Bring back the Davis Cup challenge round?

As usual, intriguing questions abound on the eve of the first round of Davis Cup World Group play. But with neither Roger Federer nor Stan Wawrinka of the defending champion Swiss squad lacing them up this weekend, the biggest question of all might just be: “Is it time to bring back the Challenge Round?”

Think about it: It has been barely three months since Federer earned his historic first Davis Cup championship, and Wawrinka used the occasion to pop out once and for all from the shadow cast by his revered countryman. It was quite a party in Lille, France, back in late November, when a record crowd of over 27,000 watched the Swiss shatter the hopes of the home squad.

This weekend at Liege, Belgium, the Swiss are fielding a squad on which no player has a higher ATP singles ranking than No. 292.

Call it the “hangover” portion of the Davis Cup program. The Swiss don’t appear to have a chance. It’s likely they will have held the precious, long-coveted, hard-earned Davis Cup trophy for a grand total of three months. That’s a pity.

For those of you who aren’t students of tennis history, the Challenge Round format was used until the present-day World Group scheme was adopted in 1972. Before that, for most Davis Cup’s 100-plus-year history, the champion earned the right to sit out the competition until a single challenger emerged from the yearlong tournament. The World Group format now forces the champs to start from scratch, along with everyone else, at the start of every year.

The irony is that the better the squad (which is usually a matter of superior personnel), the greater the chance that its stars will elect not to play to defend the title. You remember what happened after Spain, led by Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, whitewashed the Czech Republic 5-0 in the final of 2009? Spain was still strong enough to defeat Switzerland in the first round a few months later (neither Nadal nor Federer played in that one). But without Nadal in their second-round tie, mighty Spain was shut in July out at France.

The World Group format was adopted four years into the Open era. It was clearly an attempt by the International Tennis Federation to capitalize on the opportunities offered by the suddenly booming professional game. It was also a way to protect the Davis Cup franchise and ensure that it remained relevant. Why “punish” the sport -- and its fans -- by making a great player like Rod Laver or Arthur Ashe sit out all year just because they won it the previous year?

In some ways this was an excellent idea. But it did not anticipate two related developments: the success of a “Grand Prix” style tournament calendar and the escalating demands on the bodies and time of the very best players.

You can’t lay all the blame for Davis Cup’s troubles at the feet of the players, although a good number who profess to love the competition don’t really walk the walk. At least they don’t support the event as unconditionally as did, say, Andy Roddick. But the real fault lies with the format.

I’ve never been a big fan of Davis Cup reform, certainly not of those cockamamie plans that would destroy traditions such as the alternating choice of ground and surface rules by playing the entire event in a big-media market over a set period. But the ITF could reinstitute the Challenge Round and thus stand a better chance of convincing a Federer, Nadal or Novak Djokovic to make an effort to defend.

Back in the day, the competition was organized along zonal (geographic) lines. Perhaps a return to the Challenge Round and a reshuffled zonal approach (to reduce the wear and tear of travel on the teams vying to challenge) would lead to more consistent player support.

True, the ITF could not have seen what was coming when it redesigned the Davis Cup format in hopes of leveling the playing field, giving more nations a shot at winning, and growing the event. But the law of unintended consequences kicked in, and it may be time to find a better future by looking to the past.

Team USA notes: In Glasgow, Scotland, Great Britain got the draw it hoped for when No. 1 Andy Murray was drawn to play U.S. No. 2 Donald Young in the first rubber. But keep in mind that Young has beaten Murray on a hard court before, at the Indian Wells Masters 1000 in 2011.

U.S. No. 1 John Isner, ranked No. 20 in singles, will play No. 111 James Ward in the second rubber. That’s not as much of a mismatch as it may appear. Ward was the key to Great Britain’s upset of the U.S. in the first round last year at this time in San Diego, where he knocked off Sam Querrey in the second rubber after Murray dispatched Young. Can history repeat?

Bob and Mike Bryan are as reliable as mailmen in doubles, but things could get more interesting for them if Great Britain pulls No. 38 (in doubles) Dominic Inglot and pairs Murray with his brother, Jamie. It could happen, especially if Ward loses to Isner.