Luckily for Gerard Piqué – tennis worked. With significant enough big players fronting up for their country, including the World No. 1 and all-round Spanish hero Rafael Nadal, and World No 2 Novak Djokovic, they had enough seeded star power to try and engineer a blockbuster finale.
From tearful press conferences, to joyful celebrations there was absolutely no doubt that most of the countries and players were committed to doing well. As the teams consist of the countries’ best players available, the matches have been pretty close, and often the deciding doubles with mixes of doubles specialists and singles players, have been the best matches of all.
The travelling fans who made the effort made themselves heard, and certainly in the smaller stadiums, it still had a feel of the old Davis Cup atmosphere.
What did not work?
Scheduling – this was the biggest issue by far. In the group stages, three matches in a tie, three courts, two sessions and yet still people were finishing in the wee small hours of the morning, including the most brutal 4:04am finish for two teams that had been eliminated at the end of the first set of the deciding doubles. In the knock-out stages
Crowds – The venue is neutral for everyone except Spain, and it is hardly simple to skip around a continent or indeed over oceans on the off-chance your team gets in to the knockout stages. Crowds in some ties were undeniably sparse and in the case of France, there was no atmosphere as the country has been very upfront in not much caring for the new format.
Technology – this was, if you will excuse the phrase, a complete own goal by the organisers. The old Davis Cup website might not have been as slick as we would like but the new Davis Cup Finals website and app were an unmitigated disaster!
There was much mirth and amusement from the media pack that players seemingly were playing each other and the stats were completely meaningless – not first serve percentages, for example, but the actual number of first serves. There was a lot of annoyance from fans though and even though the more established apps tennis fans use all year round still worked, the main application and website needs to be vastly improved as a service.
Broadcast Rights – nowhere was this more of a mess than in the USA with the rights for US matches going to the little-used Fox Sports 2 channel after the much more renowned Tennis Channel passed up on the rather considerable expense of carrying the World Cup of Tennis.
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By and large players and team captains trotted out much the same in press conferences – that the facilities that had been set up for them were great, the facilities were good and that they were getting everything they needed.
However, those journalists staying in and around the vicinity of the media hotel were provided with shuttle buses at the official media hotel. The hotel had no involvement in this, bus drivers refused to take single passengers on the last bus despite their being here to the bitter end, buses did not turn up at amended times.
Most of us are self-sufficient and can jump in taxis or use Uber but there will always be some that refuse to do so on the principle that if we are billeted in the north of the city with provided transport, then we ought to expect it picks up as scheduled or even takes you back. This area is not pleasant at night to walk around – so a little self-awareness is necessary especially if you do find yourself heading back late on your own.
Some things were fixable – lack of TV screens in the remodelled media centre took a couple of days to mobilise but there was a willingness to get things done, largely by staff who are also involved in the Madrid Open tournament and know how to run a media centre.
Media dining also had its challenges – despite the advertised time of 7-11pm for dinner, somehow that translated to 8pm and often in the evening sessions meant missing being on court for matches if you actually wanted to eat. The transcribers working 16 hours a day could miss meals altogether on busy interview schedules.
What did travelling fans think?
Ahead of the Finals, we heard from a couple of members of the Andy Murray Fan Forum.
One forum member told us: “While feeling sad at the demise of the old format, especially the home and away aspect, the shorter matches seem to be the way things will go in the future.
“I felt that as GB will compete in Madrid whoever was in the team deserved to have some support there. I thought way back in April when asked who would be interested that it was just possible that Andy might be ready by November. Now I am thinking it could be one of the last opportunities to see Andy play live so am very glad I will be there. The information so far on tickets seems reasonable in that we buy first for the group matches and later for the QF etc. only if the team gets through.”
Forum member and Britwatch writer Glenys Furness added: “Without the thrill of Best of 5 it didn’t feel like it would be Davis Cup. Putting everyone in the same place, for the same week, no thrill of the draw, looking at possible ties, possible venues and places to stay. Fans can’t travel widely and the opportunity to have a home tie in GB was always a thrill to look forward to.
“I feel like fan’s objections, views etc. were not taken into when the changes to this format were discussed. It feels like it’s all about the money. Pique has chucked money at this thing and will be determined to make it work. As it is still part of Olympic qualification the top players will feel they have to play, no matter how much they resent it.
“This format is not good for those not wealthy and can’t just drop everything to go out to foreign climes. This kind of change, for change sake, or in this case, for money will only enforce the views that tennis is elitist. The cost prohibits me and others from following the team, even watching “normal” tennis events is starting to be out of budgets of many.”
At the stadium, we met with members of The Murraynators who had originally booked for the group stages, and we met with them before the quarter-final with Germany.
Nicola Letham told Britwatch: “Our attitude, the people that have come have taken the higher ground and said well ok we’ve made our protest. This is what’s happening, and we need to get on board. Our job as a fan group is to support the team. If they boycott it that’s a different kettle of fish and we would support that.”
Ann Christie added: “We’ve come out here and we all did take the view ‘don’t knock it until you’ve tried it’. I suppose for us it’s a bit fortunate we’re not travelling to the other side of the world.”
This view was shared by Rona Cochrane: “It’s been different for all different people. Anne and I have come over early and we planned to have more of a holiday and sight-see. Other people came over Tuesday afternoon. we had a meal out Tuesday night.”
One thing that has been notably missing since the 17-year sponsorship deal with BNP Paribas ceased was the presence of the We Are Tennis Fan Academy – a point picked up by the Murraynators.
Letham added: “We Are Tennis is not here and that has made a huge difference because I think in Davis Cup they were always that extra oomph behind. So, there’s a difference as well.”
The LTA spent around £60k to secure the fan allocation of tickets to ensure there was support – almost 1000 British supporters gave their full voice to try and get their team over the line – and thankfully for these loyal fans who had gone through the expense of coming over here for the group stages, they managed to get free tickets for the semi-final.
Interestingly, initial detractors also took up the chance to hop over to Madrid to make it for the semi-finals. Any support is to be applauded but those who wanted to come with the attitude of giving it a try really deserve all the plaudits. But it will be interesting to see if those who trashed the idea of the new format will give it a chance next year.
Areas for Improvement
Scheduling and the group set-up needs to be looked at. The 18-group scenario with two best-placed runners up was nonsensical but to try and move to a configuration of 16 teams, no two additional wildcards and four groups of four would then mean more matches and in a week that is not feasible. It would have to be extended over maybe two weeks and if that was the case it cannot possibly live in this section of the calendar.
With Roger Federer’s Laver Cup occupying the golden slot, the ITF and the ATP really now need to get their heads together and smartly because it is clear to everyone that the two team formats cannot live in the same calendar year, six weeks apart from the end of one to the start of another.
How sustainable is it to throw so much money at the top players? This has been a monumental financial effort but it could take as much as four years for this format to return a profit.
Provision has to be made to help federations help their fans to attend. Not every federation has deep enough pockets as the LTA to snap up £60k worth of tickets. We hear a lot about how the money earned from this will be reinvested in poorer countries to develop and encourage the support. How does that happen if it takes four years to turn a profit?
Logistics must improve for those covering the tournament. Thankfully Madrid is not that hard to get around, and public transportation is cheap but if you are planning your day around shuttle buses and the hotel has no clue when they are due, or worse they don’t turn up at the time you’ve been told it can have a knock-on effect in terms of copy. A simple fix is to give us all pre-loaded metro cards, and to have a manned stand in the hotel in touch with the transport company.
The technology – from the website and app to misfiring advertising hoardings putting players off – these were embarrassing and such an easy fix, and there really is no excuse. Saying they did not expect so many people to access the app or the site is simply unacceptable.
Back to neutrality – there is no denying that the atmosphere has been electric for Spain’s matches but in effect the hosts get the benefit of basically five home ties in a row in reaching the final. Potentially, they get that all again next year. Finding venues to be able to deal with the changes that must be made in terms of scheduling and group set up really needs to look to those set up with multiple courts and the ability to handle many people would suggest those tournaments with multiple stadiums. However, holding them in locations further afield will impinge on travelling fans being able to be there for a week, or most likely 10-14 days.
No-one is saying that the old format did not need to change – it did if it wanted to maintain its history and attract the big players. In IT problem solving, we always used to focus on changing one thing at a time to see the impact. The ITF missed a trick in adopting a more gradualistic approach, and after this Olympic cycle will find themselves not just declaring themselves open to discuss collaboration with the ATP, they will need to be far more proactive.
The Davis Cup finals will return to Madrid in 2020.
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