At last, the closing week of another breathless tennis season began on Tuesday afternoon in Málaga with the Davis Cup finals. Milos Raonic of Canada, the defending champions, and Finland’s Patrick Kaukovalta stepped out on to the vast Palacio de los Deportes to a warm welcome from a healthy audience for the first quarter-final tie.
Those positive scenes, though, belie a year of chaos for the Davis Cup. Four years since Kosmos, the investment company co-founded by Gerard Piqué, and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) reformed the event, it remains to be seen if one of the world’s biggest annual team sporting competitions can finally figure itself out.
In 2018, after 72% of the ITF’s 213 member nations voted in the reforms at its annual general meeting, Kosmos pledged a $3bn investment across the 25-year agreement. Even at the time, there was significant scepticism within the sport about the deal and the likelihood that it would prove successful. Today, it lies in tatters.
In January Kosmos’s contract with the ITF was terminated with 21 years left. During its time in charge of the competition, Kosmos lost a significant amount of money and fell behind on payments to players. The organisation attempted to negotiate a reduction to the annual fee due to the ITF to organise the Davis Cup, with Pique’s company arguing it was exorbitant, before the contract was eventually terminated.
As Kosmos broke with the contract, both sides have pursued legal claims against each other. The ITF has now enlisted Tennium, an established tennis events management company, to assist in delivering the event this year. The future remains unclear.
The greatest frustration, though, has come from the competitors themselves. In September, Stan Wawrinka and his Switzerland team took to the court in Manchester for their first tie of the group stage against France with just a few hundred people sprinkled around the AO Arena. Eventually, Wawrinka took out his phone and panned across the sparse crowd, posting his video to X (formerly Twitter) with the caption: “Thank you, Gerard Piqué.”
A brief online debate followed between the two champions of their respective sports and Wawrinka later branded the Davis Cup a “disaster”, a sentiment shared by many including the former No 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who captains the Australia team. “We’ve gotta get rid of people at the top; we’ve seen what’s happened. It was meant to be a 25-year thing and it’s turned into a four-year disaster,” he said. “I can say until the cows come home, but they’ve really screwed it up.”
There are certainly significant and compelling reasons for reform, with the event now offering federations more money, the players a significant prize fund, and fewer Davis Cup dates on the calendar to entice top players. Both finalists from the ATP Finals, Novak Djokovic and Jannik Sinner, are competing in Málaga this week.
But the Davis Cup has always been about the feeling it evokes for players and fans alike. The grand spectacle of a long match across multiple days, over five sets with a raucous atmosphere and the countless twists is sorely missed. By comparison, the format it has settled on – three matches, with two singles and then one doubles rubber, are quick and unsatisfying.
So far, the event has also been held exclusively in Europe, and mostly in Spain, where Kosmos has more connections. Many other nations with rich histories in the competition, like numerous South American countries, have been locked out.
The individual nature of tennis is one of the sport’s biggest assets; tennis fans naturally find common ground with players around the world and they root for their favourites regardless of nationality, religion, gender or creed. Patriotism is often secondary, which is refreshing.
The magic of the historic Davis Cup ties of old, held in stadiums where the ground shook and emotion overflowed from all corners, is that they were so epic they felt completely different to a regular tour match. There were moments during those battles when the stakes felt even greater. Over the past four years, that has usually not been the case.
Still, despite its failures and flaws, the event can still produce memorable moments. After Raonic’s opening win for Canada, Finland recovered to pull off a great upset despite the withdrawal of their best player, Emil Ruusuvuori, due to injury. After Otto Virtanen defeated Gabriel Diallo 6-4, 7-5, Harri Heliovaara and Virtanen sealed a 2-1 win by ousting Alexis Galarneau and Vasek Pospisil 7-5, 6-3.
One of the clear takeaways from tennis in recent years, particularly through the Covid pandemic when players put everything on the line even as they competed in front of empty stands, is that regardless of the format, a long as two players across the net are battling their hearts out, the sport will be entertaining and things will be all right. It just may not feel as important.