The Davis Cup and Fed Cup were played on back-to-back weekends, and once again the results -- and reviews -- for the most credible and storied of annual international team sports competitions were mixed.
There was some controversy as well, coming out of the Davis Cup World Group play. Team Germany, after having swept Spain in Frankfurt, declared that since the tie was decided, the meaningless match (or “dead rubber” in Davis Cup patois) between Germany’s No. 1 Philipp Kohlschreiber and Nadal-less Spain’s top player, Feliciano Lopez, would not take place.
Thus, the only match that the faithful in Frankfurt were offered on that Sunday that began with Germany already having won 3-0 was the fifth match, another meaningless “dead rubber” in which Germany’s Daniel Brands salted away Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut in two desultory sets.
The sweep is always a problem in Davis Cup, because it renders the third day of the tie is meaningless. That’s a tough pill to swallow for some potential or actual ticket-buyers, but judging from the reaction in Germany it’s not as tough as being told that no matter how happy you are to see your boys sweep, you’re not going to see what you paid to see.
That didn’t sit well with the German fans. They booed and protested the announcement that the fourth rubber was canceled, and a terrific moment for the German team was ruined by the ugly mood that descended on the venue in what ought to have been a moment of shared pride and joy.
This is a persistent problem in Davis Cup, because the sweep isn’t uncommon. Three of the eight ties in the first-round of World Group play ended in sweeps. This challenge is particularly acute because of a different, otherwise terrific Davis Cup rule that mandates that the No. 1 players meet in the fourth rubber, which is the first match on Sunday. It’s generally the most anticipated match of any tie, and canceling it entirely just puts salt on the wound.
The ITF ought to come up with a way to keep ticket-buying fans entertained and happy in the event of a sweep. It can demand that the Davis Cup nations make provisions for giving the fans some kind of legitimate show instead of telling them to just go home on the final day of play. Perhaps No. 1 singles players ought to be obliged to play a doubles match of some kind. The options are numerous. The important thing is that some fans travel from afar to make a three-day weekend out of Davis Cup, so why force them to endure a preventable “rainout” on Sundays?
The Fed Cup doesn’t have that problem, and in some ways its format is more suitable for this era. Fed Cup is played over the weekend with two singles matches on Saturday and three matches on Sunday, culminating with the doubles. Thus, the tie is “live” both days, even when it’s destined to be a sweep.
I don’t think Davis Cup needs to adopt that two-day format; the middle “doubles” Saturday is a great Davis Cup tradition for good reason -- it enhances the strategic maneuverings of the captains. And given that the men play best-of-five sets, a three-match day would be too much like a death march for all concerned.
The three-day Davis Cup format is brilliant, showcasing doubles and encouraging strategy without overinflating its importance. The competition doesn’t need changing, it just needs a better insurance policy against meaningless Sundays.