Jim Courier’s resignation as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team doesn’t just mark the end of an eight-year tenure. It’s also a missed opportunity to take advantage of the competition’s new, streamlined format in 2019 and snag the title for the Americans for the first time in 12 years.
It’s a pity. A diligent captain who spent eight years squeezed in a vise with the global growth of the game on one side and the dearth of major American talent on the other, Courier’s experience left him well-positioned to lead a team into uncharted territory.
The Davis Cup hasn’t gone through a makeover. It’s been beaten into pieces with a sledgehammer and reassembled into something entirely different. Traditionalists, including many active players, find the new format too radical a departure. The top players have largely met the reboot with a wait-and-see attitude, while everyone else is waiting to see what they think. The event is scheduled for the weekend after Thanksgiving, for which nobody is grateful.
Courier denies he quit for lack of confidence in the Davis Cup’s future. “My decision to make 2018 my last as captain of the team was not related to the new format change,” he wrote to ESPN.com in an email while traveling. “I made the decision in late 2017, long before that [change] was a certainty. Eight years is a good long run and it is time for new leadership for the team.”
The move puzzled some insiders. ESPN tennis analyst and former Davis Cup player Brad Gilbert said he was “surprised” Courier resigned, at least until he saw Courier was the second-longest serving captain (after Patrick McEnroe, who was captain for the decade preceding Courier). Gilbert added, “Jim was such a proponent of changing Davis Cup, you’d think he’d want to be part of that when it happened.”
Well, yes and no.
While Courier has backed Davis Cup reform, at the US Open, he told ESPN.com he didn’t think the new format was necessarily the best or final solution. “At least something got done,” he said, “That’s a win in and of itself. It might end up something different in the future.”
If the lame-duck Davis Cup format is the beloved, but awkward and unmarketable dinosaur of tennis, the new one is designed to be a commercial tiger. The tournament will be compressed into one week, contested by 18 teams in a combination round-robin/knockout format. Each tie will consist of just three best-of-three set matches — two singles and a doubles. In today’s arch-competitive world, that adds up to a shootout.
But will any notable players be there to witness it? The last thing the over-30 brigade of stars, led by Roger Federer, is looking for is another tennis event to play, especially if it’s going to happen after the ATP World Tour Finals.
Up to and including this year, only two teams (or 10 players from two nations) were involved in the Davis Cup finals. It’s not hard to believe their peers just chuckled and sank deeper into the sofa, thinking, “Glad it’s not me.” Now, the Davis Cup is theoretically going to roust out the entire student body. No. 5 Alexander Zverev was probably speaking for a number of his cohorts last week at the Laver Cup when he said of playing Davis Cup next year, “Not gonna happen.”
Those are the words of the brightest Nextgen star in the game. “It’s nothing against the Davis Cup,” he added. “I love the Davis Cup. I love my country. I love my teammates. But if they put any other event end of November, I’m also going to not play it.”
It isn’t even October yet, but Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray, Lucie Safarova and others are taking significant time off, or done for the season. Nadal might be back, but not before the final Masters 1000 of the year and the tour finals. Federer is spending time in Asia, but to a large extent, it’s a meet-and-greet with his new sponsors at Uniqlo.
The annual litany of protests against tennis’ virtually never-ending season is already beginning. At the Laver Cup, Nick Kyrgios complained he found the Asian swing depressing, and broadly hinted he’ll find a way to bail on it. “Yeah, it’s tough,” he said. “Yeah, it’s going to be tough.”
Chaos reigns on the men’s tour. Laver Cup, an unofficial event, was a spectacular success, while the future of Davis Cup is uncertain. The fall tour will likely see limited or no participation by many of the elite players, and there’s a new ATP team competition planned as a January kickoff event for next year.
We can’t be certain about a lot. We do know Courier will not be back as the U.S. Davis Cup captain. But that doesn’t mean he can’t turn up as a captain at Laver Cup, right?