On Wednesday, Rafael Nadal will make his long awaited return, entering an ATP world tour 250 event in Chile. Tennis Channel will carry the match live at 4 PM. The major networks are leading their Tennis pages with the Nadal story. Undoubtedly, it’s big news. The sport needs Nadal on the court, not on the sidelines.
But why is he garnering the headlines today? The timing is curious considering a scintillating weekend of Davis Cup tennis just concluded. Led by Milos Raonic, Canada will make their first foray into the second round after beating powerhouse Spain in Vancouver. Sam Querrey battled back from a set down in the final rubber to send the States past underdog Brazil. The Czech Republic and Switzerland contested the second longest match of all time. Emergency replacement Fabio Fognini led Italy over Croatia, setting up a match-up with the Canadians on April 5th.
In brief, the Davis Cup creates story lines the tour cannot. Frank Dancevic is not going to beat Andy Murray at Wimbledon. That didn’t matter on Friday night, when the 151st ranked player in the world gave Canada a 2-0 lead. Nicolás Almagro and Radek Štepánek don’t play in Grand Slam finals. It’s a different story when their country is involved. The 2012 Davis Cup final was an epic, lasting four sets. Stepanek emerged in the end, and the Czech Republic captured their second Davis Cup title. Watching the ensuing celebration at the O2 Arena in Prague was pretty damn cool.
Unfortunately, the Cup is on the verge of irrelevancy. A wonky schedule and the absence of stars have combined to make it a non-event in the eyes of casual tennis fans and more frighteningly, the players themselves.
Andy Murray skipped Great Britain’s tie with Russia because he wants to focus on the French Open. Rather than join his countrymen in Coventry, Murray wants to acclimatize himself to clay, a surface he’s struggled on.
It’s a surface that takes me a long time to get used to, it’s not a surface that comes naturally to me. Grass and hard courts I feel comfortable on fairly quickly, the clay takes me a long time.
He’s not alone. Roger Federer, notoriously fickle when it comes to his involvement in the Davis Cup, didn’t play this weekend. Nadal was never going to play for Spain. Captain Àlex Corretja was also without David Ferrer and Almagro, the former not wanting to interrupt his preparation for the rest of the season with a trip to Vancouver. A disturbingly small crowd of 3,500 in Jacksonville took in opening night action between the U.S and Brazil.
Men’s tennis, like most professional sports, relies on star power. The Davis Cup was at its peak when the stars wanted to play. When the United States could employ a super team featuring Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. When then No. 1 Stefan Edberg led the Swedes back from a 2-0 deficit against Canada in 1992.
This year, one player from the top five will compete in the Davis Cup. The International Tennis Federation needs to change the format of a once historic competition or risk its demise. When several players, both in the top flight and middle rungs, skip Davis Cup fixtures because of poor timing the biggest issue becomes clear. The scheduling is poor. The quarters take place in April. Randomly, six months later the competition picks up again before the final in November.
The solution isn’t without its problems. Though desired, a World Cup style competition would run into scheduling problems itself. With basically a one month off-season, fitting a 2-3 week, all or nothing tournament, will require the removal of smaller tournaments. In the end, the powers that be will have to decide if that is best for the game.
The concept remains great. But it needs to be altered in order to ensure the Davis Cup does not fade into irrelevancy.