Davis Cup is intense and a work in progress
While Nadal inspired Spain to glory in Madrid, new format has scope to improve
For an event that had been heavily criticised months before it even started, the Davis Cup Madrid Finals probably proved many of its detractors wrong.
The revamped version of the 119-year-old team event debuted in the Spanish capital and saw 18 nations come together for a seven-day tournament at the Caja Magica that concluded with a victory for a Rafael Nadal-led Spain over Canada on Sunday.
Fast-paced action and emotional scenes across the three stadiums at ‘The Magic Box’ marked Year 1 of Davis Cup Finals. Yet, it is a work in progress.
Everything about this new format is intense. You have a group stage that is played over four days, followed by a knockout stage of quarter-finals, semis and final.
A best-of-three tie – two singles and one doubles – between two nations played out in a single day, as opposed to the five-match ties contested over three days in the previous format. The surface was a relatively fast indoor hard court.
Teams were split into six groups of three, with toppers securing direct passage to the quarter-finals, along with the two best-placed runners-up.
Champions Spain played five ties in six days, and needed every player on their five-man roster to pull it off.
During his first post-match press conference after he defeated Karen Khachanov to level the tie for the Spaniards against Russia, Nadal was visibly stressed and couldn’t keep his eyes off a screen in the corner of the room that was showing the doubles decider.
“Honestly, the format makes things very difficult because every mistake puts you in a position that you don’t want to be in. And losing that first match, we were under pressure with the rest of the groups,” said Nadal, who had to carry Spain from a losing position in three separate ties throughout the week.
That added tension pretty much guaranteed that every tie featured some real nail-biters; the quality of tennis and competitiveness of each match was off the charts.
The high-intensity, long consecutive days proved quite challenging for the players, and Great Britain captain Leon Smith is hoping organisers can find a way to improve scheduling for next year’s edition.
“It’s an advantage to have a day’s grace somewhere,” said Smith, whose side played four days in a row before falling to Spain in the semi-finals.
Scheduling will obviously need to be addressed, and not just to try and give teams a day off, but more importantly to avoid late-night finishes (USA-Italy ended at 4.04am).
But it was nice to watch up close a Davis Cup where it felt every single point mattered.
One of the main reasons reforms were introduced to Davis Cup was to attract the top players back to the competition, and that target was mostly achieved. Five of the world’s top 10 came to Madrid.
The players didn’t just attend, they played their hearts out. Serbia’s tearful conference following their quarter-final defeat to Russia said it all.
I’d never witnessed such raw emotion from a group of players as I did that day – from
Viktor Troicki’s apology to his teammates, to captain Nenad Zimonjic’s tearful statements about brotherhood and the retiring Janko Tipsarevic, to Filip Krajinovic just silently crying from start to end.
Novak Djokovic had half his face covered by his cap and could barely look up to answer any questions. After finishing his press duties, the world No 2 lay down on the ground on his back, looking utterly depleted as he waited for his teammates to finish their interviews.
The Davis Cup may have dramatically changed but the players showed they care about it just the same.
It also felt that the younger players, who are less attached to the previous format, were generally happy with the new event. Others, such as Philipp Kohlschreiber, 36, admitted he “missed a lot of these special feelings” of playing in front of a home crowd.
“We still play all for Germany,” he said. “This is always very special. It doesn’t matter, you can put us, I don’t know, on the dark side of the moon and we’re going to play there for Germany.”
Attendance greatly varied, depending on the tie. While hosts Spain and some nations attracted sell-out crowds, some match-ups were played in front of relatively empty stands.
One of the things organisers got right was the set-up of the whole venue. The dedicated area of personalised locker rooms created for each team looked like a mini Olympic Village, and was a big hit with the players.
From a spectator’s perspective, the Davis Cup Finals had high entertainment value. A nice added element was the fact that doubles matches decided many of the ties, which prompted several singles stars – like Nadal, Djokovic, Khachanov and others – to take part.
Dare I say that doubles star Nadal is even more exciting than singles star Nadal?
Nadal branded the tournament “a success”, and said he predicts a “great future” for it, but there are some serious challenges ahead.
Finding a better slot for the Finals will be a top priority for organisers, so it is not so late in the season, and more importantly, finding a bigger window because seven days is tough.
Other items on the organisers’ agenda for next year should include: attracting more fans to the venue, selling TV rights deals to wider audiences, improving online streaming and live scoring, and looking at the rules to avoid having doubles dead rubbers.
Rafael Nadal and his Spain teammates celebrate winning the Davis Cup Finals after seven consecutive days of action in Madrid