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As the latest incarnation of the Davis Cup prepares for Thursday’s launch in three European cities – Madrid, Turin and Innsbruck – Telegraph Sport understands that its new owners Kosmos have arranged a five-year deal to move the tournament to the Middle East.
At one stage, the tennis world was concerned that Saudi Arabia was to be the new host. But now it seems that Kosmos – an organisation fronted by Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique – have settled on the United Arab Emirates as a slightly more palatable option, with Abu Dhabi to be the main base for the event.
While this deal would bring financial benefits, it hardly seems to fit with the philosophy of the Davis Cup, which became the first international team competition – in any sport – when Great Britain faced the United States in Boston in 1900.
At its best, the tournament was all about noisy crowds and partisan support. But the Middle East is no hotbed of tennis talent, and the fear must be that the sound of ball on strings will echo around empty arenas – rather as it will over the next few days in Innsbruck, the Covid-hit city where Great Britain are due to play both their group ties behind closed doors.
On Wednesday, British captain Leon Smith said that he had heard rumours of Kosmos’s next intentions, but added: “I’m only hearing it second-hand. If it’s true what potentially might be happening, I think it would be good to be able to talk about it before any decisions are made.
“If you talk to any of the players or the captains who’ve experienced the atmosphere, the environment is so important. Whether that’s home, whether that’s away, it’s got to be full crowds, it’s got to be what’s best for the players and the schedules.”
The Covid pandemic has hardly helped Kosmos establish the new-look Davis Cup since a moderately successful first event in Madrid in 2019, which was saved from obscurity by Rafael Nadal’s involvement and Spain’s eventual victory on home soil. But the words uttered by French tennis great Yannick Noah at the time of Kosmos’s successful bid – “Shame on all those players, leaders and media who have just sold the soul of the Davis Cup” – continue to resonate.
That 2019 event was quickly followed by the inaugural 2020 ATP Cup, another team event which presented a new challenge to the ailing Davis Cup. There has been some discussion of a possible merger between the two, but they offer around £22 million in prize money between them in a non-Covid year, split roughly down the middle.
From a financial perspective, the players – especially middle-ranking ones – have every reason to support the continuing existence of two team events. But they don’t like the late scheduling of the Davis Cup, which stages its final on Dec 5 this year and thus offers little chance for those involved to take a break before the new season begins.
At the original vote in August 2018 – where the International Tennis Federation effectively handed control of its main property to Kosmos in return for a promised payment of $3bn over 25 years – Pique played a video featuring a performance from his pop-star wife Shakira and the slogan “Tennis like you’ve never seen it before”.
If Abu Dhabi is confirmed as the subsequent host venue next week, those bold promises will ring hollower than ever.