For what is the world’s oldest team tennis competition, the 2019 Davis Cup had a year of first. The Cup, previously known for its home-and-away fixtures across the globe, had a major overhaul in 2019 of its format with the home-and-away fixture replaced by an end-of-season week long finals tournament in Madrid (save for home-and-away qualifiers earlier in the year). There has been much controversy with the new format which has replaced 100 years of tradition.
While Spain lifted the trophy, we take a look at whether the new format can survive based on my experience of attending two ties during the week-long finals.
I had the chance to attend the Quarter Final between Australia v Canada, and the Semi Final between Spain v Great Britain. The experience between both ties was a chalk and cheese – the Quarter Final was played in front of a tiny crowd, whereas the Semi Final was in-front of a packed house that was making noise that could blow the roof off the The Magic Box (the venue for this year’s event).
The distinct feature of the Davis Cup has always been that challenge for the away team having to play a home team in a cauldron-like atmosphere, as home supporters make the venue sound like a football (soccer) match between points. The Semi Final between Spain and Great Britain had such atmosphere. In fact, it was one of the most incredible sporting experiences I have witnessed first hand.
However rewind a few nights earlier to Australia v Canada, who were playing in a cut-throat quarter final, and the cracks on this new Davis Cup format were (unfortunately) on full show. A small crowd in a 12,000 seat stadium, with a few home fans from either side (albeit making a good amount of noise) made for a disappointing experience. To put it into other words, from what should have been an incredibly exciting experience (if it had been played in Canada or Australia) turned into a somewhat drab affair as the tie went late into the evening. To make it worse was that outside the Arena, the concession area was empty and cold (for some reason the Magic Box configuration sees a heated stadium but then outside – where all the food and sponsor stands are located – is exposed to the winter chill). Compare this to Saturday night’s Spain v Great Britain Semi Final where it went into the early hours of the morning, was bitterly cold outside, yet the place was rocking (in fact, according to my Apple Watch nearly 100 dB of noise), as home fans got to see the world’s #1 player take Spain to the Davis Cup Final.
And there in-lies the problem with this new Davis Cup format. That is, the best part of the new tournament was actually something that always existed with the old format, an away team facing a rapturous home crowd with that nation’s players feeding off such energy. So, while the best part remains for the team that is hosting the finals week, that “best part” that was part of every tie has now been stripped and is the exclusive experience of the tournament’s host nation. In 2020, the host nation will once again be Spain.
This is a hard problem to solve and one is not saying there weren’t inherent problems with the old Davis Cup format. However, unless large swarms of fans are willing to travel to a neutral country for a week during a non-holiday period, which seems unlikely, this problem is likely to remain. One solution, and one that must surely be adopted to ensure tournament integrity, is to move the finals location on an annual or biannual basis (like the Laver Cup) so that the same nation does not benefit from this “home” advantage on an ongoing basis.
While this “parochial” support issue is probably the biggest item to review from 2019’s tournament, it wasn’t all negative! There were some great plusses. Being able to follow the Davis Cup in a short week-long format made the tournament very exciting, much like a Grand Slam as the draw fell into place. Further, the doubles format came to the fore to show it is still relevant. Many ties ended with decisive doubles battles, which featured not only double specialists but also the best singles players in the world.
2019 was the first year of the new Davis Cup and while the Spain v Great Britain certainly felt like what the Davis Cup has always been known for, my experience earlier in the week at the Quarter Final was less than impressive as a small crowd for a major final meant the energy from the experience was largely zapped.
The new Davis Cup has entered a competitive landscape with the Laver Cup and the revived ATP Cup. It will be interesting to see how the latter fares during the Australian summer across three-Australian cities because based on the experience in Madrid, it could suffer from the same difficulties (see my review of the ATP Cup here).
2019’s new Davis Cup was a success but mainly due to Spain’s (the home nation’s) performance, but the question remains what if the home nation is not strong, what would the atmosphere during the finals week be like? We shall watch this space.