United States struggles in reworked Davis Cup hindered by crowd woes

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“The atmosphere wasn’t great,” Australia’s captain, Lleyton Hewitt, said after his team’s 3-0 victory over Colombia. He was strongly against the format change. “That’s the big problem, though, with playing at a neutral venue.”

An official group of French tennis supporters has boycotted the event in protest of the decision to scrap the traditional Davis Cup, with its home-and-away finals and best-of-five-set matches.

“We understand their decision, but in a way, it penalises us,” French doubles star Nicolas Mahut said after his team beat Japan, 2-1, in a day session in front of only a few hundred fans. “We often won matches in the past because the fans carried us. When they aren’t here, we miss them.”

Even without a boycott, there was a particular dearth of American supporters at Court 2, where the United States faced Canada in what seemed, despite the continent, like a home match for the Canadians.

Several hundred red-clad fans waved flags and cheered and chanted as a block, easily drowning out the few scattered American fans in attendance.

“I’m more than surprised; I’m shocked how few Americans are here,” said Cameron McLean, who flew to Madrid from Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife, Marci McLean.

The McLeans did not make the journey for naught. Until Tuesday, Canada was 0-15 against the United States in Davis Cup play, dating to their first encounter in 1913. But much has changed in the sport — and a lot of other domains — since they last played in 1965, when Davis Cup was open only to amateurs, not professionals.

Canada is now a rising tennis power, and on Tuesday the Canadians swept both singles matches to clinch their first victory over the Americans and become the first of the 18 teams competing in Madrid to secure a spot in the quarter-finals.

Not quite a black-out but the crowd was thin for Australia's tie.

Not quite a black-out but the crowd was thin for Australia’s tie.Credit:Getty Images

The margins were slim, but that is likely to be the rule in this quick-hitting, best-of-three-set format indoors.

Vasek Pospisil defeated Reilly Opelka, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (7), in the opening match. Denis Shapovalov then defeated Taylor Fritz, 7-6 (6), 6-3, in the second match. The Canadians, their overall victory secure, forfeited the final doubles match.

“Things are always moving and always changing, right?” said Pospisil, who is making a successful return from back surgery. “Right now, Canada is in the best place it’s been in tennis history.”

That is undeniable. In September, 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu became the first Canadian to win a grand slam singles title, defeating Serena Williams in the US Open women’s final.

Shapovalov, 20, and his compatriot Felix Auger-Aliassime, 19, who has yet to play in Madrid because of an injury, are in the top 25 of the men’s rankings.

“I imagine we’re going to have quite a few battles with them over the years,” said Mardy Fish, the US captain, who never faced Canada in a Davis Cup because the two countries rarely played in the same Davis Cup division during his career.

The United States must now defeat Italy on Wednesday to have any chance of advancing to the final eight. After being pared down from six groups of three teams, the quarter-final lineup will be made up of the six group winners and the two second-place teams with the best records.

Getting a forfeit in the final doubles match could end up being beneficial if qualification comes down to winning percentage.

“This is the toughest group, I think, so there’s no easy match, period,” Fish said.

Playing with barely any crowd support does not make it any easier for the Americans, and Davis Cup’s new organisers have much work to do in promoting this event in the United States and elsewhere.

“When it comes down to the fans, there’s just more dedicated tennis fans in Canada,” said Fritz, a 22-year-old Californian, who, like the 22-year-old Opelka, was making his Davis Cup debut. “I’m not going to lie, the US has so many other great sports. Tennis isn’t really the focus.”

But plenty of American fans make the journey to other international tennis events, including Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open.

Davis Cup, despite being founded by an American, Dwight Davis, in 1900 and despite the United States’ record 32 titles, was slipping out of the mainstream long before this format change.

Kosmos, an investment firm headed by Spanish soccer star Gerard Piqué, secured rights from the International Tennis Federation to create this new version of the Davis Cup and has committed to staging it in the Caja Mágica next year, too.

“I think Kosmos has to really think about how they can get some people in the stands, whether they pay or not,” Fish said before Tuesday’s competition. “I think they’ve just got to get people there and supporting it, and supporting this type of format.”

But Fish and his players are more positive about the way they are being greeted and treated by the organisers.

“We’ve been here since Thursday, and they’ve done an incredible job of taking care of the players all the way from hotels, transportation, food, locker rooms, team rooms, practice courts, things like that,” Fish said.

But there are plenty of other teething problems beyond the size of the crowds when Spain is not playing. The tournament’s new app was roundly panned as being difficult to use and slow to update scores, as well as for providing few statistics. It was relaunched Tuesday.

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Rahul Kadavakolu, a vice president for global sports business at Rakuten, chief sponsor of the Davis Cup finals, said the problems had been acknowledged and addressed.

Tournament timing is also an issue, and not just the November dates, when players are generally weary and often ailing after a nearly 11-month season.

With evening session team matches starting at 6pm in Madrid, late-night finishes are all but guaranteed.

“I went to bed at 3 in the morning last night,” Pospisil said.

Spain finished its 2-1 victory over Russia shortly before 2am Wednesday, with Feliciano López and Marcel Granollers defeating Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev, 6-4, 7-6 (5).

Madrid being Madrid, there was still a brass band playing, and there were a few thousand fans cheering at the finish.

“It’s tough on the players for recovery and tough on the fans because tomorrow is a workday,” said Nadal, who won Spain’s other point with a 6-3, 7-6 (7) victory over Khachanov.

But it will be a workday for Nadal and his bleary-eyed teammates, too. They will face Croatia.

New York Times

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