Ringside View by Shamik Chakrabarty: A new chapter begins in Davis Cup with 12 qualifying-round ties

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Published: February 3, 2019 3:43:59 AM

The Barcelona centre-half picked the Davis Cup to invest in sport, proposed a radical overhaul of the 119-year-old event and revelled in the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) kowtowing.

India’s non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi with other players at a press conference ahead of their Davis Cup match against Italy in Kolkata earlier this week (PTI)

Gerard Pique must be having a sense of immense satisfaction at the change that he described as “historic”. The Barcelona centre-half picked the Davis Cup to invest in sport, proposed a radical overhaul of the 119-year-old event and revelled in the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) kowtowing. A footballer has altered the very fabric of the most prestigious team tournament in tennis by pumping in $3 billion over 25 years through his investment group Kosmos.

Last Friday, a new chapter began in the Davis Cup with 12 qualifying-round ties. The winners progressed to the finals, to be played in Madrid in November. A total 18 countries will turn up for the finals. Last year’s semi-finalists—Croatia, France, Spain and the United States—were given direct entry, while Britain and Argentina received wildcards. The Davis Cup was first played in 1900 and in 1981 it created a World Group with 16 teams. That’s history now, as also its home-and-away format and best-of-five sets matches. All the matches have now been reduced to best-of-three sets.

It’s unlikely that if Roger Federer goes to Fifa and proposes a change in the World Cup format, football’s global body will give him a patient hearing. Actually, it’s almost unthinkable that Federer will make such a weird approach. From that perspective, Pique approaching the ITF and getting the job done bordered on the grotesque. It’s a different issue that he picked tennis over football to invest, especially at a time when La Liga wasn’t exactly in the pink, money-wise.

Talking about Federer, the great man had warned last year that the Davis Cup shouldn’t become the ‘Pique Cup’. “I haven’t spoken to Gerard Pique yet, but I admit that it’s a bit odd to see a footballer arrive and meddle in the tennis business. Be careful; the Davis Cup shouldn’t become the Pique Cup. I’m globally for innovations; our sport needs to think a little outside the box to innovate. But it’s a bit like in a part of Jenga, you have to be careful not to remove the room that will bring down the whole building,” the tennis legend had said in August last year.

His comment came on the heels of the ITF annual general meeting in Orlando that approved the Davis Cup restructuring by a two-thirds majority. Pique was successful to change the Davis Cup into a world cup on his second attempt. Earlier, in 2015, he had met the ITF commercial director in Barcelona. But the negotiations fell through.

The Davis Cup wasn’t the most popular tennis event in the world. Far from it… Several players had complained about its erstwhile year-long format, which according to them brought extra stress in an already cramped tour schedule. The ITF said its rebranding would bring the top players back into the competition. As it turned out, both Federer and Novak Djokovic opted out of their respective Davis Cup ties, when Switzerland played against Russia and Serbia faced Uzbekistan this weekend. Even Italy’s top-ranked player Fabio Fognini was absent for his team’s Davis Cup tie against India at the Calcutta South Club.

India’s non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi, however, supported the change, saying: “When someone takes a proposal the people who are voting on the proposal, all the educated people on the idea of board, who all know everything about tennis. The proposal (was) voted on by the ITF board and unanimously passed, which means (the) ITF governing body is the one who changed the format because they feel that it’s better for tennis.”

Bhupathi probably missed a point that was highlighted by former India Davis Cup captain Jaidip Mukerjea. “For countries like India, the Davis Cup was the only event that brought top stars in this part of the world. The likes of Stefan Edberg, Goran Ivanisevic, Rafael Nadal and several other top players came here for the Davis Cup ties. With India playing in the zonal group, fans here will miss out on the opportunity to watch the greats in the flesh,” Mukerjea told this correspondent during a conversation last week.

At the exalted level, criticism was sharper. Australian legend John Newcombe described the change as “the recipe for the death”. The Australian Davis Cup team captain Lleyton Hewitt tore into Pique and his investment group. “He (Pique) knows nothing about tennis. It’d be like me asking to change things for the Champions League,” Hewitt told reporters ahead of Australia’s Davis Cup qualifier against Bosnia-Herzegovina. “The two biggest points of difference were, one, the home and away aspect of it and, secondly, the best of five sets. If you look at the pinnacle of our sport, which are the four majors, they’re best of five sets. Having it at one place I think is ridiculous, I don’t think many of the top players will play,” he added. Boris Becker reacted with a tweet: “Lost for words”.

Last Thursday, ITF president David Haggerty announced La Liga’s association with tennis, that the Spanish football league will sponsor the Davis Cup finals. It was further cross-dressing of an event that greatly valued its tradition.

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