Format change not on the table
January, 31, 2010
By Sandra Harwitt, ESPN.com | ESPN.com
LIEVIN, France -- In recent months, the topic of how to change the Davis Cup has, once again, gathered an audience despite the fact that the International Tennis Federation appears more than happy with the current product.
A number of revisionary concepts have been suggested, the latest modeled after soccer's World Cup.
Fed Cup hasn't specifically been mentioned as needing a change, but that didn't prevent Juan Margets, ITF executive vice president, from offering a proactive pronouncement on the subject during the Fed Cup quarterfinal draw ceremony between France and the U.S. on Friday.
Margets took the opportunity to explain that the ITF is open to discussions regarding the dates of Fed Cup, the prize money and the ranking points.
But then he firmly stated that one aspect of the competition is not up for review: "We will not put on the table the home-and-away tie."
And while this message was being delivered in a Fed Cup arena, Margets later confirmed to ESPN.com that the same message -- loud and clear -- is also viable for Davis Cup. The ITF strongly believes there's a beauty and uniqueness to the home-and-away format guaranteeing that the nation of one or the other countries competing will enjoy home turf and a home crowd. According to Margets, to remove that element from the equation would be to greatly diminish the essence of both competitions.
"It is the position of the ITF we need to look at these events, as we do many times, and see in what ways we can improve what needs to be improved," Margets said in an interview with ESPN.com. "At the same time, there are a number of areas we are quite happy with, such as our sponsor interest in an uneasy time. The debate at this time about home-and-away is more about Davis Cup, but the model for Fed Cup is similar. The question that is tangible is, what is the interest of a neutral match between players that are not global stars in a third country?
"In a regular tournament the fans go for the global icons. In the Fed Cup and Davis Cup, you go for your own team. If you take away the home factor, the interest will be diluted."
U.S. Davis Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez, who played Fed Cup when it was presented in a one-week format at a neutral site, concurs with Margets that the current design is the winning concept.
"I love this home-and-away format," said Fernandez, who captained the U.S. to an impressive 4-1 victory during the away tie in France. "I did play the format when Fed Cup was held all in one week. It was still great to play for your country, but to have that home-court advantage, and even when you play away, having that atmosphere is pretty special. I enjoy home-and-away, and I would like to keep it as well.
"I think it's just a matter of getting the right weeks on the calendar for Fed Cup, and for Davis Cup. Our schedule right now is February, April and then not until November, and that was tough last year, it was like all of a sudden we were playing again after a long stop. That stuff can be improved. But I definitely have always liked home-and-away."
U.S. teammate Liezel Huber's concern with the current Fed Cup format isn't about home-and-away. She's just intent on finding a way that the doubles match can become more relevant to the outcome of a Fed Cup meeting.
Margets admitted the ITF has considered a number of possible fixes to address Huber's concern, but has yet to come up with the perfect answer.
"In Fed Cup the doubles is either decisive or it is at high risk to be irrelevant," Margets said. "We looked at two options: to play Fed Cup over three days like Davis Cup, and the other was to play three matches on Saturday and two on Sunday. The last time we discussed [that] in the Fed Cup committee, we didn't make a change because to play three matches with the third the doubles on Saturday, you risk having a dead Sunday. But we acknowledge for a doubles player it is not ideal."
Huber would vote for the Fed Cup adopting a three-day Davis Cup-like format with the doubles encounter held on Saturday, but made note that player earnings for Fed Cup would have to align with the men's paycheck for Davis Cup to allow that scenario to work.
Nevertheless, in the big picture, after Huber and Bethanie Mattek-Sands won their doubles match for the U.S. to close out the weekend on a high, Huber admitted she's happy to compete in Fed Cup no matter what position the doubles holds.
"It doesn't really matter for me at this point," Huber said. "To play a dead match when we've won is pretty awesome. It's just being in a dead match when we've lost [that] hurts."
The U.S. Fed Cup came to France without the country's key women players, recent Australian Open champion Serena Williams and sister Venus Williams.
The Williamses, minority owners in the Miami Dolphins, claimed they had responsibility to go to the NFL team's owners meeting, although those meetings usually host only majority share owners, held in conjunction with Super Bowl week in Miami.
Fernandez, who in her first year as Fed Cup captain motivated a non-Williams Fed Cup effort to the final in 2009, didn't get bogged down with the sisters' absence.
"It's unfortunate that they don't have the commitment to play," Fernandez said. "I'm hoping they will play eventually, but their priority is obviously not Fed Cup."
And in the end, the U.S. didn't need the Williamses' help to post a 4-1 victory over France as it fielded a team of strong-at-heart players who got the job done.
Melanie Oudin reeled in the quarterfinal win to give the U.S. an insurmountable 3-0 lead on Sunday after beating Julie Coin 7-6 (3) 6-4. Coin, a Clemson Tiger who graduated with a degree in mathematical science in 2005, substituted for Alize Cornet.
On the opening day, Mattek-Sands captured the opening match over Cornet 7-6 (7), 7-5, and Oudin followed with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Pauline Parmentier. The only loss the team took was by Christina McHale, new to Fed Cup action, who fell to Parmentier in the fourth match 6-4, 6-4.
"It means a lot to be able to win the decisive match for the United States in the first round, especially because in Italy I was the decisive match for Italy to win the whole Fed Cup last year." Oudin said. "So, it means a lot to come back and do well this year."
For Oudin, the Fed Cup was a big boost because it's the first time since the U.S. Open that she's won two singles matches in a row. Oudin will likely have another opportunity to anchor the U.S. Fed Cup effort in the semifinal round in April against Russians with the home court advantage.