AMost recently, the final week of another breathless tennis season began on Tuesday afternoon in Málaga with the Davis Cup final. Milos Raonic of Canada, the defending champion, and Finland’s Patrick Kaukovalta entered the huge Palacio de los Deportes and were warmly welcomed by a well-attended crowd for the first quarter-final.
However, these positive scenes belie a year of chaos for the Davis Cup. Four years after Kosmos, the investment company co-founded by Gerard Piqué, and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) reformed the event, it remains to be seen whether one of the world’s biggest annual team sports competitions can finally catch on.
In 2018, after 72% of the ITF’s 213 member states voted in favor of the reforms at its annual general meeting, Kosmos pledged a $3 billion investment under the 25-year agreement. Even then, there was considerable skepticism within the sport about the deal and the likelihood of it being successful. Today it lies in ruins.
In January, Kosmos’ 21-year contract with the ITF was terminated. During his time in charge of the competition, Kosmos lost significant amounts of money and fell behind on payments to players. The organization attempted to negotiate a reduction in the annual fee owed to the ITF for organizing the Davis Cup. Pique’s company argued this was excessive before ultimately terminating the contract.
Because Kosmos breached the contract, both sides asserted legal claims against each other. The ITF has now appointed Tennium, an established tennis event management company, to help run the event this year. The future remains unclear.
But the greatest frustration came from the competitors themselves. In September, Stan Wawrinka and his Swiss team took to the pitch in Manchester for the first game of the group stage against France, with only a few hundred people scattered around the AO Arena. Finally, Wawrinka pulled out his phone, panned through the sparse crowd and posted his video on X (formerly Twitter) with the caption: “Thank you Gerard Piqué.”
A brief online debate ensued between the two champions of their respective sports, and Wawrinka later described the Davis Cup as a “disaster”, an opinion shared by many, including former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, the captain of the Australian team. “We need to get rid of the people at the top; We saw what happened. It was supposed to be a 25-year thing and it turned into a four-year disaster,” he said. “I can say ’til the cows come home, but they really screwed up.”
There are certainly important and compelling reasons for reform: the event now offers more money to associations, significant prize money to players and fewer Davis Cup dates on the calendar to attract top players. The two finalists of the ATP Finals, Novak Djokovic and Jannik Sinner, will compete in Málaga this week.
But that’s what the Davis Cup has always been about feeling it evokes in players and fans alike. The great spectacle of a long game over several days, over five sets with a loud atmosphere and countless twists and turns is sorely missed. By comparison, the format agreed upon – three games, with two singles and then a doubles – is quick and unsatisfactory.
So far the event has also taken place exclusively in Europe, mainly in Spain, where Kosmos has more connections. Many other nations with a rich history in the competition, including numerous South American countries, were excluded.
The individual nature of tennis is one of the sport’s greatest assets; Tennis fans naturally find common ground with players around the world and cheer on their favorites, regardless of nationality, religion, gender or creed. Patriotism is often secondary, which is refreshing.
The magic of the historic Davis Cup matches of yore, played in stadiums where the ground shook and emotions poured from every corner, is that they were so epic that they felt completely different to a normal Tour -Match. There were moments during these battles when the stakes seemed even greater. This hasn’t been the case most of the last four years.
Nevertheless, despite its failures and shortcomings, the event can produce unforgettable moments. After Raonic’s opening win for Canada, Finland bounced back and pulled off a big surprise despite the loss of their best player Emil Ruusuvuori due to injury. After Otto Virtanen defeated Gabriel Diallo 6-4, 7-5, Harri Heliovaara and Virtanen secured a 2-1 victory by ousting Alexis Galarneau and Vasek Pospisil 7-5, 6-3.
One of the clear lessons from tennis in recent years, particularly during the Covid pandemic when players put everything on the line even when competing in front of empty stands, is that regardless of the format, there are always two players competing on the other side of the net You give your heart, the sport will be entertaining and everything will be fine. It might just not feel that important.