Wednesday, February 26, 2014
A lesson tennis can take from the Olympics
By Ed McGrogan
Three weeks ago, Noelle Pikus-Pace and John Daly -- the skeleton racer, not the golfer -- were relative unknowns. They are now household names in the United States thanks to their performances in Sochi, Russia, and their sport helps represent the maxim “Less is more.”
Held just once every four years, the Winter Olympics are a refreshing example of restraint in sports, inevitably worth the wait each time they are staged. We may not remember Pikus-Pace and Daly three weeks from now, but for a time, they were at the center of the athletic universe, no small accomplishment considering their niche sport.
On the other side of the sled, we have Davis Cup and Fed Cup, the anti-Olympics. They are held too often -- not just every year but multiple times every year -- and they are unable to grasp the general public’s eye and fail to take advantage of their international innards.
But if casual sports fans took to skeleton, biathlon and moguls skiing while those sports were in the spotlight, it’s hard to imagine them neglecting tennis if its premier, worldwide competitions were structured like the Olympics. It’s also worth noting that even hard-core tennis fans -- not to mention the players themselves -- take issue with their current bloated schedules. This much is clear: Davis Cup and Fed Cup can’t continue with the status quo if they want to re-establish themselves as must-see events.
It’s not as simple as just extending the time between competitions, however. For Davis Cup and Fed Cup to thrive, the top players have to participate. And that falls on the tennis tours, which ultimately have to come together for the betterment of their sport. In my ideal scenario, Davis Cup and Fed Cup would be held concurrently, every two years -- bookending the Summer Olympic years, to avoid conflict -- over a three-week period during which no ATP or WTA tournaments take place.
This may sound ambitious, perhaps even repetitive. But remember that both tours already carve out weeks in their crowded calendars for Davis Cup and Fed Cup. If all those weeks were taken at once -- say, after the Grand Slams -- and in concert with one another, no tournaments would be lost; they’d only need to be rearranged.
Such an exercise has precedent: Since 1998, the National Hockey League has shut itself down for two weeks every Winter Olympic year. It’s largely a concession by the league’s owners to its players, but both sides reap the rewards of exposure. Do you know who T.J. Oshie is? I bet you do, even if you never watched an NHL game before Sochi. Such is the reach of the Olympics, something that a combined Davis/Fed Cup event could become, if done right.
Emulating what the Olympics and NHL do every four Februaries is just part of how tennis should promote its flagging but historic team competitions. It should also mimic what college basketball does in March. The NCAA tournament accommodates a large number of teams in a variety of venues -- which sounds a lot like Davis Cup and Fed Cup to me. In my ideal scenario, the first week of this three-week tennis event is used for traditional home and away ties, with the surviving teams playing the second week at a smaller number of sites. The last week -- the Final Forehands, if you will -- must be held in just one city, like a regular tournament. Yet with two champions crowned and a best-of-five rubber format, there will be nothing regular about it.
The most common complaint I hear about Davis Cup and Fed Cup is that they are so confusing to follow. Indeed, it’s hard to generate buzz when four rounds of play are held at four different times of year (in Davis Cup), or when a final takes place seven months after the semifinals (in Fed Cup). And players abhor that the champion must begin its title defense in February after just having conquering the world in November. Drastic changes are needed.
But among the magnitude of the Olympics, the compromise of the NHL and the structure of March Madness lies the blueprint to a tennis extravaganza.