atp cup logo story
Brian Lutz / January 14, 2020

My friend and fellow tennis coach Jeffrey Menaker has an interesting think piece on how to improve team competition in tennis, specifically the ATP Cup.  You can see his story below along with a clip from Rafael Nadal on having Davis Cup and ATP Cup so close together.

History of Team Tennis Competition

The Davis Cup is the annual international team competition of men’s tennis. It was founded in 1900 as a challenge match between the U.S. and Great Britain. In 1981 it expanded to a World Group of 16 countries, with a system of promotion and relegation, making it the World Cup of tennis.

The Davis Cup is managed and run by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the world governing body of tennis. The ITF also runs Fed Cup for women. The main Davis Cup corporate partners are BNP and Rakuten with Barcelona soccer star Gerard Pique and his Kosmos Investment Group running the show as of 2019.

New Format.  Mixed Results

When Gerard Pique took over last year, his primary modification to Davis Cup was hosting the World Group at a single venue over one week, with eighteen teams divided into six round-robin groups of three. The winners of the six groups advanced to the quarterfinals along with two second place finishers. The format for these World Group duels featured two singles matches and one doubles match, instead of the traditional best-of-5 series.

With Davis Cup “evolving,” the ATP Tour announced the creation of a rival event, the ATP Cup (with the exact same two singles/one doubles format as Davis Cup). As many predicted at the time, men’s tennis now has too many international team competitions (see Laver Cup). The players find it exhausting. With only one host country, most matches feature empty seats. The competitions are too condensed and there’s barely a team element to a three match format. Even the players who thought adding the ATP Cup was a good idea have come to the realization that it provides nothing new (while complicating preparations for a major). With apologies to host city Madrid, the new Davis Cup was even worse.

Listen to Podcast on Laver Cup Player Pay Out

While I never loved the previous Davis Cup system, which seemed to last all year without fans knowing what stage the tournament had reached, there were many positives. Passionate home crowds, packed venues and the host country’s choice of playing surface were all attractive elements of the previous regime. While the old best-of-5 is certainly better than best-of-3, an even broader format that tests a team’s depth would reward national player development while reducing the dominance of a single player. Indeed, the best thing about Laver Cup is the breadth of 12 total matches, singles and doubles, contested among two teams of six players. That’s team tennis. All we learned from the current Davis Cup and ATP Cup format is that Spain has Rafa Nadal and Serbia has Novak Djokovic.

Understanding the governance of professional tennis, money will ultimately dictate how these events are managed in the future. Giving the ATP some leverage in financial negotiations is probably why the ATP Cup exists at all. In the past, Davis Cup had to schedule around the ATP tour calendar. Now, with the Davis Cup format condensed and the event scheduled to follow the year-end Masters, the ATP no longer has the scheduling cards it once held. Just from the standpoint of what’s good for the game, it would be great not to have two virtually identical team events competing for attention and players’ commitments less than two months apart. The natural solution of course is to kill the ATP Cup or merge it with Davis Cup (read: give the ATP tour a cut of Davis Cup). But even then, the Davis Cup should move in a better direction.

Not every country can field six world class players, much less a second (Moldova), so perhaps simply returning to the best-of-5 format makes sense if also limiting the matches one player can play. Either way, the current 18 teams in one place, with fan support for just one or two countries, isn’t working. Instead, the first few rounds of Davis Cup should be hosted on home soil, with the entire event culminating in a Final Four that has the build-up it deserves and the attention of the entire sports world.

First round byes could expand the competition while limiting the time commitment of overworked stars. Each round would take place in each season of the year.

Round 1 (First week of March): Eight Teams ranked #17-24 play eight teams ranked #9-16 at eight host sites across the globe.

Round 2 (Late July): Eight winners of round 1 play eight teams ranked #1-8 at eight host sites across the globe.

Round 3 (September): Eight winners of round 2 meet at four host sites across the globe.

Final Four (End of November): Four winners of round 3 meet at one host site for the semifinals and final.

The one interesting element to the ATP Cup that could be incorporated into Davis Cup: qualification and seeding based on player rankings. Otherwise, scrap ATP Cup, give the tour its stake in Davis Cup, bring back the fun of Hopman Cup (which was cancelled to make way for ATP Cup) and let’s get on with making international team tennis must watch TV.

Jeffrey Menaker / Guest Blogger

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