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How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?

Skip Schwarzman

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Rodgers and Hammerstein, from The Sound of Music

Like the nuns confounded by Maria von Trapp’s flaunting the abbey’s way of life while they’re simultaneously entranced by her innate goodness, I find myself conflicted over the new version of the Davis Cup. I’m not sure how to (re)solve my problem. Life would be so much easier if everything was 100% either this or that.

To begin with a few givens: yours truly has always loved Davis Cup, especially when the USA was in the hunt, but not exclusively. I’m in favor of best of 5 set matches. I’m not terribly Rah Rah but do get caught up in the nationalistic fervor of Davis Cup, almost regardless of who’s doing the rah-rah-ing, and I can even smile (inwardly) over the stories from years ago of home countries fudging the line calls. I believe tennis is a great sport, maybe the greatest, and it deserves more widespread attention by sports fans.

From the outset I was against moving the Davis Cup to Gerard Piqué’s private investment firm, Kosmos, and changing the format, full stop. On first reading the format changes either left me cold or I thought them outright mistakes. The currently popular phrase, “to grow” one’s project, is so vapid as to be meaningless. Television’s increasing influence on how tennis is played makes me very wary.

Lastly: I want this to succeed. The alternative – Davis Cup withers and dies – is unimaginable. The sporting world, not just tennis, would lose something truly special.

Having laid that out, these are my nits and my picks from being at the Caja Magica[1] matches last Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I followed the competition once I returned home, as well. I know it’s easy to criticize, especially a brand new event, but there were some real rough spots….

MY NITS

  • With the exception of ties involving Spain, attendance was weak, all week. Yes, the evenings might have been a bit better, but Courts 2 and 3 were never sold out. (It’s no surprise that Spain played only on Caja Magica itself, with a capacity of about 12,000; they were the home team and, let’s not deceive ourselves, they do have Rafa.) Courts 2 and 3 seat about 2900 and 1800 respectively. Pretty much any Davis Cups ties under the old format, at this level, would have had no difficulty filling such arenas.[2]

Pretty empty…..

Those in attendance were way enthusiastic (see the Belgian fellow on the Metro, below), but it’s hard to generate an air of real excitement when there are less than 500 fans, total, in a stadium built for 2900, as was the case for Italy/Canada on Monday.

  • The Davis Cup app and web site situation were both a hot mess, or messes. The ITF’s Davis cup app was not the home of the Madrid event. Instead, if you opened it you were directed to a new app put up by Kosmos. That app was poorly designed structurally and was very glitchy. Initially the app often hung, forcing a mid-week update which still did not offer up-to-date scores, didn’t offer the order of play, had inaccurate information, and didn’t provide such basic insights as who was serving. (See below; can you tell who’s serve it is?).

  • Caja Magica is a large, covered area. It has a single roof, under which are the three stadiums, each a separate building, with a big, open concourse around and between them; there is a perforated steel wall around the outside of the concourse, but for all intents and purposes one is outdoors when not inside one of the stadiums. It was 45ºF the night I had to wait 2 hours to get into the USA/Italy tie due to the Argentina/Germany tie running late. No one had considered the comfort of the crowds wandering the concourse before, during, and after matches. It was silly, and irritating.

  • This could be viewed as an American’s consumerist perspective, but I don’t think that’s so: the event was all but swag-less; very little souvenir merchandise on sale. Having been to the London ATP Finals at the O2, Wimbledon, the Australian and US Opens, I’ve seen the efforts to sell all the clothing and accessories at those tourneys. At those tournaments the goods are on racks so you can hold it open to decide if it will fit cousin Vince. In Madrid all the merchandise was behind the counter, at two locations, neither a standalone store as at other tennis events. You had to ask a salesperson to see something. It’s a good thing attendance wasn’t so great, they couldn’t have accommodated a crush of buyers.

Similarly there were no country-specific goods to buy other than small flags and banners to wave. No team oriented t-shirts or hats, no warm-ups that mimicked the teams’ outfits. Nada.

It’s not as if I had to buy 3 suitcases of stuff to bring home. If the goal is to expand the reach of Davis Cup, however, to increase awareness of the competition and the sport, then making it impossible for fans to go home and show off their Davis Cup gear is counterproductive.

  • Madrid is not a city that I know. This Davis Cup event hoped to draw tens of thousands of foreign visitors who also wouldn’t know the host city. Then why was there such abysmal directional signage both in the city center and around Caja Magic: only one small directional sign for Caja Magica at its Metro stop, no other signage along the walking route there, only one person at the subway stop telling of a shuttle bus to the venue, the shuttle bus was not visible from the Metro stop and the guide was not there every time I went through the station, nothing announcing that a special bus would provide transportation to central Madrid for up to 1 hour after the evening’s last match had ended; I was told that info was on the web site/app, but I could not find it.

Beyond that, the Metro stops running at 1 AM. Multiple Madrid Davis Cup matches finished well after that god awful hour. Less well known are the local newspaper stories of long lines of fans waiting for the busses, taxis, and Uber drivers. I bailed when Taylor Fritz won the second set against Matteo Berretini – it was already almost midnight and I was flying out the next day – since I knew that if he won the tie would be decided by the doubles afterward. By all accounts the doubles was a scintillating affair, I regret missing it. It ended at 4 AM, however. Bad planning on the organizer’s part.

  • There was an astounding lack of marketing around Madrid. Virtually none beside what’s mentioned in my earlier Davis Cup article. At other major tennis tournaments you can’t walk without tripping over event advertising. In Madrid, a tiny kiosk at the airport and players’ names on the walls at subway stops, without the words “Davis Cup” anywhere, don’t qualify as marketing. It’s hard to see how you raise the profile of an event without making some noise about its happening.
  • If you’d bought a ticket for a 6 PM tie, arrived early, and decided you’d like to jump in to one of the ties that had started at 11 AM, you couldn’t buy tickets. Normally this might not be a big deal, but when an evening match didn’t start on time – and some ran hours past their 6 PM start because 11 AM ties weren’t over – and the concourse was cold, and you couldn’t follow the matches being played on monitors in the concourse, well, this qualified as a #fail
  • Tennis’ governing organizations are hellbent on popularizing the sport, saying it needs to consist of shorter matches, more spectator involvement, simpler scoring, and above all, more television. Meanwhile they ignore the simplest change possible to make it easier for casual fans to follow tennis: insist that opposing players wear different colored clothing, and doubles teams wear the same color kits. For Davis Cup players should all have their countries’ names printed on the back of their shirts. What did we get in Madrid? Definitely none of that. Canadians and Spaniards both wore red shirts and white shorts in Sunday’s final. Against Japan, Italy’s Fabio Fognini wore a dark blue shirt and shorts, with “Italia” on his back, while Berretini wore pale blue and no writing on his shirt.

This has nothing to do with conflicts from players’ clothing sponsors. We don’t need Pantone color-matching between Nike’s and Fila’s red shirts or shorts, but c’mon folks, teams wear uniforms and television audiences want to tell the players apart without a program.

MY PICKS

  • Notwithstanding all the above, this was Davis Cup and the fans delivered what was expected of them with vim and vigor.

As I walked in Tuesday a group of Chileans began chanting a call specific to them and other Chileans standing around the concourse joined in. It was great.

On Monday I got to hear Canadians supporting Denis Shapovalov by crying out, “Sha-poe, Sha-poe, Sha-poe Sha-poe,” to the well-known fans’ tune of “Olé, olé, olé olé,” even though their singing of Oh Canada had been overshadowed by the more numerous Italians’ rendition of Il Canto degli Italiani.

And then, of course, there were the Spanish fans. Far more of them in the stands than any other country’s supporters, urging on the home team, they were a treat, as exemplified by the 6 piece orchestra not 20 seats away from us in the bleachers on Tuesday (including a tuba).

Yet through it all the fans, Spanish, Italian, French, Canadian or otherwise, followed tennis’ protocol of (mostly) silence during points. Davis Cup fans have always operated outside of tennis’ typical decorum; the fans whoop it up with gusto, but to the benefit of everyone they return to the hushed tones we’re accustomed to as play resumes. In Madrid, as elsewhere over the years, this juxtaposition of raucous cheering and traditional quiet heightens the tension in the crowd.

Pay attention, all you who call for razzing the server as they toss the ball up to serve!

  • Nothing showcased the wonderfulness of doubles as much as the old, traditional Davis Cup format. Many of those ties were decided by a team’s taking the second day’s only rubber (two singles on Friday, dubs on Saturday, reverse singles on Sunday), when momentum could shift, a 2/0 lead could be exploited and the door shut, or hopes could be revived. Tennis’ odd duck of teamwork in an individual sport, doubles, provided fascinating plot twists as a pair’s psychological interplay was there for all to see, sometimes to the good, sometimes not.

The new format moves doubles from its pivot position in the middle of a tie to being that of the decider when the singles matches are split, and that’s a good thing. Of course it highlights doubles, which can use (and is deserving) of all the attention it can get. More than that, however, the effect of a team effort that is part of a team competition already pitting one meta team against another (country vs country) does so much to ramp up the pitch of the contest that we should all raise our right hands and promise to keep this part of Davis Cup just the way it is, forever.

  • I’m happy to have been wrong. When the new format was announced I was sure two-man teams were a thing of the past. Yes, they’ve been rare, and great success for them even more so, but as heroic sporting ventures they were thrilling. But now, how could two players endure all the matches needed to succeed in this new, compressed Davis Cup contest?Well, Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil proved me a bad predictor of the future. Jeez, were they tough all week, or what? Sure, Felix Auger-Aliasime came in for the final tie versus Spain, but Shapo and Pops had done the heavy lifting, and then some.
  • When Team GB made the semi-finals the British LTA sourced an additional 975 tickets that were given away, free, to supporters. That’s got to be in the dictionary next to “over the top” and is just fabulous. Not fabulous enough to push them past the Spaniards, but fabulous nonetheless.
  • Was it a seismic shift when substitutions became allowed in a Davis Cup roster a few years ago? No. Was it an improvement? Definitely. Its value has been diminished by the new format, where the number of singles matches has been reduced to 2 from 4. Still, cagey captains continued to strategically move their chess pieces by announcing their players shortly before a tie began. The rules about when doubles team members must be decided is hard to find (I looked), but given the number of late changes to doubles pairings in Madrid it’s more last-minute than not. This is a good thing.
  • I bemoan the disappearing best-of-5-set match. We’re losing the long arc narrative, ebb & flow of great 5 set matches. It’s beyond me why tennis should move away from its reputation as an endurance sport as well as one of skill. Yes, the game’s become more physical, but blame the slower courts as much as anything, and that’s before considering the increased defense made possible by the new strings and larger head racquets.

This complaint is of the “When I was a kid” variety, and I recognize that. At the same time, in light of how many matches were required of winning teams in Madrid, and the quick turnaround the scheduling demanded, can we please dispense with the bogus narrative that 5 set matches are too much for today’s pros?

In a Madrid conversation with a tour regular, but not a player, it was said that the pros don’t really mind best-of-5 since they have a day off in-between matches as long as there’s no scheduling glitch. It’s no harder for them than one week or Masters tournaments that feature less time to recover from (admittedly shorter) matches.

So I get it, we’re not going to see 5 setters return in any meaningful way, not in the new Davis Cup or regular tour events. Can we at least be honest about it, though, and let it be said out loud that the real driver of this shift is tennis’ courting of television and its need to have easily packaged, reasonably short spectacles to broadcast?

  • The players care. A lot. Some boycotted the event, true, but most did not. Those who showed up displayed every ounce of commitment we’ve seen in the past. The players’ joy at clinching a tie lifted almost everyone in each stadium; even the losing supporters could take some solace in it. At the press conference after Serbia lost to Russia, having gone to 3 sets in the deciding doubles match and Serbia had had match points, the pain on the Serbian faces would have melted the most cynical of hearts. Like the atmosphere during matches, this deep, deep investment by the players defines the best of Davis Cup.

THE BIG PICTURE

From the minuses and pluses to the overview…..

  • There were a big number of relatively small slip-ups that question Kosmos’ dedication to success; by themselves they are minor, as a whole they suggest a lack of commitment to staging a proper, professional event. Just a modicum of time invested would have helped avoid: lack of marketing at the airport, on the streets and transit; lack of directional or information signage between the Metro and Caja Magica; very poor sharing of information regarding transport options once on site; weak shopping/marketing on site; the lack of monitors on the concourse showing on-court action. Taken together they displayed a complete failure to consider the fan experience outside of the stadiums and a willful ignorance of how other tournaments address these details.

Are these things fixable in Year Two? Sure. Are they harbingers of Davis Cup’s fading away? No. But all we have to judge Kosmos’ efforts is what they’ve done so far, and in these regards their work was way less than impressive. I hope they pay attention to these “little” things going forwards. Taken together they’re at the core of what lets fans pay full attention to the big thing, the competition.

  • In a similar vein, the app’s failure’s not a good sign. It is a bigger indication of Kosmos’ not understanding how to do their job: it was so entirely possible to have it sorted out before anyone arrived in Madrid that its not being perfect, to say nothing of functional, is pretty damning. As with the more minor slip-ups I hope this is fixed for Year Two. It needs to be corrected in a big, impressive way.

Suggestion: with all the digital prowess available it’s hard to believe they cannot have a real time display of the teams’ standings, in the app and on the web site, as the competition rolls along. As the deciding doubles match began versus the Italians, Team USA believed they still had a chance to come through the round robin stage into the quarterfinals. They were wrong. That shouldn’t happen, for either the players or the fans. It’s correctable. Get on it, Gerard.

  • By itself it’s silly, inelegant, and counter-productive for there to be two Davis Cup web sites and apps, two attached to the ITF (that have been around for years) and two others attached to these Finals (and which belong to Kosmos). If the idea is to promote Davis Cup and attract the more casual sports fan, having mulitiple portals into the competition is tying one hand behind one’s back, or worse. It should be made easier to know what’s going on and finding information, not harder.
  • It doesn’t take a quantum computer to do the numbers to realize Kosmos has to sell television rights to have any chance of recouping their $3B investment. Ticket sales alone, even in concert with sponsorship, will never make this profitable. There was no tv in America; it’s generally acknowledged that Kosmos asked a ton o’ money for the feed, and ESPN and Tennis Channel both said No Thanks[3]. As a result, no tv coverage to speak of in the States, the sports largest single market. I’ve read that American broadcasts aren’t likely for 2020, either, though I have no inside scoop. This has to get fixed if Davis Cup is to succeed in this form. And they’ll need to fill the seats, too, since empty-stadium-television doesn’t attract advertisers.

Can television alone draw in enough new fans to justify Kosmos’ gargantuan investment? To my knowledge there’s no example of its having been done before. This is a big bet that’s been placed.

  • With this format – 18 teams in 3 round robin groups, leading to a knockout quarterfinals, all played in one week – this event needs more courts, period. Practically speaking the matches cannot begin before 11 AM, the players are very unlikely to agree to anything earlier, and getting working people to night matches means they cannot start before the 6 PM time used in Madrid. Having only three courts, and these timing constraints, is what caused the late night snafus. Moving the start times back 30 minutes was a nice gesture but it’s not nearly enough to solve the problem.

Either Kosmos needs a venue with more courts, and already there’s talk of building a 4th court at Caja Magica (more money being spent…..), or they’ll have to change the format. Maybe fewer teams is the answer. A number of commentators expressed that 18 teams is just too many, that twelve would be more manageable. One suggestion I read is for the round robin to be held in 4 different cities around the world, feeding a semi-final/final gathering in one city at the end of the year. That would create 4 home team environments, expose pro tennis to places it might not otherwise visit, and reconfigure the semis and final into something workable.

I like this idea, though it still fails to answer the question of what will happen if the semis and/or final don’t feature the host country’s team?  Will the seats get used, whether or not the tickets are bought? Can this Davis Cup be successful in a city whose national team isn’t competing? Will fans commit travel and accommodation dollars not knowing if their team will make it through to the end of a week’s “festival” of tennis[4]? Those are massive questions, unanswerable absent the situations’ coming to pass. Year Two will be challenged to show that fans will travel to cheer on their teams. Right now the public relations line is that the tennis world has seen and been excited by this first running of the new Davis Cup, and now fans know it’s worth traveling for. We’ll see.

Am I being paranoid about Kosmos’ having control over said app and web site[5]? Perhaps. Yet Kosmos and the ITF’s agendas are not the same, fundamentally. The ITF’s mission is to oversee the organization of tennis worldwide and promote the sport for its own sake. Kosmos is a for-profit venture. They may honestly wish to develop Davis Cup, or save it if they believe it’s otherwise going to die on its own, but if they cannot also make money they won’t stick around for the sake of the game.

There are inherent problems with the format Kosmos has crafted and fixed points that cannot be wished away, such as the dearth of facilities that can accommodate this format. But there is another solution that could address both: changing tennis’ scoring system. Are we facing the possibility that Kosmos, now in charge of Davis Cup, will make the scoring similar to the ATP’s Next Gen finals tourney – best of three 4 game sets, with no ad – all for the sake of condensing the playing time and satisfying both the facility’s logistics and television? We can only pray that’s not the case. It wouldn’t be Davis Cup.

Moreover, does anyone know the details of Kosmos’ out clause in the agreement with the ITF? Like any good business they surely have plans in place that will let them exit the deal if it doesn’t live up to their bottom line targets. Should that happen, whither Davis Cup?

•••••••••••••••••••••••••••

I want to see this succeed. I want to see it improved. It can be done. Kosmos can right their ship if they really want to. I expect the glitches were signs of naiveté on their part, not incompetence or a lack of motivation to do an outstanding job. I hope so. The proof will be in the Year Two pudding.

Let’s be frank about it, and brutal: in any normal business arrangement, had Kosmos been hired to run this they’d have been sacked and the ITF would be demanding their money be returned. Naïve or not, that’s how egregious their myriad mistakes were when you realize they had plenty of time to deconstruct how other tennis events, equally big in scope if not bigger, have covered all the angles when staging their events. The Big Four, the ATP Finals, all the Masters events, none of them suffer from Madrid’s weaknesses. And the Laver Cup, organized in large part with the help of Tennis Australia, was extolled for hitting all the bull’s eyes their very first year, when they created an event out of thin air. If I was Kosmos I’d be very worried that when the ATP Cup debuts in Australia, less than 8 weeks after Madrid, it’s going to make Kosmos’ work look terribly amateurish and severely weaken their position vis a vis any talks about merging the two Cup competitions.

What will become of Davis Cup if the idea about combining it with the ATP Cup bears fruit? Good question. That format, featuring 24 teams (!), hasn’t the provenance of Davis Cup but will have ATP points and the backing of the men’s pro tour. Again, we can only wait and see.

Singing about Maria, the nuns exclaim, “I even heard her singing in the abbey/She’s always late for chapel/But her penitence is real….I’d like to say a word in her behalf/Maria makes me…laugh.”

Davis Cup is real. Heartfelt. It makes us laugh and cry. Like Maria’s penitence, the soul of Davis Cup, and its provenance, are what’s convinced us to look past Kosmos’ missteps. Without the Davis Cup legacy, were this just a tennis event that was badly managed, it would be quickly forgotten as a one-off.

The challenge facing acolytes of the old Davis Cup format is how to reconcile the laudable goals of Kosmos and the ITF with maintaining the heart and soul of the competition, because the fact is #theresnothinglikeDavisCup .

We should protect it.

____________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Caja Magica is the name of both the venue itself and how many refer to the main court, which would otherwise be thought of as Court 1. The formal names for the courts, in order, are Estadio Manolo Santana, Estadio Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, and floridly, Estadio 3.

[2] At the 2017 first round tie between Canada and Great Britain, in Ottawa, which was not a high profile tie at the time, an average of 7000 fans attended for each day of the three day tie, a record.

[3] ITF Chief Dave Haggerty told InsideTennis that Kosmos owned the TV rights and couldn’t come to an agreement with the Tennis Channel. – per Bill Simons, InsideTennis

[4] It’s another discussion, but can there truly be a “festival of tennis” that doesn’t include the women pros?

[5] Per whois.com , Kosmos owns the new Davis Cup web site url and one has to assume the app, as well.

Eternal thanks, yet again, to my wonderful cadre of editors, Rolo Tomassi, H, and Lynn

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