Old format shines bright
ZADAR, Croatia — Fans banging drums and blowing trumpets for hours on end. Colorful costumes. Chants more reminiscent of soccer games than tennis matches.
Plus, a series of marathon matches featuring constant momentum changes and drama.
The atmosphere at the best-of-five semifinal series between Croatia and the United States over the weekend was a reminder of what makes the old Davis Cup format so attractive.
“Very few matches players will ever play in their career have more pressure than that,” U.S. captain Jim Courier said after Croatia’s Borna Coric ground out a five-set win over Davis Cup rookie Frances Tiafoe in the fifth and deciding match Sunday.
“Grand Slam final maybe is the only thing that comes close to touching that,” Courier added. “That’s going to be a boost for Frances long-term. He knows he can win in that environment.”
Yet that environment won’t be around at this stage in 2019.
Beginning next year, the top team event in men’s tennis — which started in 1900 — will be decided with a season-ending, 18-team tournament at a neutral site.
The new format is designed to make it easier for top players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to include Davis Cup in their busy schedules.
The 21-year-old Coric called his victory over Tiafoe “the most special moment of my whole life — by far,” but even he conceded that playing five sets of emotional tennis takes too much of a toll.
“From the players point of view I think it’s going to help us,” Coric said. “It’s going to give us a little bit more time to recover after the tournaments. Because I know after I play a big tie, when I play two matches, especially, the next week I cannot play and I’m very tired so I cannot practice too much also.
“But on a different point of view, I’m going to miss this for sure, because this is really something special, especially in tennis,” Coric added. “We don’t get this a lot. We don’t play for a team. … But I think we’re going to see in a couple of years it’s a good decision.”
In a rematch of this year’s World Cup soccer final, Croatia will visit defending champion France in the Nov. 23-25 final in Lille.
Under the new format, teams will still play traditional home-and-away series one week in February to advance to the championship in November, replacing the current format that is played over four weekends throughout the year. Players will compete for what the International Tennis Federation has said will rival Grand Slam prize money.
“The No. 1 thing — if I play next year — I would miss is playing those home ties in front of your home fans,” American doubles specialist Mike Bryan said. “Hearing the USA chants. It’s just the excitement and the energy that that brings. It’s unlike any match on tour. Scheduling-wise and from a fan’s perspective it may be easier to follow and easier on the players long-term. That’s the only downside for me.”
Next year, the finalists will be placed into six, three-team groups for round-robin play, involving two singles matches and one doubles, all best-of-three sets — instead of the current best-of-five format featuring four singles matches and one doubles. The winners, along with the next two teams with the best records, will advance to the single-elimination quarterfinals.
The first championship will be held on an indoor hardcourt from Nov. 18-24, 2019, in either Madrid or Lille, France.
Courier hopes Fed Cup, the women’s version of the Davis Cup, joins in at some point, so men’s and women’s teams can compete in the same location.