It was a day that promised little – a routine draw on a sunny Thursday afternoon by the Seine for the Davis Cup quarter-final between Great Britain and France over the next three days – but delivered much: an argument about the soul of tennis.
What we learned in practical terms was the International Tennis Federation is preparing to cut the singles to best-of-three sets next year to persuade the game’s leading players to return to the oldest and largest annual competition in sport, while retaining five-set doubles on the middle Saturday. Both concessions would represent a hard-fought victory for the players.
Neutral finals, for which there is little enthusiasm outside the estimated 20 cities who have expressed an interest in staging them, will be left in abeyance until further consultations between the ITF and the players’ council.
The recuperating world No1, Andy Murray, is among nine top-10 ranked players not competing in four ties this weekend – although his name rather than that of his brother, Jamie, was briefly posted on the board for Friday’s singles before being removed. A gaffe or subconscious wishful thinking?
Yannick Noah, who lost to Buster Mottram twice on his cup debut in 1978, expressed with most emotion the lingering anxiety over the battle between commercial interests and romance.
“I guess I’m like the old generation,” the French captain said. “It’s devastating to see such an event disappearing. It is heartbreaking for me. Of course I understand that the economy is central to all the decisions nowadays, but some times some dreamers can think there is maybe more than that.
“You can talk about sport without always talking about the economy. I always did the competition. It was an opportunity to meet other people, go to different places where they don’t have the opportunity to see this kind of tennis. So, yes, we might have a different format and go to Dubai, it’s going to be economically very good … but I think we’re going to lose something that is essential, which is about two countries meeting each other once every other year, meeting different people and travelling to different places and show quality tennis in places where usually they don’t have tennis.”
Then, while Kyle Edmund was practising for his opening singles against Lucas Pouille on Friday, and Dan Evans was getting ready for his match against late French substitute Jeremy Chardy, their outspoken British team-mate, Jamie Murray, complained that David Haggerty and his ITF decision-makers have consistently ignored the views of the players.
“Dave [Haggerty] came and made a speech to the council and we gave our opinions and then the next day the message was: ‘We are going ahead anyway, neutral final’, that sort of stuff,” a plainly disgruntled Murray said.
“I can tell you the players do not want to do that but they are pushing ahead with that. And of course we told them the best of three sets for the singles – but that was months ago.
“Now it has only just come out because they know that the players are not happy with the format and it needs to change.
“And it needs to change for their event because they are losing the top players. It is not as special as it used to be. When Yannick Noah and Guy Forget were playing, the top players competed. It is not like that anymore, which is a shame because it is a great event and we all love it. But they have to have the top players playing to make it worth something. Right now they are not committed to it.”
Haggerty conceded there had been problems but said: “I think we have worked hard to communicate with the players and the captains. Best of five sets in doubles makes a lot of sense. It’s our preferred action. And over the three days, it makes sense to have the singles be the best of three sets.”
Those proposals are likely to go through unopposed at the ITF’s AGM on 4 August, and could be implemented in 2018.
Haggerty said of the contentious issue of neutral finals: “We don’t yet have anything to talk about and when we have information, we will go to the players to discuss it.
“I want to see this event be the World Cup of tennis. It’s important as an annual event, the world’s largest annual team event. A fixed final might be one option. We want the players to play more frequently for their countries. With some of these changes I think we can get there, incentivising players to play, making the economics make sense for everyone and making the commitment needed from the players reasonable.”