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True Davis Cup Reform Must Be A Tennis Affair - And Not A Business One

Exclusive interview with Attila Richter, Vice-President, Tennis Europe and General Secretary, Hungarian Tennis Federation

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Amid a flurry of diametrically opposing and conflictual statements and media releases from numerous international tennis stakeholders on the upcoming debate on Davis Cup reforms proposed by the ITF Board scheduled to take place within the agenda of the AGM in Orlando this week, it appears that key decision-makers have rarely been so internally opposed and divided in the history of the sport and its governing body. To highlight numerous controversies surrounding this affair that have brought concern to tennis professionals and fans alike, even renowned international lawyers have had their say in public on the already infamous “cover-up” of French Federation President (and, incidentally, Chairman of ITF Davis Cup reform Council) Bernard Giudicelli’s conviction in a defamation case that should have effectively banned him from serving in any capacity within the ITF organization as early as April 2018 (according to ITF’s own rules), further exacerbating the already vitriolic setting.

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In succession to several official letters and correspondences from regional tennis institutions – Tennis Australia, Tennis Europe and Asian Tennis Federation – as well as tennis and Davis Cup greats and winners (such as Patrick Moratouglou, Manolo Santana, Rod Laver, Patrick Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt, Yannick Noah, Nicolas Mahut etc.) clearly stating their disappointment and opposition to ITF’s proposal, the other side has replied “in kind” – claiming that the reforms are healthy, acceptable and well on-track to be officially passed by a 2/3 majority of votes from national tennis Federations at the meeting in Florida. Adding to the confusion is the unprecedented role of an outside partner of the proposed reform package, sports event production company Kosmos, fronted by FC Barcelona football star Gerard Pique – acting as a provider of initial USD$3BN in funds over a period of 25 years.

Foto: Tennis Europe/Peter Zador

Therefore, it is most welcome to realize that there are still voices that call for further work in a spirit of universally acceptable compromises, with the essence of tennis as the leading criteria and goal of this much-anticipated undertaking of the past several decades. Attila Richter, Vice President of Tennis Europe and General Secretary of the Hungarian Tennis Federation elaborates TE’s critical and constructive stance towards the proposed Davis Cup reform and ways to surpass the current “stand-off” situation that could yet create more negative consequences for global tennis - from grass-roots upwards - and mar the transition from the “Golden Era of Tennis” into a future of uncertainty and discord.”

   What is the nature of the most recent drive to reform the Davis Cup, and to what aspects would you attribute its growing sense of urgency?

Attila Richter: “An overall consensus on the need for Davis Cup reform has been in place by all relevant parties for years already. I can relate to the ideas comprising the present form of the Davis Cup reform and the way that their implications and importance have been communicated, but cannot refute the conclusion that the overall deal has not been shaped well enough – just yet.

The main issue between Davis Cup and World Team Cup that has emerged as of late portrays the two competitions as conflicting – although I do not see the reasons for such assessments, as we are discussing two different events. In a way, it would be similar to comparing the Champions’ League to Europa League in football…

Davis Cup and the (new installation of the) World Team Cup are two different events – in some ways quite similar, but in principle – appealing to different audiences, contested by differently structured teams. Both events are fronted with a major question – how should they be positioned on the global tennis scene? The previous installment of the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf has been wound down in 2012 – clearly over certain shortcomings that I may not be aware of in entirety. On the other hand, Davis Cup has endured for 118 years, and I do not accept that it would be realistic to assume that it will go away just because of World Team Cup’s planned re-emergence in 2020.

Any profound attempt at reforming Davis Cup must take into consideration its key tenets – such as what constitutes its tradition, how did it evolve through history and survive for 118 years, how did it overcome the challenge of introduction of the Open Era and the change from being staged as European and Regional championships to the current concept of “home and away” – which is in the heart of current reform controversy. Very importantly - what were the reasons why nations continued playing and hosting the event - even though they have been losing money for years? What should come first is a thorough analysis of these and other contentious points that are troubling Davis Cup today, but instead of that – we seem to be opening “new fronts” through a process which seems more like a gesture of imposition then introspection when it comes to proposing solutions.”

Foto: Tennis Europe/Peter Zador

   What would be the main aspect of the “deal” that you would address your criticism to?

Attila Richter: “When you come to the point when a “reform” is not a reform any more, but rather sees financial goals as its principal objective – that is where the troubles will start. Figuratively speaking – it is reminiscent of trying to fit a jacket onto a kid which wasn’t meant for him in the first place. Certain adjustments will be made, and then some more – but there is no way that you can avoid dissatisfaction and rancor at the end, even though the final appearance will look somewhat more appropriate. This is what is happening now as I see it.

In that sense, the position of Kosmos has not been clearly represented either. With the bulk of initial criticism directed at what has been perceived in its initial press statement as a complete and irreversible change of Davis Cup essence, its attitude since has been one of general cooperation and willingness to adapt. However, for some reason, this approach to problem-solving was also not readily communicated to others involved in negotiations, as if to prevent a perception of “vulnerability” by the “opposing” camp, or possibly for some other nondescript reason – thus limiting the effectiveness of all further exchange.

When the matter of funding of proposed Davis Cup reforms is in question – once the initial awe with the huge quoted sums has subsided and the breakdown was analyzed in closer detail – a considerable shortcoming has been detected, which would actually see the majority of national federations receiving insufficient money from the competition in order to maintain their role as sole developers of the game of tennis in their communities worldwide. With the countries that qualify for the World Group as the exemption – or the players for that matter – this proposal leaves numerous tennis federations around the world without the much-anticipated funds - and that after a long period in which a majority of them has struggled for years to make ends meet and maintain the most modest of budgets to preserve the current situation at best. Acting on the vague assumption that by increasing the overall budget and dispersing “more money” should support further development of tennis actually shows the shallowness of the financial part of the reform package – a tradeoff which sees the ITF and member nations give away rights for its key historical and operational asset such as the Davis Cup for 25 years for no concrete constructive benefit.

In principle, the introduction of the arrangement with Kosmos in the field of the ongoing debate on Davis Cup reform could have been a very good thing. It is worthy to note that Kosmos has initially tried talking with the ATP, but didn’t work out - regrettably. Then the ITF got into it, and things got even more complicated, confusing and polarized in regards to expressed opinions, proposals and viewpoints. With the current state of relations among key stakeholders and decision-makers – most notably with the players and ATP officially stating their opposition to and withdrawal from the deal – I really do not feel that it should go forward in such a divisive situation.”

Foto: Tennis Europe/Peter Zador

   How do you see the role of the players in this debate – and what elements could contribute to them having a more constructive influence on the whole process?

Attila Richter: “First and foremost, we at Tennis Europe were very glad to discover from our recent direct contact with the players that they would like to compete in Davis Cup format and do not see the World Team Cup as an opposing or mutually exclusive event. For most of the players, the World Team Cup is an ATP event – with varying views on just how “national” it is in principle. Its obvious positives are that it lasts a week, it fits the “swing” – being a precursor to the Australian Open, and they are comfortable with it.

Davis Cup presents an opportunity for the players to perform under their national flag, represent their country, but equally important – to share the passion of this unique competition in our sport with their domestic audience – a majority of them rarely in position to appreciate their national stars’ performances live during the season. Another major difference between the two formats is that not every nation can take part in World Team Cup – presenting another reason for players to seek a solution to take part in Davis Cup. Hence, the players have stated many times over that they were not only willing to take part in the debate – but that they have been pleading to be heard with the ITF for the past two years; apparently – without success. The dedication of players to Davis Cup is, therefore, unquestionable – but when it appears that the proposed changes will negatively affect the way that they conduct their season and create a conflict of interest with their professional goals – that’s when talking becomes imperative.

Along with criticism directed at the departure from “home and away” principle in the final stage of the competition, the main complaint of the players has been directed at scheduling the event for end of November, limiting the much – needed off-season (for physical recuperation, as well as other forms of preparations) to only 5 weeks. In terms of gain, it is certain that absence of incentive in the form of ATP points is also an issue, but when it comes to finances – interestingly enough – that point was never on the top of the agenda. The players have actually been promised a fair amount of money for participating in the new Davis Cup, yet they unanimously voted against the deal. In my view, there is simply no way that this deal can succeed unless the players are brought on board again.

There are those in certain tennis institutions that say that players’ demands are not to be followed without question. In truth, it would be better if the players would show more understanding, appreciation and support for the roles that national federations play in maintaining and developing the sport in their societies – not least because their positive intervention has been crucial to their own establishment on the tennis scene and due career success. For many national federations around the world, Davis Cup is a lifeline, a rare regular source of income that allows them to function at all – very often against an ever-increasing burden of debt. Those federations that have been able to synchronize their annual activities with their top featured ATP and WTA stars have claimed mutual benefits that are clearly displayed in terms of domestic popularity of the sport, its players of all generations, its current professional stars and competitions of all levels that further enhance the role of tennis on the domestic, regional and international scene. Such positive examples only amplify the need for all four major stakeholders of international tennis – the ATP, Players, national federations and the ITF to sit down, talk and work incessantly until an arrangement that is acceptable for everyone is reached. It would send the right message to the whole sporting world, as well as the international business community and media scene. However, with the divisions running deep as they are now – this appears to be not more than wishful thinking…”

Printskrin: Youtube/Reggeli Start

   What are the aspects that constitute the present and future success of Davis Cup, and how should the leading international tennis institutions structure their relations in order to ensure its prosperous perspectives?

Attila Richter: “One aspect of Davis Cup that everyone is talking about (preserving) is its “spirit”, regardless of differences in its perception. In that regard, one of the most pronounced aspects of its renown and prestige is definitely its inclusiveness – as it brings together not only all of the world’s nations in our sport, but also all of its stakeholders – ITF, national Federations, players and the ATP. The tradition of supporting a contesting national selection is an essential part of the story of its 118-year-long existence and success on all levels, and those are some of the treasured assets that any future reform must take into account.

Changes have been way too slow to arrive at Davis Cup, presenting it as out-of-step with contemporary innovations in other leading global sports, including those within tennis itself. For example, the Davis Cup court has looked more or less the same for the past 35 years, with only minimal changes in switching of supporting partner brands. At the same time, exhibition formats like the IPTL and Laver Cup have introduced numerous exciting innovations – opening new avenues for breakthrough entertainment and business propositions in tennis – that can be effectively added to the Davis Cup. However, the drive for changes in Davis Cup must be spearheaded by tennis-based arguments, and not business ones – and there is no way that this can be rendered possible without the involvement of the four main stakeholders, that would guarantee changes that would universally address the sport and its institutions – regardless of them being from a Davis Cup-winning nation or those with a far more modest track record. This is the only way that we can ensure real and sustained growth of the sport in all corners of the globe, and that is what Davis Cup changes should bring to all those concerned. Going after temporary financial gains and goals only will discredit our sport and do it irreparable damage – one of them being the loss of appeal to new generations of its fans and the business community as well.

One of the examples that underline such discrepancies in the concept currently proposed by the ITF Board is the notion of “The World Group”.  Being clearly promotional in its nature – I can understand the reasons for it, within this concept. However, apart from the chronic lack of details in its presentation that have plagued the whole current process of Davis Cup reform - it is obvious to me that it has not been the result of deliberations by the “tennis community”. Rather, it resembles more a given commercial concept that is “pleading” to be admitted into Davis Cup. Unless the upcoming changes are not a result of consensual action, if they are not “tailor-made” with tennis as its essence – I cannot see how they can achieve final success…”

   Are there any positive examples of change in Davis Cup in recent memory – and what must be an integral part of any successful attempt at reaching this goal?

   Attila Richter: “When the “Show Your Colors” campaign came out, it created some positive results. People finally had something new to look at and observe, follow a storyline. You have to create stories – and for me the Davis Cup is one of the best stories in tennis history. You just have to make it into a story of our time. If you talk today about fairytales of yesteryear, today’s kids simply will not be excited by them. But if you turn on the TV – you have the same stories, but displayed in different, modern form – first cartoons, then animations, then video games – which are all sought after by the kids. So, a story which has been around for hundreds of years has been geared to grasping children’s attention today. If you look at smartphones, which everyone is using today, you can discover some stark differences in ways that different generations communicate over them. Young ones of today will message their intentions to you in a multitude of short parts, practically words or comments, and it is an incessant barrage of back and forth – not even allowing for a single sentence to be shared in entirety. Now, how do you appeal to such kids as the audience for tennis of tomorrow, in 15 years? If you don’t attract them now, it is not going to work – and the Davis Cup should be a sure winner – as there is a great story behind it.”

Printskrin: Youtube/Reggeli Start

   What is the current outlook on the proceedings related to the Davis Cup reform during the AGM week in Orlando?

   Attila Richter: “The Davis Cup should be the prime example of good communication and cooperation among the stakeholders that could lead to its success. I am not saying that a perfect solution for all is attainable, but it is possible to find a model that suits everyone the most – and only that would be the right moment to reach out to the business community.

However, there is an overwhelming impression that everyone is deeply entrenched in their individual mindsets, and that it will be extremely hard to achieve compatibility. The scene seems to be set for a showdown of power and opposition – rather than earnest and open debate. In a situation in which the players and ATP have publicly stated that they have opted for the World Team Cup instead of the Davis Cup, and that apparently not even a simple majority of the national

Federations seem to be supporting proposed reforms (with 2/3 being mandatory to formalize them), the outset for proceedings about to commence in Orlando does not seem promising.

We can only hope that tennis – and not business – will emerge as the aspect by which success of the AGM in Orlando will be measured.  The ITF should be seen as the governing body of tennis in general, and national Federations as its grassroots developers across the world. There should be no conflict between the ATP and the ITF. The status of professional players rests within the ATP, but there should be an awareness in their ranks that many of them wouldn’t have been able to pursue their career goals without the initial support of the national Tennis Federations, which - in turn - would not have been able to exist without the support of the ITF. I believe that these positions are not difficult to accept.

Regrettably, transparency on key elements of the proposed arrangements have been lacking in all of its several versions floated until now, not a single one of them boasting quality content of a “final version”. Due diligence for the business model has reportedly been “completed” and appears to be “fine”, but has it been performed after the ATP has announced that it is exiting the project? Also, it has been reported that Europe would provide the venue(s) for the World Group Final event in the first 3 years, but the recent news that have emanated after Kosmos has announced the intentions of Oracle to endorse the reform have been contradictory to that claim. Returning to the role of Kosmos – it is commendable that they have been unequivocal in their desire to get involved and support tennis, but it seems like they have also fallen victim to the lack of proper communication within the original tennis circles – making their position somewhat dubious. And touching on the issue of players’ involvement in deciding the future of Davis Cup – I strongly believe that it is the emerging superstars like Zverev, Kyrgios, Pouille, Thiem, Tsitsipas, Shapovalov, Tiafoe, Khachanov and – thankfully – many others that should be consulted as well – because it will be them that will be directing the men’s game in the next 10 years or so. As long as there is constructiveness and benevolence behind intentions to achieve this long-awaited reform – there is a respectful space for all of them to contribute.

However, let me be also very clear that I consider even a rejection of the currently proposed reform as a viable option. The Davis Cup is not going to die next year if purported changes are not implemented immediately. Getting the “deal” passed by using arguments warning of “threat of extinction” in case it is rejected is completely wrong – as it would stigmatize the decision-makers and prevent them from launching an overall and thorough assessment of what is being offered within.

Finally, I consider Davis Cup reform to be a highly complex issue, and despite the current impasse – a lot of good work has been done on it so far, in my opinion. However, there is still a lot more work to be done – and it is inconceivable that the likes of Tennis Australia and Asian Tennis Federation are not brought back on board in an attempt to reach a final solution to this issue. The key prerequisite for making Davis Cup reform an universal victory for all would be to apply honesty, transparency and legality in its proceedings – which would guarantee that final solutions would have a lasting and universally accepted qualities that the tennis world is looking for.”

(Vuk Brajovic/(Telegraf.co.uk )

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