A Cup Half Full
by Steve Flink
|The Davis Cup and Fed Cup have lost some luster with many top players opting for rest rather than partcipating in the team competitions. |
The Davis Cup has been one of the shining symbols in tennis since its inception in 1900, pitting nation against nation in international team competition, allowing the players to celebrate the spirit of representing their countries rather than conducting business on their own. In 1963, the Fed Cup--- then known as the Federation Cup--- was established for the leading female competitors.
Over the years, there have been many golden moments in both Davis Cup and Fed Cup. But it has become increasingly apparent that the best players will not automatically be available in this forum. In the opening round of the Davis Cup this year, Switzerland faced Spain. That left us all with the enticing prospect of a battle between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But Nadal was hurt and Federer--- less than two weeks after the Australian Open--- needed rest.
Similarly, fans eagerly awaited the U.S.-Spain Davis Cup quarterfinal in April, hoping to watch Nadal in gripping encounters with Andy Roddick and James Blake. But Nadal knew he had a long clay court campaign ahead, and opted out of the Davis Cup again to rest an ailing foot. Meanwhile, on the weekend of April 21-22, in the opening round of Fed Cup, Belgium and the United States clashed. Serena and Venus Williams both appeared for the U.S. Had world No. 1 Justine Henin and 2005 U.S. Open victor Kim Clijsters been there for Belgium, it would have been a blockbuster confrontation.
But Henin was resting as the clay court season commenced, and Clijsters is playing a substantially reduced schedule in 2007 as she concludes her distinguished career. Both players bypassed the event. The Belgians never had a chance against the formidable American team, and what would have been a sparkling Fed Cup weekend turned flat for the fans.
Clearly, the trend these days is for players in both the men's and women's games to place their priorities on peaking for the majors. The calendar is so crowded from January until November that the elite competitors shield themselves from injuries and excess match play by making certain not to overextend themselves. So the likes of Nadal and Federer, Henin and Clijsters, protect their self interests and sometimes refuse Davis Cup and Fed Cup invitations. I can't blame them.
This trend will continue until and unless the powers that be change the format of the team competitions. As it stands now, the top men are asked to potentially put aside four weeks for Davis Cup in any given year, which is asking an awful lot of them. The best women need to pencil in three weeks if they want to lead their nation to a Fed Cup triumph. And the Fed Cup Final is played the weekend after the U.S. Open championship match, which is inexplicable.
What is the solution to this considerable problem? The time has come for the ITF, ATP, and WTA to create a joint, two week Davis Cup/Fed Cup season in the autumn. Leave open two or three weeks on the calendar and place the greatest male and female players under the same umbrella at a different site every year. Bring in the top 16 nations in both cases. Stick with the current format of a five match series between countries. Open with a women's singles match. Move on to a men's singles duel. Play a women's doubles match next. Then shift to a men's doubles confrontation. Finish it off with a mixed doubles contest.
Imagine how exhilarating that could be. Let's face it: the game is showcased best when the men and women compete together at the four Grand Slam events and selected Masters Series/Tier 1 tournaments. Envision the U.S. meeting Russia in a Davis/Fed Cup Final. Serena Williams opens against Maria Sharapova. Andy Roddick faces Marat Safin. Venus Williams and Lisa Raymond join forces to fight it out against Nadia Petrova and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Then the Bryan brothers confront Safin and Nikolay Davydenko. Finally, after the two nations split those first four matches, it all comes down to a scintillating mixed doubles showdown: Safin and Sharapova versus James Blake and Serena Williams.
The way I look at it, the challenge of getting the big names to play Davis and Fed Cup is not going to disappear. I know there are some notable exceptions. Roddick, for instance, has been remarkably devoted to the U.S. Davis Cup efforts across the past five years, and should be commended for his loyalty. But the fact remains that too often the marquee players are absent.
So why not do some out of the box thinking and make it much easier for fans worldwide to follow the great team competitions? Why not give the players a much more substantial psychic reward for supporting their nations? The way I see it, creating a brand new concept would inevitably win widespread public enthusiasm from the outset, lift the game's profile to another level, and give Davis Cup and Fed Cup renewed sparkle and stature.
Let's get on with it.Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com
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