How to (Partly) Fix the Davis Cup Finals

This is a guest post by Sébastien Rannaud.

There was plenty to criticize about the new-look Davis Cup Finals. Fans and pundits alike took aim at the atmosphere, the one-sided home support for Spain, the horrendous app and website, the lack of TV coverage, and the sleep-defying scheduling.

But perhaps the biggest controversy concerned something more arcane: Canada’s walkover in a dead doubles rubber against the United States. Why? The organizers gave the United States a double bagel win (6-0, 6-0) which padded their percentages in the Group F standings, thus increasing its chances of qualifying for the knockout stage as one of the two “best runners-up Nations” in round robin play.

To determine how the runners-up from each group are ranked against each other, the following order applies:

  1. Highest percentage of matches won
  2. Highest percentage of sets won
  3. Highest percentage of games won
  4. The Nations’ positions on the Davis Cup Rankings of the Monday of the week of the Finals

As you can see, that double bagel win for the US padded their stats in criteria #1 through #3.

Other tournaments, such as the ATP and WTA Finals use this criteria, but they don’t have walkovers, because they rely on substitute players in case of injury. The Davis Cup Finals is a different beast altogether, because of the “dead rubber” in round robin play. There are no incentives, sporting or financial, to play and win that match if you’ve already clinched your place in the quarter-finals, as Canada did before its doubles match against the US.

Odd constraints

This convoluted format is mainly due to two major factors. First, the Davis Cup Finals is comprised of 18 nations. Why use such a random number, when the knockout stage only involves eight nations? The only possible solution is to give wildcards to runner-up teams to complete the eight-team draw, hence the complicated tie-breaking procedure.

The second factor is that the tournament is played over a seven-day span. The organizers (Kosmos Group and ITF) would rather have a two-week timeslot for the event, but for now, seven days is the most they could get considering the not-so-ideal timeslot. If it is necessary to have three rounds in the knockout stage (quarter-finals, semi-finals, final), then you’re left with very limited round robin play, which explains the tiny three-team groups, playing only two ties each.

Such a small number of matches ensures that the tie breaking rules will come into play, making every match–including every doubles rubber–extremely important.  Therefore, when a team decides to forfeit its doubles match, rules need to be in place to ensure that the team benefitting from the walkover doesn’t have an unfair advantage over second-place teams from other groups.

Journalists, pundits and Twitter users have critiqued this major flaw in the format, but few have considered possible solutions. Let’s consider some of the adjustments that could be made and if they could work within the tournament’s constraints. 

The first solutions: Dead rubber tweaks

Let’s assume that the organizers would allow all dead rubbers to be skipped. In some cases, fans would buy tickets for only two matches, not three. The organizers would have to adjust the ticket prices somehow to reflect that likelihood, if they want to show fairness and respect to the ticket buyers.

Scenario A:

  • Same as current format (18 teams, 3-round knockout stage)
  • Dead rubber policy: walkover from clinching team. Winning team gets 1 point, but match does NOT count towards % of matches won, % of sets won, and % of games won

The team getting stomped on in the first two singles matches would not get the opportunity in the doubles match to make up for its bad percentages in the prior singles matches, while the winning team would be rewarded with keeping its near-perfect percentages. It is a system based on results, so it’d be difficult for a losing team to argue that it’s unfair to them, especially considering the fact that it gets to rest and go to bed earlier, on the eve of its do-or-die tie the next day against the other nation in the group.

Scenario B:

  • Same as current format (18 teams, 3-round knockout stage)
  • Dead rubber policy: walkover from clinching team. Winning team gets 1 point, but with a score of 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 counting towards % of matches won, % of sets won, and % of games won

Let’s say the two singles matches were lost in straight sets. The team benefitting from the walkover go from 0% of sets won to 29% of sets won. That seems reasonable and much less extreme that a 6-0, 6-0 score.

Scenario C:

  • Same as current format (18 teams, 3-round knockout stage)
  • Dead rubber policy: doubles match must be played. Bonus prize money ($100,000) will be given to the two players winning the match

We can assume that a clinching team would play its “second tier” players for the doubles rubber. These players would have a six-figure incentive to win the rubber–even at 4:00 AM–a serious motivation for doubles players who compete for smaller prize pools than singles players throughout the year. Because there would only be just a few dead rubbers each year, it wouldn’t be that much more costly for tournament organizers.

More solutions: 16 teams

Scenario D:

  • Round robin: 16 teams split into 4 groups; 3 ties played each
  • 8 teams qualify for knockout stage of 3 rounds (quarters, semis, final)
  • Dead rubber policy: winning team gets 1 point, but match does NOT count towards % of matches won, % of sets won, and % of games won

By playing three ties in the round robin stage, the dead rubber would likely only happen in the third tie, meaning teams would have already played between six and eight tennis matches (singles and doubles) before the dead rubber occurs. The weight of this forfeited match would be no more than one-seventh (14.2%) of the total matches played in the round robin stage. That’s less important than in the current round robin format of two ties, in which the forfeited match counts for one-sixth (16.7%). Moreover, by having groups of four nations, all four teams could play their ties at the same time, meaning that some teams would start the doubles rubber without knowing whether they had yet clinched their quarter-final spot.

Unfortunately, this scenario simply cannot work within the existing seven-day limit, because it would result in both finalists playing a total of six ties over seven days (or between 12 and 18 tennis matches). That is excessively grueling, especially for countries such as Canada and Russia, who essentially competed this year with two-man teams. That is simply not going to fly, especially for elites such as Nadal and Djokovic, who could have played up to five matches the previous week in the ATP Finals.

Scenario E:

  • Round robin: 16 teams split into 4 groups; 3 ties played each
  • 4 teams qualify for knockout stage of 2 rounds (semis, final)
  • Dead rubber policy: winning team gets 1 point, but match does NOT count towards % of matches won, % of sets won, and % of games won

By shortening the knockout stage, we get back to the much more palatable number of five ties in seven days. The upside is that the dead doubles rubber would be of even less importance that the prior scenario, since only the group winning teams would qualify for the knockout stage. The current tiebreaking procedure wouldn’t even matter since the group winning team would likely qualify on ties won and matches won alone.

Tradeoffs

However, solving one issue just raises others.

First, knockout ties are much more compelling for fans than round robin ties. In some cases, the last round robin tie has almost the same “do or die” quality as a quarter-finals tie, but on average, there is less drama. Which leads us to the second issue: teams ranked third or fourth in the group prior to the final round robin tie might already be mathematically eliminated from qualifying for the knockout stage. You could even end up with the third-place team and the fourth-place team playing each other in the last, meaningless “dead tie”–a new term for the tennis glossary that we can only hope never needs to be used. 

While a dead tie would be unlikely, the downside risk is enormous. It’s difficult to imagine how depressing this six-hour tie would feel in the stadium, especially in a neutral venue for both teams with few fans on-site. The ITF/Kosmos Group would be forced to assume that these teams would be professional enough to play the tie, at least in respect of the few hundred fans who show up. But even an 84-shot rally couldn’t salvage such a spectacle.

The only way to solve this would be to add incentives for teams stuck in these dead ties. In a 16-team tournament, you could give each runner-up team a direct entry for the following year’s Davis Cup Finals (in addition to the four group winning teams). Teams battling for third place in the group would be rewarded with the home court advantage in the March qualifying tie. Teams finishing last in the group would get the “away” tie in March or fall to a lower tier in the Davis Cup zone groups. With those incentives, the doubles rubber would usually retain some interest.

For the ITF and the Kosmos Group, cutting back from 18 to 16 teams would be much more complicated than tweaking the tiebreaker rules. With all the problems of this year’s Finals, the dead rubber policy probably isn’t on top of anyone’s to-do list. However, if they stay idle, more teams like Canada and Australia will exploit the loophole, and some day, a team will advance to the quarter-finals because of that double bagel win, leading to a public relations nightmare for the event organizers–not to mention a gut punch for the team that goes home early. 

Sport is only compelling so long as fans perceive an underlying level of fairness. The Davis Cup Finals narrowly skirted disaster this year, calling the format into question for attentive followers. Let’s hope that in the next 12 months, they figure out how to fix it.

Sébastien Rannaud is a pension actuary living in Montreal, Canada. You can find him on Twitter at @morggo.