The End of a Davis Cup Era
We are about to experience a historical tennis anomaly. Just as the International Tennis Federation (ITF) is putting plans in motion to totally revamp the Davis Cup, largely due to a lack of participation by the sport’s top players, this year’s Davis Cup Final to be played in Lille, France, November 24–26 is likely to be the biggest and last of its kind. The end of an era. A Davis Cup final hosted by one of the finalist countries on the surface of the host country’s choosing. This may also be the second-to-last final where all matches are decided by best three out of five sets, with no tiebreak in the fifth set.
This year’s Davis Cup final will be hosted by France on hardcourt against neighboring Belgium in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, a multi-use stadium with a retractable roof, just outside of Lille, in Villeneuve d’Ascq, France on November 24–26. For those that complain that Arthur Ashe Stadium with its 23,771 seats is too big to watch a tennis match and that fans sitting in the upper decks have a better view sitting at home watching on a flat screen tv, Stade Pierre-Mauory seats just over 50,000 for the Lille soccer team’s (LOSC) matches. The largest attendance at a Davis Cup final was previously recorded at this same stadium in 2014 when Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka led Switzerland to victory over France in front of 27,448 fans. In 1973, the “Battle of the Sexes” match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs (of which we have all been reminded by the current film starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell) drew 30,472 people to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. However, according to the Guinness Book of World Records the largest attendance ever at a tennis match (35,681) was for an exhibition match in 2010 between Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams at King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, Belgium.
Stade Pierre-Mauroy is just 64 miles (107 km) from Brussels, the Belgian and European capital, and it is easy to imagine that the Belgians will send huge numbers of fans to support current ATP#8, David Goffin, and Belgium’s #2 Steve Darcis in the Davis Cup, Final. The French Tennis Federation (FFT) actually chose this location, 133 miles (223 km) away from Paris over the state-of-the-art U Arena’s in Nanterre (just outside of Paris), which opens tomorrow with a Rolling Stones concert, in order to stage a larger event, closer to the Belgian border. The single day attendance record for a Davis Cup semifinal (18,000) was just set when France clinched the Davis Cup semifinal over Serbia on September 17 and the record for a semifinal weekend of just under 48,000 was also set. With their top three players, Novak Djokovic, Vicktor Troicki, and Janko Tipsarevic absent from the tie, the Serbs sent only a few hundred fans at best. While the previous tennis configurations at Stade Pierre-Mauroy have been limited to 27,500 seats, basically half of an oval shaped soccer stadium, strong ticket sales over the coming weeks could lead the FFT to open up even more seats for the Davis Cup Final. The attendance record for a three day Davis Cup Final tie will surely be set and the probability is high that the previous single day attendance record for any tennis match will also be shattered.
All of this calls into question why the ITF has chosen to end the familiar Davis Cup finals format, opting instead for a neutral location where the finals will be played (the next three years in Geneva, Switzerland) together with the women’s equivalent of the Davis Cup, The Federation Cup finals. The short answer as is so often the case is time and money. Professional tennis players endure a grueling 11 month tournament schedule, chasing the sun, prize money, and ATP ranking points around the world. Davis Cup ties are weekends that carry no ranking points or prize money wedged into an already jam packed calendar. Davis Cup weekends can cause players to have to fly around the globe and play three out of five set matches on a grass court in the middle of the clay court season or a clay court in the middle of the indoor hardcourt season (as just happened in both Lille and Brussels in the Davis Cup Semifinals). France’s road to the finals include a first round victory over a Kei Nishikori-less Japan, a quarterfinal victory over an Andy Murray-less Great Britain, and a semifinal victory win over the previously noted Serbian team devoid of its top three players. If the top players are not going to participate in the Davis Cup for the pride of representing their countries alone, the ITF felt the Davis Cup was in need of an overhaul.
This year’s Davis Cup final which will surely be riveting as record numbers of fans cheer and sing along with horned instruments and drums in an atmosphere more reminiscent of a Stanford-Cal football game than any tennis match. Having lost in the finals of the Davis Cup in 2002, 2010, and 2014, this generation of French tennis players, led by charismatic French hero and Davis Cup captain, Yannick Noah, is desperate to take home the Dwight Davis Trophy. While some countries have struggled to attract their top players to play Davis Cup in 2017, France has not. During the final weeks of the 2017 season, as the ATP tour swings through Asia before ending up back in Europe culminating at the Paris Masters, France’s other top players Lucas Pouille, Richard Gasquet, Adrian Manarino, Gaël Monfils, and Gilles Simon will all be competing not only for prize money and ranking points but for the chance to be selected by Noah to play alongside Jo Willfred Tsonga (ATP #18) in singles and the doubles team of Nicolas Mahut and Pierre Hughes Herbert (#5 in the doubles race to London) in the Davis Cup Finals. Meanwhile, Goffin and Darcis played incredible tennis to upset Nick Kyrgios and the Australian team in their semifinal and will be looking to play spoilers.
Goffin has been on a tear of late, winning back-to-back titles in Shenzhen and Tokyo and thereby virtually assuring himself a place in the Nitto ATP Finals where only the Top 8 players qualify. Along the way Goffin has dismissed some of the best the French have to offer in Richard Gasquet (7–5, 6–2) in the Tokyo quarterfinals and Adrian Mannarino (6–3, 7–5) in the finals of the same event. Gilles Simon finally halted Goffin’s winning streak in Beijing defeating him 7–6, 6–3, but then Gasquet defeated Simon in the following round 7–5, 6–7, 6–3. Meanwhile, France’s number one Tsonga has been struggling with a right knee injury, but is set to make his return in Vienna next week before playing in the final Masters 1000 event of the season in Paris the following week. Belgium’s #2 Steve Darcis also pulled out of the China Open with a neck injury. Is there any chance Monfils could be ready for the Davis Cup if he makes a strong run at home at the Rolex Paris Masters (October 30-November 5), immediately after which the Davis Cup lineups must be submitted? And if Goffin makes a deep run at the Nitto ATP Finals the following week (November 12–19) will he have anything left for the Davis Cup finals, the following week? There is no question that this year’s Davis Cup Final will be a sumptuous feast of tennis played during American Thanksgiving weekend.
 The ITF board had introduced a motion to change all Davis Cup matches to best two out of three tiebreak sets starting in 2018, but required two thirds approval from the attendees at their August 4 general meeting in Ho-Chi Minh and fell just short with 63.54% approval. However, a resolution did pass giving “ITF Board of Directors the authority to make changes to Davis Cup and Fed Cup regulations on a trial basis without needing to seek approval from the general membership.” With a desire and new approval to experiment with the two out of three set format without broader membership approval, the ITF board may change Davis Cup matches to two out of three sets starting in 2019.
 The Top 8 players and Top 8 doubles teams will finish the year at the O2 Arena in London for the Nitto ATP Finals.