The year in men's pro tennis will end on a compelling note, as the remade Davis Cup takes place next week in Madrid. We're about to see if the risky makeover will cure the ills of this historic, 119-year-old competition, or if the International Tennis Federation, which owns and promotes the Davis Cup, is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Here are some FAQs for those who aren't sure why this drastic revision happened and those who wonder what to expect next week.
Why did the ITF change the competition?
Some top players, including John McEnroe, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick, were always prepared to drop everything when asked to play for their country -- especially when their home nation was potentially competitive. Others, who saw no path to winning, were less enamored. The defunct traditional format, which required the two finalist nations to be available for as many as four weeks of play staggered throughout the year on an already loaded calendar, alienated a growing number of elite players. Revenues from the overwhelming majority of ties were unsatisfactory.
The format created uncertainty as well as logistical problems for all, including the promoters and the media. It was a time-zone induced nightmare because teams did not know from round to round who they would play next or where. The five-match, best-of-five (no fifth-set tiebreaker) format seemed too punishing. The controversial makeover was approved by the ITF's constituent nations last summer. Purists wept, reformers held out hope.
"I love Davis Cup, period," Mardy Fish, the U.S. team captain and veteran Davis Cup competitor, said. "I didn't want to see it go away. Some guys who loved Davis Cup are coming out and saying, 'It's over. Gone. This is something different.' But that's not really helpful. We love Davis Cup and we want to see this new approach flourish."
How is this new format different?
The entire competition will be played over the course of just one week in one venue. This year it's Madrid's La Caja Magica, the site of the Madrid Masters. Starting this year, 18 nations consisting of the four semifinalists from the previous year, 12 qualifiers and two wild-card nations, will vie for the Cup annually. Each team will consist of as many as five men and a captain.
Some aspects of the traditional competition have been retained. Each year, 12 nations will have to fight through qualifying to make the finals field. They will have to compete as they did in the past. Teams that have met before will continue to take turns hosting as in the past.
Why did the organizers choose Spain and La Caja Magica?
Kosmos, a relatively new investment group spear-headed by former Barcelona FC star Gerard Pique, has promised to invest $3 billion over 25 years in the event. That was enough incentive to hand over the reins of Davis Cup. Pique's involvement made La Caja Magica a logical first host. While the venue is home to the Madrid Masters, played outdoors on red clay, La Caja Magica is convertible (hence the name, which means "the magic box."). The Davis Cup will be an indoor event under a roof with hard courts laid down over the familiar red clay.
How do they plan to get through it all in one week?
The format has changed from the familiar five matches per tie (the Davis Cup term for the matchup between two teams) to just three (two singles and one doubles). The long standing best-of-five sets scheme for matches has been changed to best-of-three tiebreaker sets. That means the two teams in the final will be playing their fifth tie. One or more of their singles players might have played as many as five matches (often called "rubbers" in Davis Cup jargon) by the time the champion is decided.
Are the top players taking part?
The desire to lure the top players back to the competition was a major reason for the restructuring. But the fact that the tournament takes place right after the ATP Finals (where the top eight players are entered) is a major stumbling block when it comes to recruiting the elite players. Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev have chosen not to compete, but Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Daniil Medvedev are in -- so far.
The addition of the fifth roster spot means that the elite players can play selectively without necessarily torpedoing the team's chances. This new flexibility may be the element that keeps the Davis Cup alive and relevant.
Who has the toughest draw?
The group of death appears to be the one consisting of three outstanding tennis nations: Spain, Russia and Croatia. True, Nadal may not even play, but Spain has a home-nation advantage and a more-than-capable pair of singles players in Roberto Bautista Agut and Pablo Carreno Busta, as well as doubles standout Feliciano Lopez.
Croatia features former US Open champ Marin Cilic and 22-year-old rising star Borna Coric, while Russia has three able singles players: Medvedev, Karen Khachanov and rising star Andrey Rublev. That's a team with a lot of options.
Who has the softest draw?
Great Britain, seeded No. 5, is in a group with Kazakhstan and Chile, neither of which has a singles player ranked higher than No. 34. The Brits, meanwhile, have Murray (although he's still in rebuilding mode following surgery), Dan Evans and Kyle Edmund. The latter, once ranked as high as No. 14, is in the midst of a slump. But Davis Cup has a way of jump-starting stalled careers.
Can this event succeed?
The event has the potential to be thrilling. The groups are well balanced. These days, nearly every nation has one or two highly competent players. The expanded roster will add potentially intriguing elements. The X factor is the legendary Davis Cup pressure and atmosphere.
The original Davis Cup was justly famous for its hyper-enthusiastic home crowds. The pressure of playing for your nation was a great playing field leveler. Journeymen became overnight national heroes in Davis Cup, and elites sometimes floundered.
If that special Davis Cup vibe can carry over to the new event (and that's a very big question, given the neutral site as well as the uncertainty about attendance), this time-honored event may be reborn and its glory restored.