Revamped Davis Cup plagued by problems, but passion isn't one of them

Spain enjoyed a home-court advantage that inarguably helped it secure the Davis Cup championship. TF-Images/Getty Images

The mood in the press room at the Davis Cup in Madrid on Friday was maudlin. The Serbians looked more like mourners at a funeral than elite athletes, their eyes raw and red, their visages grim. They had just lost to Russia in the quarterfinals of the first edition of the revamped Davis Cup competition after wasting three match points in the decisive doubles match.

Nenad Zimonjic, the Serbian Davis Cup team captain, started to describe the heartsickness felt by the whole squad when his eyes welled up, leaving him unable to continue. Teammate Novak Djokovic reached over and gently patted his team captain on the knee. As Djokovic would later say, "It hurts really badly."

The scene was unlike anything some of the reporters in Madrid had ever witnessed. It was woeful but also an affirmation that the essential spirit of the Davis Cup has somehow survived the transition that wrenched the storied event into the present day. It's still the Davis Cup despite the format change and significant miscalculations by the new promotional team. Those included thorny scheduling, an unwieldy format and disappointing crowds except for ties (the Davis Cup term for matchups) featuring Spain, which enjoyed a home-court advantage that inarguably helped it secure the championship.

"It still felt like the players, from every country, cared about it," said Mardy Fish, captain of the U.S. squad that missed out on qualifying for the knockout stage after going 1-1 in the round-robin stage. "Like in the previous format, you saw guys even in the quarterfinals dropping down on the court like they just won the whole thing. That's still there, the passion of playing for your country, that hasn't been lost."

That leaves the organizers -- the International Tennis Federation and the Kosmos investment group -- with the most precious Davis Cup commodity intact. But the shortcomings of the event are serious. Here are some of the major ones that emerged during the week.

The scheduling

The event set at least one record, although the distinction is dubious. The second-round, round-robin doubles match between the U.S. and Italy ended when American Sam Querrey cracked an ace at 4:04 a.m. on Thursday. The lateness was due to the schedule, which called for all three matches during the evening sessions to begin at 6 p.m. Two best-of-three tiebreak set singles were followed by a 30-minute intermission before a potentially decisive doubles.

Meanwhile, day session matches started at 11 a.m. (a half-hour earlier during the quarterfinals and semis) in order to get each tie completed in time. The players, led by Rafael Nadal, showed remarkable forbearance.

"The only negative [aspect of the competition] in my opinion is we are just starting the last match and it's 12:45 a.m." Nadal told reporters after the decisive doubles match that lifted Spain to a 2-1 win over Russia ended at 2 a.m. on the first day of team competition. "That means big trouble for us, the players, and also for the people who have come to the stadium too, because tomorrow is a workday. It makes everything difficult."

Querrey told reporters after his 4 a.m. win: "We (the U.S. squad) were laughing about it a little bit. Even after we split sets, we kind of all said to ourselves, 'There's not a big difference between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.'"

Fish said the organizers are duty-bound to do something about the scheduling.

"You can't have just any normal tie end at midnight. You can't assume all the fans will be there, the players will be fine, and everybody will be ready to come back the next day to do it again, no problem."

One obvious solution that will probably get a lot of attention in the months ahead is for Davis Cup to try one of the experimental scoring systems that have become popular in non-tour events (Davis Cup is not an ATP Tour event). That may mean something as radical as no-ad scoring, with super-tiebreakers replacing third sets.

"I feel like that's what the fans like too," Fish said of more streamlined scoring, at least for doubles. "I think people love doubles for that reason (super tiebreakers have already replaced third sets in ATP Tour doubles events). But if you're going to have three sets with a super buster (tiebreaker) in singles, I'm not sure purists will love that."

The watchability

Broadcasts, including live streaming, were difficult to find or nonexistent for fans in the U.S. and elsewhere. Even worse for those on site, the live scoring module was barely functional, and results were posted only after long delays.

Fish said that the glitchy, slow Davis Cup app denied teams important information about how other ties being played simultaneously were progressing, which had a potentially critical impact on a captain's strategy.

La Caja Magica (the Madrid Masters is also played there) is a sprawling, nine-acre complex with three show courts connected by spacious, outdoor pedestrian concourses. Skip Schwarzman, a die-hard fan and blogger, told ESPN.com that fans waiting to attend evening ties huddled around the few space heaters in the cold outside the stadium with no idea of what was happening inside.

"I waited two hours to get into the U.S.-Italy tie," Schwarzman said.

The format

There's something wrong when a qualification formula is so complex (calling upon a series of progressively more minute statistics like percentage of games won per match) that even the captain sitting courtside has no idea where his team might stand.

"We had no idea if we had advanced, or even had a chance to advance, after we split the singles with Italy in our second round-robin tie," Fish said. "So even going back to the hotel at 4:30 in the morning after the tie felt a little off. Did it even matter? Were we still in contention, or were we eliminated? No idea."

The problem lies in the division of the 18 nation teams into six groups. With each team playing just two ties, qualifying for the knockout stage relied heavily on statistical comparisons to determine which less-than-perfect teams advanced. By contrast, the round-robin portions at the year-end ATP and WTA championships both feature two round-robin groups consisting of four players and rarely have to go to the tiebreaker stages. The win-loss record after three matches is usually sufficient to determine who advances.

Changing the format to four groups, each consisting of four teams, might lead to greater clarity and make it easier for teams to remain masters of their own destinies. The event has two wild-card teams, which is mainly a marketing tool for the promoters.

The crowds

The crowd sizes were noticeably small, with the exception of ties featuring Spain.

"It's a problem that while Spain is playing to 12,500 spectators, and Djokovic is out there on the next-door court with maybe 1,500 people watching," Fish said. "This is Novak Djokovic, maybe the greatest player ever. They (the promoters) have to figure out how they get more butts in the seats, because you know what? The players actually care about this."

Schwarzman was curious to catch the tie between France -- featuring Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- and Japan on court No. 3, which seats 2,500. According to Schwarzman, there appeared to be only about 500 fans in attendance, only 90 to 100 of them Japanese.

"The French players stood arm-in-arm, and sang the 'La Marseillaise (the French national anthem),'" Schwarzman said. "That is infectious. The missing thing was the crowd and all the noise and color it brings."

The timing

This is the feature least subject to improvement. The calendar is already crowded, and Davis Cup finals have always been held at the end of the year. But in an encouraging turn for the event, fears that the game's stars would snub the event were largely unfounded.

True, Roger Federer (whose own Laver Cup has emerged as a competitor with Davis Cup) and ATP No. 7 Alexander Zverev were off playing exhibitions. Russia's Daniil Medvedev declined to compete, and 21-year-old sensation Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 4 Dominic Thiem were shut out because neither Greece nor Austria qualified. But most of the big names showed up to play, either for love of the competition, the opportunity to earn some holiday season bonus money (teams that did not qualify for the knockout state received $600,000 to split as they see fit with the prize money increasing by round), or because participation in the Olympics is linked to taking part in Davis Cup.

The impressive field was led by Nadal, who earned tournament MVP honors with a remarkable performance. The year-end ATP No. 1 won eight matches (five singles and three doubles) in leading Spain to a historic win. The event ended with Nadal sprawled flat on his back, wracked by emotion as he drank in the atmosphere after clinching the Davis Cup with a singles win over Canada's Denis Shapovalov.

"Some people will rail against the new competition and just say and write bad stuff," Fish said. "But I'm a perfect example of someone who loves DC more than anything else I ever did in tennis. One thing is sure, we're never going back to the old format. This is the format we have, and we have to keep an open mind and hope they can make the necessary changes to make it as great an event as possible."