Controversial yet long-awaited reforms to the format of the Davis Cup, the preeminent national team competition in men’s tennis, will be a “game-changer” for both the sport and the International Tennis Federation (ITF), according to David Haggerty, the governing body’s president.
Speaking to members of the international media at this week’s SportAccord convention in Bangkok, Thailand, the American laid out his vision for what he called “the new Davis Cup” as the ITF gears up for a seismic overhaul of its flagship property and chief revenue generator.
“I think what’s most exciting is it’s a game-changer for the ITF,” said Haggerty. “The Davis Cup is a property that we’ve had for 118 years so we look at this as the new phase, the new Davis Cup, having one iconic location and 18 teams playing for a championship.”
Haggerty was referring to reforms first reported last year and, specifically, the 25-year, US$3 billion partnership the ITF announced in February with Kosmos, an investment group founded by Spanish soccer star Gerard Piqué and backed by Hiroshi Mikitani, the chairman and chief executive of Japanese ecommerce firm Rakuten.
It’s a game-changer for the ITF
What's in play for the Davis Cup?
Under the terms of the partnership - which is due to be voted on by national tennis associations at the ITF’s annual general meeting in Florida in August - the ITF and Kosmos will create a new annual season-ending World Cup of Tennis Finals that will crown the winners of the Davis Cup.
The week-long event, which the ITF says it hopes to launch in 2019, would be staged at a predetermined location in November each year and would offer an increase prize purse in an attempt to lure the leading stars in men’s tennis, a concerning number of whom have chosen to regularly skip non-mandatory Davis Cup contests in favour of focusing on Grand Slams and other top events on the ATP World Tour.
The ITF also plans to direct much of the investment provided by Kosmos towards other projects and initiatives designed to boost grassroots participation and expand development programmes across the globe.
“That will make a significant impact on investment into the game of tennis,” said Haggerty, “and I think that’s one of the most important things for the ITF because we’re the only body, the only group, that invests money into the future generations of players.
“This will enable us to put US$22 million of new incremental money towards the development of tennis so it’ll help all of the nations around the world, and in addition there’ll be US$20 million of prize money for the players, which will make sure the top players are playing. For a weeklong event, US$20 million is fantastic. It’s more than they get in any other event so we see this as really a game-changer for the ITF.”
Current men's world number one Rafael Nadal is on board with the ITF's Davis Cup reforms
While Haggerty said he was confident that the revamped competition is widely supported among the sport's top playing talent, many figures within men’s tennis, including several past and present stars, have spoken out against the ITF proposed changes - Brazil’s Bruno Soares has accused the body of “slowly killing the competition”, for example, while American Sam Groth said the ITF “had lost the plot”.
“This has been a journey for us,” admitted Haggerty, who added that he has held extensive discussions and received plenty of feedback from players. "After the announcement, I went to Indian Wells and had the chance to meet with a number of players and Player Council members and it’s exciting to see Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic are two of the biggest supporters of the event.
"What we find very exciting is, in one week, the players can play and fulfil their needs for Olympic qualification and they’re also assured of significant prize money and they get to represent their nation. I think those three things woven together are all important.”
The Piqué factor
Asked by SportsPro for details on how the Kosmos partnership came about and how it will work in practice, Haggerty said the investment group, which has also worked in MotoGP, initially approached the ITF around two years ago before formal talks took place ahead of the official announcement at the recent ITF board meeting in Barcelona.
“It’s the passion that I saw when I met Gerard Piqué and his group that was quite energetic for us, quite exciting to see,” Haggerty added. “Yes, [Piqué is] a sportsperson, a footballer, but [he is] really interested in tennis and helping the ITF take its most important property and try and make it even better.
“We’ll continue with the commercial partners that we have and Kosmos will also be able to bring new partners to the deal. The economics are important so we’ll work very, very closely with them on the commercial rights, some of the operations, but they will in essence be doing a lot of the heavy lifting on that as well.”
The ITF announced a 25-year, US$3 billion partnership with Kosmos, an investment group founded by Spanish soccer star Gerard Piqué and backed by Rakuten chairman Hiroshi Mikitani in February.
Haggerty also defended the World Cup-style, best-of-three sets concept and the plan to stage the Davis Cup, which has traditionally featured five-set matches in a home and away format, in a single “iconic” location. He added that the shortened format would bring about greater scheduling certainty and bolster the commercial health of the event by fostering “more predictability” - something he said would help improve player participation and encourage more commercial partners to invest in the competition.
“For us the excitement is that the Davis Cup is known as a team event, the world’s largest annual team event, and I think by having all these top players together in one location over a week period is going to make this a phenomenal extravaganza,” he continued, adding that the ITF would seek a location with at least three suitable stadiums to stage matches and the ability to provide adequate training facilities, with hosting rights rotating among different cities and continents.
“Our plan is to start out somewhere for two or three years and then move it around,” he said. "We may find information that informs us to do something differently but I think the whole vision of a World Cup is to have more of a World Cup.
“When a nation comes to watch their team, they’ll be assured of three matches because there’ll be the knockout stage and then either the quarterfinals or the playoff. They’ll see the team that they follow but they’ll also have the ability to see other top players and other top nations competing as well.
“We think this is unique - it’s not a tournament, it’s really a team event where you wear your team’s colours, you wave the flag, so we’re really excited about what we can do to make this the World Cup of tennis in one location.”
We think this is unique - it’s not a tournament, it’s really a team event where you wear your team’s colours, you wave the flag
If approved, the proposed changes would continue a reform process initiated before Haggerty’s election to a four-year term in September 2015. In February of that year, the ITF - then under the auspices of Italian Francesco Ricci Bitti - announced what it called a ‘landmark’ partnership with BeIN Sports that would see the Qatari company market the global media rights to the Davis Cup and also the women’s equivalent, the Fed Cup, for a seven-year period.
That particular partnership will continue alongside the Kosmos arrangement, said Haggerty, who insisted that increasing the visibility of a reformed Davis Cup ultimately ties into his overriding strategy to grow the sport of tennis worldwide.
“When I was elected a couple years ago, my mandate, my promise, was to bring certainty and financial stability to the ITF, that we would find new projects and new ways, because we only have one thing that we need to do, and that is to help the nations develop the sport,” he said.
“I think that when people understand that we’re doing this for what’s right for tennis, and to give us the ability to really invest in the future of tennis, to be able to take this competition to more nations that might not see it as this level, and to be able to develop the next generation of players, it just seems to make sense.”
SportsPro is a principal media partner of SportAccord 2018.