At large: Can the ATP’s World Cup dream for tennis fill the gap in the market?

The ATP has used Wimbledon fortnight to confirm plans for a World Team Cup of men’s tennis that could rival a revamped Davis Cup, but the appetite for either among players and fans is yet to be discerned.

At large: Can the ATP’s World Cup dream for tennis fill the gap in the market?

You’ll have heard it said. “If it didn’t exist, they’d need to invent it.”

There are ideas and products – maybe God, if you’re a high-minded type like Voltaire – that so readily meet an obvious need it’s hard to imagine their absence. 

Soccer's Fifa World Cup is probably one of them: a concept robust enough to withstand corruption and dilution, uniting fans of the world’s most popular sport and providing a competitive apex. If it didn’t exist, at this point, Fifa might not either. 

But if there wasn’t a World Cup in, say, men’s tennis, would you have to invent it?

It’s a slightly disingenuous question. Men’s tennis has an international team competition, the Davis Cup, that is among the oldest in organised sport. The women’s version, the Fed Cup, has been played since 1963; the Hopman Cup was launched for mixed doubles in 1989. That’s not to mention the Laver Cup, a two-team set-piece rendered last year in the image of golf’s Ryder Cup.

But there is a pronounced recent movement towards something more World Cup-like, particularly in the men’s game. Earlier this year the International Tennis Federation (ITF) unveiled plans to move away from the home-and-away format that has sustained the Davis Cup since antiquity and introduce a full finals tournament at the end of each year. Propped up by a 25-year, US$3 billion partnership with the Kosmos investment group – which is backed by Rakuten chief Hiroshi Mikitani and founded by World Cup-winning soccer player Gerard Piqué – it will culminate from 2019 in a week-long event with prize money of US$20 million.

World Cup-winning soccer player Gerard Piqué's  Kosmos investment group is funding a Davis Cup revamp

That “game-changer” of a proposition now has company. The ATP, which administers the men’s tour, confirmed plans this week to relaunch its World Team Cup, previously played from 1978 to 2012. The new competition will arrive in 2020, with 24 national teams playing for prize money of US$15 million. It will be held each January with the support of Tennis Australia. 

Not one global team tournament, then, but two, a couple of months apart, with the potential to cause a serious rift within the leadership of a sport with a busy calendar. The question is, if they don’t exist, do they need to be invented?

Tennis has its bulletproof competition brands – the four Grand Slams, and perhaps a handful of key tour events. None is more celebrated than the tournament taking place right now, overshadowed as a media event only by that other World Cup. If The Championships at Wimbledon didn’t exist, would you need to invent it? Who knows? But you’d be hard pressed to come up with it – a competition played at a private club in a plush London suburb on a surface barely used by elite or even casual players, where spectators are polite, competitors wear plain white and backgrounds must be purple and green.

And yet Wimbledon is a commercial powerhouse, this week snapping up its 14th blue-chip sponsor in American Express. It has forged its every anachronism into an unmistakable and endearing identity. It runs enviable broadcast and digital operations, and knows just how closely to cling to tradition and when to embrace the new. 

None of this is news to anyone in tennis and both the ITF and ATP will still find arguments in favour of their new tournaments. The ITF is a global governing body that rarely has an excuse to get the world’s best in one place under its banner. The Davis Cup in its current guise is a title every top player wants to win but can rarely commit to throughout a calendar year; its drama and focus are parcelled out unevenly, too. 

The original ATP World Team Cup was abandoned in 2012

The ATP, which made such a success of its revamped season-ending ATP Finals, has its own reasons for taking a meaningful stab at a World Cup format. One, straightforwardly enough, is having more to sell: more IP, more commercial inventory, more broadcast rights. But deepening interest in the men’s game brings a range of attendant benefits.

Anyone who’s caught a glimpse of a sports bulletin on the nightly news will know that men’s tennis has been dominated for years now by a glittering elite of all-time great talent. That has been enough to magnetise fans during the later stages of big tournaments but a handful of top players can’t hold together the whole structure on their own.

Problems can fester beneath. Tennis produces some of the richest athletes in all sport but you don’t have to go far below the top tier to find players struggling to break even. Where there is need, there is opportunity – and not always for the right people. Plenty of those jobbing tourists are vulnerable to the attentions of fixers. 

Meanwhile, the brilliant hegemony of those ageing superstars can make them bigger in the eyes of some casual fans than the tournaments in which they compete – no issue if they win; problematic if they don’t. The ATP is well aware of this. Last year it inaugurated the ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan to incubate new ideas and showcase young prospects.

Beginning the year with a global team event, with its hook of national interest, could build on those efforts to give greater competitive exposure to emerging talents and those further down the rankings. 

So these events may well have a compelling purpose, while consolidating interest in a way that would appeal to broadcasters and sponsors. Yet quite apart from the threat the ATP and ITF tournaments will pose to each other, and the historical challenges for team events in a sport based on individual contests, credibility cannot be willed into being. Prize money and savvy promotion can help but players have their own ideas about what is worth winning, and fans follow their lead. 

Both bodies will know that until it becomes self-evident, there will be those who ask just why these tournaments were invented.