Swiss Stars Are Absent at Davis Cup

New York Times, 2015.03.05 Swiss Stars Are Absent at Davis Cup, and So Is Change

The Davis Cup is still officially in Switzerland’s possession with another campaign set to begin on Friday, but the Swiss have already given up any real chance of defending their title.

There were confetti and celebration in Lausanne and elsewhere in November after Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka finally brought the trophy home. A promotional tour is still planned in the hope that more Swiss — particularly young Swiss — will be bitten by the tennis bug.

But further festivities could fall flat if the team, as expected, is beaten in the first round in Belgium this weekend.

Neither Federer nor Wawrinka agreed to defend the prize that took them many years to win. That leaves their friend, adviser and captain, Severin Lüthi, with a Swiss lineup whose top player is No. 321 Adrien Bossel now that No. 292 Yann Marti has reportedly left the team in a huff after not being picked for Friday’s singles. The only holdover from the winning team is No. 576 Michael Lammer.

Transition at the top is coming — the longtime International Tennis Federation president, Francesco Ricci Bitti, has decided not to run for re-election this year. But turning the event into a true monthlong World Cup of tennis seems to involve too much risk and calendar juggling. Holding the event every two years might endanger short-term revenue that is vital to the smaller tennis nations that are part of the I.T.F.

Another smart proposal — requiring home teams to pick surfaces that are in use on the regular tour during that time of the season as a way to reduce injuries — could founder because of the dearth of clay courts in some countries.

Even the modest and reasonable idea of giving the previous year’s finalists a first-round bye has failed to gain traction, partly because of resistance from sponsors and broadcasters and partly because I.T.F. officials are not convinced it would improve player participation.

It would, however, help players stay fresh, and it would also help prevent the buzz kill of seeing the reigning champion quickly fumbling its crown.

For now, with Davis Cup dates set through 2018, the idea of holding the final at a neutral site determined well in advance — à la soccer’s Champions League final or the Super Bowl — is gaining momentum, with the goal of improving the event’s organizational and promotional potential.

“We are disappointed that Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka have decided not to play in the first round of Davis Cup, especially for the thousands of fans in Switzerland and around the world who supported their progress to the title last year,” Ricci Bitti said. “Davis Cup is not a mandatory event, and players do choose from time to time to miss a tie.”

They certainly do, but what sort of message does it send when the titleholders have no interest in repeating?

Federer fought the clock and a significant back problem to make it on court and help beat the French in last year’s final. Now, less than four months later, he would rather save himself the hassle and the energy at age 33. He will instead play a lucrative exhibition match against Grigor Dimitrov on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.

“I always feel there is so much guilt put on you from the federation or from the I.T.F., more so than anybody else,” Federer said of the Davis Cup last week on his way to the title in Dubai. “So I’m happy I was able to finally tick that off and do it.”

Federer made it clear that he played the Davis Cup from start to finish last season more to address his teammates’ wishes than his own. He also made it clear that it had been more of a burden than a pleasure through the years.

“Those are powerful quotes,” Jim Courier, the United States Davis Cup captain, said in a telephone interview from Glasgow, where his team has a first-round rematch with Andy Murray and Britain after losing last year in San Diego.

Courier, who won the Davis Cup twice as a player, would prefer big changes in an attempt to broaden the event’s reach, but he appreciates the event too much to write it off in the face of stasis. Still, there is a notable disparity in excitement between the Davis Cup and the Ryder Cup, the golf team event contested by the United States and Europe. The Ryder Cup was played at Gleneagles near Glasgow in September.

“We just did a press conference with the local press, and there’s not one American member of the press here, and we didn’t expect there to be,” Courier said Wednesday. “The golf community and general sports community knows in America when Ryder Cup is coming because it’s focused on. There are tennis fans that know we are playing here, and no one else knows. That’s not our fault, necessarily. We’re not responsible for promoting this.”

The top players, who united for increased prize money at Grand Slam tournaments, could have done the same to force change on the Davis Cup. They do not seem interested in doing so.

More matchups between the game’s biggest stars in this age of great rivalries could have made the Davis Cup more impactful globally. Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray have too seldom faced each other in Cup matches, a combination of bad luck of the draw and flickering commitment.

This year, Federer is out (perhaps for good), but the fifth-ranked Murray and the top-ranked Djokovic, who is set to lead Serbia against Croatia in the first round, are back in the mix. So are No. 4 Kei Nishikori of Japan and No. 6 Milos Raonic of Canada, whose teams will face off in Vancouver in what could be the most compelling of the first-round encounters.

No matchup has a longer back story than the United States versus Britain, however. The two countries played the first Davis Cup tie, in 1900 in Boston, after the Harvard student Dwight Davis had the bright idea of starting an international tennis challenge. The Americans won, 3-0, benefiting from the absence of Britain’s best players: the brothers Reginald and Laurence Doherty. The Americans also made good use of twist serves, which left the Britons lunging and searching for answers.

There should be no such secret weapon this time. The top players know one another well in this globalized era, although the Belgians could certainly be excused for lacking information on Bossel and the other Swiss players filling in for Federer and Wawrinka. At least they no longer have to worry about scouting Marti.

What a difference three months make.

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