New rules will remove the easy option on hard courts in Davis Cup overhaul
If Great Britain get a home tie in today’s Davis Cup World Group play-off draw, the chances are that they will choose to play it on an indoor hard court in September, with a return to the NEC in Birmingham on the cards. If a hard court is the team’s preference, it will be tweaked to suit the players John Lloyd, the captain, will have at his disposal.
Part of the Davis Cup’s folklore, with its home-and-away format, is that it offers significant latitude in favour of the home team’s choice of surface — but that is about to end.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF), which runs the competition, is ready to introduce a Surface Pace Rating (SPR) across the board on hard courts that will demand strict guidelines as to pace and texture, thus limiting the chance of a country producing ice-rink-like tops that might be to their advantage but ruin ties as a spectacle.
Francesco Ricci Bitti, the ITF president, has revealed that a two-year working party is about to reach a definitive judgment on what constitutes the fairest hard-court surface and a new Davis Cup rule — if agreed at the next annual meeting — will be passed, ensuring that any country staging a tie on a hard court will have to conform to the new measurements and consistency.
“Since 2004, we have been in a process of testing the machinery that can limit discrepancies because we found that several hard courts that have been used for Davis Cup ties were not fair,” Ricci Bitti said. “We are committed to finding a good solution because there have been cases where the visiting country has complained and we didn’t have the proper answers for them.
“Therefore, our rules were outdated and we need to change them. It is fair to say we have not been careful enough and that is not good for the credibility of the sport and the integrity of the Davis Cup. Some courts have been too fast, others too slow. It has been a long process, a bit longer than we had first anticipated, because of the sophistication of the machinery we are developing.”
Ricci Bitti’s overwhelming consideration is to defend the immense value of the Davis Cup, a competition that has blossomed for more than a century but remains vulnerable to those who would revolutionise its format and tinker with its place in the calendar. The president considers that in the tennis honour roll, the Davis Cup ranks a step behind the four grand-slam tournaments, that it is in rude health and should not be touched.
He is aware of concerns about player participation — Roger Federer, the world No 1, did not play in Switzerland’s first-round World Group defeat in February, but if Switzerland draw Britain today, he will return for the play-off — and says that anything the ITF might consider in terms of consideration of date changes will not come “free of charge”.
There is immense concern, too, over the moves by the Monte Carlo and Hamburg Masters Series tournaments, which are played on clay, to take out antitrust lawsuits against the ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, over plans to demote them from the nine-event Masters Series.
Ricci Bitti is troubled by the proliferation of hard-court events and the preponderance of injuries to players picked up on that surface as opposed to either clay or grass. “My position on the clay-court season would be to make the ATP aware that this is very important for both the tradition and organisation of tennis,” the ITF president said. “The tournaments at Monte Carlo and Hamburg have contributed for over 100 years, fulfilling all the conditions the tour asked of them. They have paid the appropriate prize-money and even in the many years they lost money as individual tournaments, they have continued to be vital institutions.
“I would like to see a ‘soft’ evolution in the sport. We are now seeing the prospect of more combined events which will be having to find twice the levels of prize-money that they pay now and, in pure business terms, I have to say that this is very risky. The credibility of the sport is the most important thing.”
— James Ward, the world No 851 from Britain, failed to make the most of his wild-card entry after suffering a first-round defeat by Augustin Gensse, of France, the world No 433, in the Open de Tenis Comunidad Valenciana yesterday. On his ATP Tour debut, Ward battled hard before losing 6-7, 6-4, 6-3.