Davis Cup worth more than the sum of its parts
Ahead of Ireland playing South Africa a revamp for the ‘World Cup’ of Tennis is a necessity for its survival
USA player John McEnroe and non-playing captain Arthur Ashe prepare to take on Ireland at the RDS in the Davis Cup World Group game in 1983. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho.
This weekend the AIG Irish Davis Cup team will play a Group II Europe/Africa relegation play-off match against their hosts South Africa at the Irene County Club, Centurion, in Johannesburg.
Ireland are in the middle tier – two divisions above them and two below – of a competition that is in the throes of being rebranded as the World Cup of Tennis. It’ll take more than a lick of paint and a new logo to infuse life into beyond the World Group where the stars of the ATP tour occasionally collide.
Financially, the Davis Cup is generally a loss leader, even for the United States Tennis Association (USTA), who never budget for anything other than a deficit arising from their participation. If the USTA cannot turn a buck, there isn’t much hope for Tennis Ireland.
Last March Ireland lost 5-0 to Belarus in Castleknock Tennis Club, which propelled them to South Africa and a relegation play-off match for the first time since 2007.
Non-playing captain Conor Niland leads a tight-knit group that consists of vice-captain Jamie Delgado, who will principally prepare the doubles pairing, physical therapist Nicky Green and the four-man team of James McGee, Sam Barry, James Cluskey and David O’Hare.
This year the net cost of Ireland’s participation in the Davis Cup is €45,000, that is after any prize money and sponsorship are offset against the expenses incurred. It represents about two and a half per cent of the €2 million that Tennis Ireland annually spends on the development of the sport in the country.
For the Belarus match, Castleknock were paid a fee for the use of their facilities, which is standard practice, but there is little scope for Tennis Ireland to recoup the financial outlay. There was room for 1,500 spectators a day but Tennis Ireland do not have the right to sell advertising locally – BNP Paribas are the tournament sponsors – instead receiving a modest stipend in the form of a payment in lieu of advertising.
The halcyon days of 1983 when a USA team – led by non-playing captain, the late Arthur Ashe, and containing John McEnroe, Peter Fleming and Eliot Teltscher – arrived in Dublin to play a World Group game against an Ireland side consisting of Matt Doyle and Sean Sorensen on a specially constructed court at the Simmonscourt Pavilion in the RDS represent a high water mark in terms of quality and commercial viability.
To replicate the potential for a reprise in financial terms Ireland would need to draw a Switzerland team containing Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, who propelled their country to Davis Cup success in 2014, to benefit from television interest and the facility to stage it in a venue big enough to turn a profit in terms of all revenue streams including ticket sales.
There is no guarantee Federer and Wawrinka would play. They didn’t this year in the World Group first-round game and the team lost 3-2 to Belgium.
The current structure of the Davis Cup prevents any canoodling between David and Goliath. A consensus for change will be an issue when the elections for the new ITF Board of Directors take place.
The smaller nations just want to break even financially and the second item on the wish list is the chance of a glamour tie. A change in the distribution of prize money and player remuneration would be helpful. The Irish players receive a match fee, which is topped up based on the result. For example, two wins for McGee this weekend in South Africa might earn him €3,000 to €3,500. It’s a modest amount for a player ranked 150th in the world trying to earn a living as a professional and entirely understandable that he will, by necessity, have to be selfish on occasion. No player should be asked to choose between his livelihood and his country.
He didn’t play against Belarus because of tournament commitments but his presence in Johannesburg is a massive fillip for Ireland based on world rankings – South African Kevin Anderson who led two sets to nil against eventual champion Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon is not playing.
Yet for all the flaws of the Davis Cup, it still guarantees Tennis Ireland its biggest media profile more so than any championships. Players make sacrifices to play for their country. It would be nice if the ITF could make it more attractive for all sides, literally and figuratively.