Davis Cup must not go the way of the dodo
It hasn't been pretty watching tennis' top players gang up against the venerable Davis Cup.
Too outdated, too taxing, too inconvenient, they are saying of the 110-year-old competition that has given fans some of their dearest tennis memories. Who can forget a shirt-sleeved Boris Yeltsin abandoning his VIP seat to hug the Russian team that beat the French on home clay in 2002?
If they all line up behind whacky proposals for a soccer-style World Cup of tennis, an idea that could send the Davis Cup the way of the dodo, the sport's big guns risk being selfish. Because for small tennis nations and for players without wealthy sponsors and bulging bank accounts, competing for the trophy that Dwight Davis commissioned more than a century ago is often the highlight of their year, even their whole careers.
Says Des Allen, the CEO of Irish tennis: ``For a country like Ireland, big-time tennis is Davis Cup.''
That's not to say that the World Cup concept being hawked by an Australian sports marketing firm should be dismissed out of hand. Some of its proposals - like cutting down on the dead time in matches by forcing players to take no longer than 25 seconds between points - are funky and refreshing and should please television executives who like tennis in bite-sized, easily scheduled chunks.
Bringing 32 national teams together for a 10-day competition could, as the World Cup does for soccer, also attract fans by appealing to their fly-the-flag instincts. And more fans could mean more money.
But a World Cup would have to be good for everyone in tennis, not just those at the top of the game who say that it's a struggle to fit Davis Cup into their hectic globe-trotting and lucrative schedules.
Like Davis Cup, a World Cup would have to spread money around, helping to finance the sport's survival and growth in places like Africa. Like Davis Cup, a World Cup should take tennis to far-flung outposts that otherwise don't get to see top-level players in action. Like Davis Cup, it must be all-inclusive, accommodating not only the Roger Federers of this world but also tennis minnows like Domenico Vicini.
When he's not running a campsite in northern Italy, where he also doubles as a tennis instructor, Vicini plays Davis Cup for the micro-state of San Marino, population 30,000. Vicini has played in more ties - 78 and counting - than anyone in Davis Cup history, and has won the majority of his singles matches.
``The emotions one feels in the Davis Cup are unmatched by any other tournament,'' Vicini told The Associated Press this week. ``If you care about your nation, your flag, then it's the best.
``It's what kept me going.''
Asked what he thought of the proposals for a World Cup, he added simply: ``It would be good if all could take part.''
World Cup promoters say it's not their intention to kill off the Davis Cup. But that could be the result if top players abandon the tournament in favor of the new concept.
Already, the top-ranked Federer says he won't play in the Davis Cup against defending champion Spain in March because it doesn't fit with his other commitments. Fourth-ranked Andy Murray is skipping Britain's matchup against Lithuania. The United States will be without No. 7 Andy Roddick this year because he wants to spare his gimpy left knee.
``Maybe (Davis Cup) was perfect 20 or 30 years ago but now it is really too much for us,'' said Croatian player Ivan Ljubicic, ranked 24th. ``It takes a lot of your time.''
Thankfully, the International Tennis Federation, which runs Davis Cup, won't let it die without a fight.
ITF vice president Juan Margets, who chairs the Davis Cup committee, notes that the vast majority of top 20 players agreed as recently as two years ago to the competition's current schedule and format. He is deeply skeptical that room could be made in the already packed tennis calendar for a World Cup held every two years.
``We don't believe in events that are not annual,'' Margets told the AP. ``We have to go out and defend the Davis Cup.''
The players, the ITF and the ATP tour are going to have to sit down and work this one out. But for a World Cup to make any sense, it will need to be at least as good for tennis as the Davis Cup has been - and that is a pretty tall order.
Most importantly, it must not cut out those lower down the tennis food chain.
Said Allen: ``In all of these issues, it's the small guy that often has to make the sacrifice.''
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.