Davis Cup 2019: Despite all the doubts and criticism, tournament's new format takes off on a positive note

Musab Abid
Playing best-of-five at Davis Cup, however, seemed like a particularly pointless piece of masochism. Not only were the players killing themselves over five sets, they were doing it while very few were watching (or caring)

Over the years, few Indians have cared enough about Davis Cup to bother finding out where to check the live scores. The Davis Cup official website €" was (and still is) one of those dysfunctional relics of the web world that look like they haven't had a tech upgrade in years. However, despite the obsoleteness of the official website, there have been very few complaints.

But now, with a brand new format and a compressed schedule, it's suddenly a lot easier to track what's happening in the tournament, especially with the new mobile app. By extension, it's also easier to be engaged in the proceedings, and to root for the favorites as they fight for their right to lift the 119-year-old trophy.

The verdict on how well the new changes have been received can only be determined after the crowd attendance figures for the whole year are tallied, along with the TV viewership ratings. But there's something to be said about the fact that the enthusiasm of the players doesn't seem to have diminished one bit, and that the star presence has remained more or less the same.

Alexander Zverev, Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Denis Shapovalov, Alex de Minaur €" all members of the current ATP top 30 €" duly won the matches they were supposed to win. Other Next Gen stars like Felix Auger-Aliassime, Andrey Rublev and Yibing Wu also showed up, even if they had mixed results.

The Big 3 of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were markedly absent, but they have stayed away from Davis Cup for a while now. And while the Federer-less Switzerland failed to qualify for the November final, Djokovic's teammates ensured he would have a chance to make an appearance in Madrid (the venue for the final).

In true Davis Cup tradition, there were also plenty of heroes on display €" players who made this one weekend their own. Although he's still in his teens, Canada's Auger-Aliassime withstood some fierce pressure as he clinched the nerve-racking fifth rubber against Slovakia's Norbert Gombos. Nicolas Jarry of Chile spearheaded his nation's challenge like a veteran, sweeping a third-set tiebreaker before teammate Christian Garin completed the 3-2 comeback. And Filip Krajinovic, Mikhail Kukushkin and Robin Haase did everything that was expected of them and more, almost single-handedly taking their teams through.

Did any of us expect such a reassuring start to the 'new' Davis Cup? After all the reams of newsprint devoted to the players' protests against Gerard Pique and his Kosmos Group (whose investment had fast-tracked the facelift), it was natural to fear the worst. Australia's captain Lleyton Hewitt had joined in the naysayers' chorus at the start of the week, launching a ferocious attack on the organizers and comparing Pique making changes to the Davis Cup to him (Hewitt) making changes to the Champions League.

The analogy gave us all a good laugh, but Mahesh Bhupathi, the captain of the Indian team, was in no mood for humor when he was asked what he thought about Hewitt's comments. Bhupathi knows a thing or two about new formats in tennis, having masterminded the mildly popular IPTL a few years ago, and is convinced that the ITF agreed to the change only because it makes sense €" and not just because Pique recommended it.

"When someone takes a proposal, the people who are voting on the proposal are all the educated people on the ITF board, who all know everything about tennis €" including our president (and) all the presidents of all the countries. Just because he (Pique) took the proposal doesn't mean he changed the format. The proposal was voted on and unanimously passed, which means the ITF body is the one that changed the format. Because they feel that is better for tennis," Bhupathi said during his press conference on the first day of the India vs Italy tie.

This comment came after months of Bhupathi insisting that the shorter, best-of-three-sets format would help small teams like India put up a stronger challenge against the heavyweights. And the best-of-three format (along with the two-day schedule) has another backer, in the form of Andreas Seppi.

"For me, I think it's better to play shorter matches," Seppi said in Kolkata after Italy had wrapped up the tie against India 3-1. "The format is okay, and also in two days maybe it gives me more time to go to the next tournament if you want to play. Davis Cup (has) had a lot of tradition over 100 years, and sometimes changes are good and sometimes not."

The hit-or-miss nature of changes was echoed by Seppi's teammate Simone Bolelli, who said, "This format obviously is different but for us this tie was good. I think sometimes it is good, sometimes it is not. But we have to try (in the final) and we will see."

The endorsement for best-of-three is not a major surprise. For years now there have been hearing complaints about the overcrowded tennis calendar, and playing best-of-five at any tournament, let alone Davis Cup, was bound to be seen as a burden by many players. But at least playing best-of-five at the Slams has some justification, as the whole world tunes in during those four fortnights and demands its money's worth.

Playing best-of-five at Davis Cup, however, seemed like a particularly pointless piece of masochism. Not only were the players killing themselves over five sets, they were doing it while very few were watching (or caring).

All this is from the players' perspective though. What, if anything, is better from the fans' perspective?

For one thing, the whole shebang is just a lot easier to follow. The equation is as straightforward as you can get: 24 teams battle it out for a place in the final, where they will be joined by six other teams who have already qualified by virtue of their past performances. There's no need to furrow our brows over the numerous groups and zones into which the countries are divided; there's no Zone I and Zone II and Group Oceania and Group Europe to worry about.

Perhaps most significantly, we no longer have to wonder whether one team's win is more momentous than another's just because of the quality of competition they faced. Teams don't play at different levels over the same weekend now; they play under a single umbrella, and fight for the same reward.

This might seem like a small change, but it makes a huge difference. Earlier, the frustratingly convoluted system of separate tiers and draws unfolding simultaneously almost made it seem like we were living through parallel universes. Thankfully we don't have to deal with that headache anymore.

So here we are, at the end of just two days of high-quality tennis, with Belgium, Serbia, Australia, Italy, Germany, Russia, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Colombia, Chile, Canada and Japan having all booked a place in the final. The 18-team lineup for Madrid has been decided already, and for the rest of the year we can all focus on the Slams and ATP tournaments without worrying about those random interruptions from the various tiers and groups of the staggered system.

It goes without saying that the real test will be in Madrid, where the absence of the home-and-away environment will be felt for the first time. But I know I will be tuning in when the final starts, mobile app at the ready, just to see what the (new) future of the tournament promises to be like.

And hopefully, there won't be any problems finding out where to check the live scores come November.

Also See: Davis Cup Qualifiers 2019: Ramkumar Ramanathan to open India's campaign against Andreas Seppi of Italy

Davis Cup Qualifier 2019: India hope Kolkata's grass is greener on their side as Italy come knocking

ITF announces La Liga as sponsors for Davis Cup finals, says cross-sport partnership will widen tennis' reach

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