Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Tennis: International rally in bid to save tarnished Davis Cup

Michael Venus has been a stalwart for the NZ Davis Cup team. Photo / photosport.nz
Michael Venus has been a stalwart for the NZ Davis Cup team. Photo / photosport.nz

The Davis Cup is a bit broken and no one is quite sure how to fix it.

It's the biggest annual international team competition in the world, and has run for more than 115 years, but has lost some of its gloss in recent times.

Many of the big names are sitting out ties, and the elongated format means it struggles for air time and relevance in a sport-saturated world. It's also becoming unsustainable for smaller nations, who have to fork out hundreds of thousands each year to host ties.

New Zealand Tennis will spend around $160,000 on next week's tie with Pakistan in Christchurch but will struggle to draw more than a few hundred spectators each day.

"The International Tennis Federation has a conundrum," said former New Zealand tennis great Brett Steven. "The Davis Cup has lost status. It's played too often, it's too random and too expensive."

Steven thinks the event should be contested every two years.

"At the moment, it asks a lot of the players, and places an enormous burden on smaller nations. In its current format, it's not sustainable."

Steven played Davis Cup for a decade across his celebrated career, including 33 singles and 16 doubles matches. He was part of some terrific ties, including a world group win over Yugoslavia in 1990, then a narrow 3-2 loss to Australia in the world group quarter-finals.

"I loved it and was very proud to represent my country," said Steven. "But it probably took a year off my career. Each tie would take at least two weeks out of your schedule. Tennis players have a short period at their peak and, in hindsight, I wish I hadn't played every year. It would have prolonged my career."

Tennis New Zealand chief executive Steve Johns recently returned from the ITF's annual congress in Zagreb, where he sensed a mood for change.

Numerous ideas have been tossed up, from a biennial format to a switch to best-of-three sets to allow each rubber to be played across two days. Another initiative, supported by ITF boss David Haggerty, would see the semifinals and final played in the same week at a neutral venue.

There is also concern over the looming threat of the Laver Cup, which starts in September 2017. It's a private venture which hopes to replicate golf's Ryder Cup and has already locked in top players such as Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal.

"Something needs to change," said Johns. "There are substantial costs, especially with hosting, and it's hard to attract sponsorship."

South Africa has recently foregone the opportunity to host ties - due to cost - and Johns says it is something New Zealand might have to consider if the status quo remains.

"We are committed to Davis Cup," said Johns. "It's important for our sport and our players. But if the ITF don't make some changes, questions are going to be asked by smaller nations if that money could get a better return elsewhere."

Steven added: "It's a pity because this [New Zealand] team is as good as we have had for a long time. The guys are doing well on the doubles circuit and are committed to Davis Cup. There's a positive vibe. It's probably never going to go back to the days when people were hanging off the rafters to see [David] Fairlie, [Chris] Lewis and [Onny] Parun play, but there is potential there."

- NZ Herald

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