one of the two finalists to stage it on short notice.”
One-hundred-thirty teams play Davis Cup today. In 1981 the tiered system was introduced and remains in use to this day. Sixteen of the best national teams compete in the World Group while the remaining nations compete in one of four additional groups within three regional zones.
The competition is decidedly more popular outside the United States, but hundreds of memorable matches mark its history no matter your country of origin. It’s the only tennis event that encourages audience participation, too. That, in and of itself, is reason enough to support Davis Cup. It normalizes it across all sports.