As tennis federations around the world get set to vote on radical changes to the Davis Cup format in the ITF’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) on Thursday in Orlando, several top players on the WTA circuit are surprised Fed Cup hasn’t been included in such grand plans from the start. Some are also relieved.
A sum of $3 billion is being promised over the next 25 years by investment group Kosmos, founded by Spain and Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique, and a complete overhaul of the 118-year competition looks set to take place.
The proposed plan will see the Davis Cup’s existing problematic format, stretched across the calendar year and played in all corners of the globe, condensed into a season-ending 18-nation event played at a single, neutral venue.
Around 120 delegates at the AGM will decide whether proposals by federation chief David Haggerty are to be given the go-ahead.
And while Haggerty has mentioned in the past that the ITF will start with the Davis Cup then turn its attention to its women’s equivalent, little to nothing has been said of the Fed Cup since discussions arose of such huge investments and changes.
World No. 5 Caroline Garcia feels the women are being treated like an afterthought.
“I think it’s weird that they are talking only about Davis Cup and they’re not talking at all about Fed Cup because at the end it’s kind of the same issue,” said the Frenchwoman.
“We have on the WTA and the ATP the same importance, if we can say. So it’s kind of weird they’re talking about Davis Cup and then they’ll see if they’ll do the same for the Fed Cup. So we’re a little bit like the last option.”
World No. 1 Simona Halep and No. 6 Petra Kvitova – who has won Fed Cup with the Czech Republic five times – are quite relieved the women’s competition is not on the ITF’s radar at the moment. There is strong opposition from many regarding the elimination of the home-and-away ties and both players feel strongly about the new proposed format.
“What do you think?” said Kvitova with a smile when asked if she’s grateful Fed Cup isn’t being discussed at the moment.
“We [Czech Republic] have many, many titles and I’m just happy how it is. Maybe I am surprised that Fed Cup is not in the talk but I’m probably glad for that as well.
“I just love to play in front of the crowd and playing a home tie is probably the best that we can have in this competition. It’s something really special for us and we have a great team and we’re still great team-mates as well so that’s very nice.”
Halep was clear in her views on the matter saying: “That’s a tough question but I will say my opinion. I like the historic thing and I like to be the same like always. Yes [I’m happy they’re not touching it right now].”
The debate for and against the proposed reforms has raged in recent weeks with some players, like Frenchman Lucas Pouille, saying they will boycott Davis Cup if the changes are voted through and many Australian legends describing the new plan as a death sentence for the competition, with Lleyton Hewitt dubbing it a “money-grab”.
A lot of politics is involved as well with the ATP and Tennis Australia looking to launch a new World Team Cup starting 2020, which would serve as direct competition to the Davis Cup.
Three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber feels all this is hurting the sport, rather than adding to it.
“I was a little bit surprised [Fed Cup wasn’t mentioned] but at the end I think they are starting with the Davis Cup first then they’ll do the Fed Cup. I love to play Fed Cup and I hope that they will find a way to make all the discussion to stop and just play the game. Just playing, enjoying it and not making too much trouble around because that’s not fair for the sport as well,” said the German ex-world No. 1.
Spain’s Garbine Muguruza isn’t surprised about the exclusion of the women in the initial plans and believes something is in the works for the Fed Cup as well.
The two-time major champion admits the competition needs to be revamped but doesn’t have suggestions on how it can be improved.
“The traditional way is tricky. It’s tricky because with our calendar for sure it’s never the right moment but there are times where you feel like you have to go to the other part of the world and the next Monday you have a huge tournament to perform and how do you manage that? It doesn’t mean you don’t want to play for your country, all those things that you cannot make it. It’s very tough to play sometimes,” said Muguruza, who is a career 9-2 win-loss in Fed Cup rubbers.
“Yes it [the Fed Cup format] needs work but I understand it’s tough because I don’t see also how they can make it better. I know they’re thinking about it, I know they’re putting in the effort but it’s tough because someone is going to complain always.”
Former ATP No. 1 Andy Murray isn’t sure why Fed Cup wasn’t part of the initial plans but highlighted that the fragmented structure of power in tennis doesn’t help proper solutions for the collective.
“I think a lot of the kind of Davis Cup changes have been forced a little bit through what’s been happening with the ATP’s team event,” noted Murray.
“Tennis has issues because you have so many different bodies. It’s so difficult to sort of keep everybody happy. It would be a lot, lot easier if everyone worked together to come to, I don’t know, maybe a slightly better solution sometimes; whereas it feels like everyone is always looking out for their own interest as opposed to the interest of tennis as a whole.
“So I think if everyone did that, things would probably get done a bit quicker and it would probably be a bit more positive for the sport.”
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In a second round clash that felt more like a major final, the two power-hitters traded blows from either side of the court, punches that would have knocked out many a player on tour. But not Williams, and not Kvitova.
For every ace fired, a thundering return winner was unleashed. A fist pump from one end was met with a roar from the other. The margins were slim, the pace was lightning-fast and the grit was off the charts.
Kvitova edged out Williams 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 but if the match was decided purely on heart, it would have definitely been a draw.
Less than a year ago, Williams was lying in a hospital bed after delivering her first child, Olympia, suffering from life-threatening complications that included blood clots in her lungs. She now wears barely visible compression tights while playing in an effort to avoid further health problems.
At the time, Kvitova was three months into her comeback from a vicious knife attack that saw her get stabbed in her left playing hand while fending off a home intruder. The damage sustained means her hand might never feel the same again.
Both women found their way back to the court, and gave us a glimpse of what they’re made of in their three-set thriller on Tuesday night. What they’ve been through and what they represent transcends tennis, but the sport is as good a platform as any to convey their message of strength and perseverance.
Williams reached the Wimbledon final last month in what was just her fourth tournament back from maternity leave. Kvitova has captured five titles this season and is ranked No. 6 in the world. Those are not your average comeback stories.
Williams, who returned to competition just five months ago, insists her journey is just commencing.
“I’m still at the very beginning. You know, this is a long comeback. I just began. I just started. Definitely at the very, very beginning. I’m getting there, and I’m going to just continue to work hard, and hopefully I’ll start winning more matches,” said the 36-year-old American.
Williams is 12-5 this season, has lost three of her last four matches, and is 0-3 against top-10 opposition since her return to action in March.
But she’s also gone from being unranked, to rising to No. 27 in the world within four months of her comeback and produced some brilliant tennis against Kvitova in Cincinnati. Her baby hasn’t even turned one yet.
“I think we’re both doing good. She’s obviously doing a little bit better, but she’s been back a little bit longer. We’re both still here and still competing,” said Williams of herself and Kvitova.
With her next stop being the US Open, Williams is eyeing further progress and possibly tying Margaret Court’s all-time record of major titles won.
“I think I just definitely want to get a more consistent serve, more than anything, and return more consistently. Basically my whole game needs to improve,” said the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
Those recent losses may feel alien to someone like Williams, but the reality is that she was just one win away from claiming a 24th Slam at Wimbledon last month and history has shown that every time she has faced adversity, she bounced back higher than anyone could imagine. Discard her from the US Open conversation at your own peril!
Halep’s coach Darren Cahill has a good reason to find that particularly amusing.
“Rafa has inspired her [Simona] with what he’s been able to do, with the way he trains, with his work ethic, the way he fights for every single match no matter what the score is. He can be down 6-0, 5-0, 40/0. You wouldn’t even be able to tell with him,” Cahill told reporters in Cincinnati on Tuesday.
“That, to me, is what she’s modelled the last year and a half on. I think you see a little bit – no one’s going to be like Rafa. But you see a little bit of the old Simona compared to the new Simona, and she’s more like that, because she’s always had a great work ethic. I have never had to push her on the practice court. She always gives 100 per cent.
“She’s like a little Rafa on the practice court. We need to make her a little Rafa on the match court, as well.
“It’s nice that her two victories, the one she had in Paris and the one she had last week, both coincided with Nadal doing exactly the same. It’s been pretty cool, actually.”
For someone who wears her heart on her sleeve, witnessing Halep’s mental transformation over the past two years has been remarkable.
She went from losing a heartbreaking French Open final to Jelena Ostapenko after blowing a significant lead 14 months ago, to claiming the title in Paris for her maiden Grand Slam triumph a year later. She credits Cahill for helping her change her on-court attitude and her sports psychologist for improving her mental strength.
Now ranked No. 1 in the world and fresh off of a trophy run in Montreal, Halep insists she is hungry for more ahead of the kick-off of her Cincinnati campaign on Wednesday against Ajla Tomljanovic.
“No time for celebration but at the end of the year I will for sure for everything that I’ve done this year. It’s not easy, it’s tough. And I expect a really tough one in my first match here. I’m not fresh, but I’m confident. So I think the balance is okay,” said the Romanian on Monday.
“I want to play and I really want to go a few more matches because it’s nice when you have the feeling when you’re winning a title.”
Halep hit a rough patch with Cahill during the spring of 2017 and he briefly ended their coaching relationship because of her negative attitude on the court.
They reunited shortly after and she’s gone from strength to strength ever since, becoming world No. 1 and winning a first major title.
She believes she wouldn’t have achieved any of that had it not been for that tough love she received from Cahill when he decided to split.
“I think I have to give him the credit for that, changing my attitude and being more positive on court and also off court. Of course that was maybe the toughest moment of my career, losing my coach because of my attitude and not because I’m not working,” confessed Halep.
“It’s a bit frustrating for a player and as a person as well. I really worked hard in that way and I improved. So I feel like Darren did a very good thing back then.”
Cahill, who formerly worked with Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, joked when he was told what Halep said regarding the impact of that break last year.
“She said that? Oh, can I get a tape of that,” laughed the Aussie coach.
He believes the biggest improvement with Halep has been her self-understanding and says him stepping away last season was not strategic but a genuine attempt at helping her find her way.
“‘Tactic’ is probably not the right word. I think ‘last resort’, a little bit, because we’d worked through a series of structures to try to help her get better on the court, and she was still getting in the way of herself,” he explained.
“So I didn’t know if that was me being the roadblock or whether it was more her.
“It was either basically problem with me and she needed to hear a new voice, and the last thing any coach wants to do is hold a player back. I was having these internal discussions with myself as to, okay, maybe she does need a new voice, or maybe she needs a sparkplug moment where it might be a bit of a wakeup call for her to really look inside herself, try to get better, and get the most out of herself.
“She had to go away for three, four, five weeks, decide what she needed to do. I know she’s never going to be perfect on the court, and I don’t want her to be, because she’s got this Romanian blood, which is fire in the belly, which is fun, exciting, emotional. You want that in your players, because it’s part of the reason why she’s so good.
“But there has to be a balance, a line, and we weren’t finding that balance. She’s worked really hard over the last year and a half to find that balance. She’s not perfect, but she’s getting better all the time. But more than anything, she understands herself a lot better now. She never used to do that. She would walk off the court and go, ‘What’s the problem?’ Then you’d sort of sit down and walk through the match.
“Now she’s understanding what the problems are, when she gets a little bit emotional, how many points in a row she’s losing because of that. She’s starting to see the structure and the momentum changes and the swings much better than she used to. That’s why now she’s able to turn matches around, whereas once upon a time, they used to slip away pretty quickly.”
In the 2017 French Open final, Halep was up 6-4, 3-0 against an unseeded Ostapenko then saw the match slip away. A year later, she rallied from a set down to overcome Stephens and took the title.
“I feel different, I feel stronger mentally and I enjoy more. Even after the French Open, it was a big success and my dream came true, I still feel good on court and I can say that I’m relaxed and I enjoy more,” insists Halep.
After losing in the third round at Wimbledon, squandering a match point along the way, against Hsieh Su-Wei last month, Halep described her own performance as unprofessional. She took three weeks off then came back to the circuit and immediately won the Rogers Cup in Montreal. Her faith in her own abilities now helps her rebound from any setback in impressive fashion.
She also paid tribute to her sports psychologist for the work they’ve put in.
“She’s turning me to the positive way. She makes me feel like I’m able to change some personal things and I was able to do that. And I think also the team, the people around me, they always pushed me to pass my limit, which is great and maybe that’s why I was able to change.
“I’m not perfect. I still have [things to work on],” she adds with a smile.
That may be true. But Halep and Cahill both know she’s come a long way and the world No. 1 sounds adamant about extending her stay at the top.