It’s All Change for Tennis Team Competitions, but What about the Players?

Robert J. Lake[1]
Douglas College, New Westminster, BC

On March 4th, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) began accepting offers from broadcasters for the rights to televise the latest addition to the men’s tennis tour and the newest men’s team tennis competition, the ATP Cup. The ten-day competition, due to be hosted across three Australian cities in January, will see twenty-four nations of up to five players each contest two singles and one doubles match in each round of competition. From the round-robin stage of six groups of four nations, the top two will advance through to the knock-out stages.

The inaugural ATP Cup in January 2020 will commence just six weeks after the revamped end-of-season Davis Cup competition, which recommences in November 2019. The Davis Cup had previously held its competition throughout the tennis season, spread out over a series of set-aside rounds of competition, commencing in February with the final taking place in November. However, a consortium of businesspeople, led by the Spain and FC Barcelona footballer Gerard Piqué, negotiated with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) a revamped Davis Cup, with the entire competition, comprising eighteen national teams, completed over a seven-day period.

This is not the first time the ATP and ITF have battled to host the most prestigious team tennis competition. The Davis Cup was inaugurated in 1900 and became the flagship team tennis competition throughout the 20th century, but declining popularity from the 1970s onwards – due in large part to many of the top players skipping the competition for more lucrative (in terms of both prize money and ranking points) tournaments elsewhere – saw a gap open for another men’s team tennis competition. The ATP duly created the World Team Cup in 1975, played annually in Düsseldorf during the month of May, but this folded in 2012 after 35 years in existence due to lack of sponsorship. The ATP Cup therefore is, in essence, a revamped version of this earlier competition, but played according to a new format, at a new point during the tennis season, and in a new location.

After several years of tit-for-tat boycotts and posturing between the ATP and ILTF, they eventually settled their disputes and agreed on a more cooperative structure for the interests of the sport.

While ATP officials claim their new ATP Cup is not meant as competition against the Davis Cup, the timing of the revamp and its chosen position within the tennis season leads one to speculate about the historical rivalry between the two tennis associations. The ITF began as the ILTF (International Lawn Tennis Federation) in 1913, commencing operations for the benefit of ensuring standardized rules, competitive frameworks and adherence to standards of amateur competition internationally. While ineffectual in its first few years, partly due to the United States’ unwillingness to join until 1924 when its national championship was recognized as on par with Wimbledon and other leading European championships, the ILTF nevertheless grew to help run the four leading “grand slams”, providing officials and other administrative support. The battle over the creation of “open tennis” – allowing professionals and amateurs to compete together in all the leading tournaments – which came to fruition in the spring of 1968, saw the emergence of numerous competing professional men’s tours – run by promoters such as George MacCall and Lamar Hunt – alongside the creation of a players’ union (the ATP) for men’s tennis. In time, the female players also played in competing professional tours and created the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 as a players’ union on a par with the ATP.

The ATP, as it emerged in 1972, was first called into action against the ILTF the following year after it threatened to penalize one of its players, the Yugoslav Nikki Pilic, from skipping a Davis Cup competition in favour of a regular tournament event he was contractually obliged to participate in. Matters came to a head when the ATP staged a mass boycott of Wimbledon that summer – thirteen of the top sixteen seeds declined to participate – which, ultimately, helped assert the power of players in this expanding configuration, worked to realign the balance of power in men’s tennis and set a trajectory for ensuing status-competition between the two associations. After several years of tit-for-tat boycotts and posturing between the ATP and ILTF, they eventually settled their disputes and agreed on a more cooperative structure for the interests of the sport. One outcome was that, in 1989, the tour ran by the former was renamed the ATP Tour and the ATP had become an association with two key interests, acting as both a players’ union, and running a professional tour. Since then, the ATP and ITF have essentially co-hosted the men’s tennis tour and remain, at least ostensibly, on friendly terms; the latter organizes and sanctions the four majors comprising the top tier of competition (Wimbledon, and the US, French and Australian Opens), which offer the most ranking points (2000) and prize money, and its Futures (third-tier) tour. Conversely, the ATP controls the second tier, which includes the 9 Masters (1000-point) tournaments, a host of 500 and 250-point tournaments as part of the ATP Tour, alongside several ATP Challenger Tour (80-125 point) events.

The Fab Four of men’s international tennis for the past 15–20 years

Given this historical context, this new development for the ATP, coming right alongside the ITF’s new Davis Cup format, most likely would strike even the most casual tennis observer as a counter-measure and tactical response to the new Davis Cup format, which received a boost in media attention as its change in format was announced, amidst considerable controversy, last year. What is unclear is whether the tennis calendar can cope with these two men’s team competitions in such close temporal proximity. Add into the mix the new Laver Cup, inaugurated in 2017 by several leading figures including Roger Federer, and the potential for a saturated marketplace for men’s tennis is further heightened. The Laver Cup is a men’s team competition played in September that pits a team from Europe against a team comprising players from the rest of the world. So far, attendance and viewing figures have been encouraging, but with a third competition now commencing, it may prove too much. While the fans’ collective thirst for watching the leading men (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, etc.) and up-and-coming talent (Tsitsipas, Shapovalov, Zverev, Kyrgios, etc.) remains strong, if these and other popular players decide to skip these competitions, and subsequent ticket sales and television figures decline, sponsors may pull the plug as well.

These sceptical views are shared by several tennis writers. Jovica Ilic, from Tennis World magazine, stated: ‘Most of the players and tennis fans have not been happy with the changes in the Davis Cup and the way they have constructed the structure and reduced the rubbers to the best-of-three format’. Meanwhile, while some players like Novak Djokovic have expressed their enthusiasm for the new ATP event, Ilic believes the new Davis Cup is in danger from the start, ‘with many player confirming they will not play in the finals stage in November’. Indeed, as Ilic acknowledges, ‘the two organizations will have to come up with the solution and a compromise, as it seems highly unlikely to have the players from the top at both events at the end of one season and the start of the next, especially after already gruelling challenges during the regular part of the season’.

The escalation of pressures for players to compete reached a head in the late 1990s/early 2000s when it was increasingly apparent that male players were effectively “done” with their careers past the age of 30.

Indeed, at this stage it seems unlikely that all three competitions will prosper and achieve the prestige and patronage – of players, fans and sponsors – that their proponents envisage. Most crucially, the new Davis Cup and ATP Cup seem destined to clash. While the former offers greater prize money for the winners ($20m versus $15m), this alone might not offset the fact that the ATP Cup offers 750 ranking points to the winner, while the Davis Cup offers none. That said, a player’s eligibility to compete in the Olympic Games depends on their Davis Cup play; they have to complete a certain number of matches to make themselves eligible. Being in such close proximity, however, it seems unlikely that both competitions will be able to retain the interests, and thereby secure the appearances, of all the top male players. Weakened competitive fields will likely be the cumulative result. George Bellshaw, from the UK’s Metro magazine, compared the two competitions and speculated that the extra prize money and Olympic eligibility rules ‘may not be enough to save it’.

While many commentators are focused on the long-term commercial potential of these two (or can we say three?) competitions, the issue of player welfare is one that has often been overlooked. With an increasing number of tennis competitions and growing pressure on players to confirm their participation in them, the sport seems destined to reach breaking point. The escalation of pressures for players to compete reached a head in the late 1990s/early 2000s when it was increasingly apparent that male players were effectively “done” with their careers past the age of 30. Indeed, until 2012, when Roger Federer won his seventh Wimbledon title at the age of 30, it had been 37 years since a man in his 30s had won (Arthur Ashe, at 31, won in 1975). A subsequent reduced timetable stipulating fewer commitments for more senior players has had the positive effect of lengthening tennis careers, such that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic (and female players such as Serena and Venus Williams) are all still competing at the highest level well into their 30s. However, there is a growing fear that the introduction of these new competitions – and the pressures on, inducements to and expectations for the top players to compete in them – could see a return to the days when cumulative and career-ending injuries and burn-out are increasingly commonplace.

Tennis has long been a sport in which money-makers from the business world have had their hand in commercializing, but these new team tennis formats, with their increasing number and intensity, will do little to remedy problems associated with a busy tennis calendar and persistent health/injury risks this poses for players. So while the Davis Cup and ATP Cup were revamped to increase the chances of the top male players of competing in them, so as to maximize profit, the potential saturation of the tennis calendar that these developments have helped accelerate, may have several unintended long-term consequences for the players and the sport’s overall prosperity.

Copyright © Robert J. Lake 2019

[1] Rob Lake is an Instructor in the Sport Science Dept. at Douglas College, teaching socio-cultural aspects of sport and physical activity. His research interest lies in the area of sociology and history of sport, and he has published widely on tennis history. He is the editor of recently published Routledge Handbook of Tennis; review to follow in these pages.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.