By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – The Davis Cup starts a new era this weekend as the revamped team competition kicks off with 12 qualifying-round ties spread across the globe to decide which nations progress to November’s finals week in Madrid.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) believe the new structure, which will culminate with 18 nations battling it out in the Spanish capital as a climax to the season, will breathe new life into an event first held in 1900.
Change is rarely smooth though, and already some of the old problems are resurfacing with several big names notable by their absence while critics of the new format have again been vocal.
With last year’s semi-finalists — Croatia, France, Spain and the United States — exempted to the Davis Cup Finals week, and Britain and Argentina handed wildcards, this week’s action will decide the 12 remaining spots.
Switzerland and Serbia are both in action, at home to Russia and away to Uzbekistan respectively, but they will have to do without Roger Federer and newly-crowned Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic who are both unavailable.
Austria, who host Chile in Salzburg, will be missing world number eight Dominic Thiem who has cited health reasons for his withdrawal from the team.
Of the current ATP top 10 only Alexander Zverev is in action this week, spearheading Germany’s home clash with Hungary.
While the popular ‘home-away’ format is retained for the qualifiers, the ties have been shortened to two days with two singles on Friday and a doubles plus two singles on Saturday.
Matches will be played over best-of-three sets not best of five — a move designed to lighten the load.
This weekend’s matches will be the last chance for teams to play in front of a partisan home crowd, apart from Spain who are hosting the Nov. 18-24 finals.
Australia captain Lleyton Hewitt has already weighed in with his thoughts on the changes — criticising the involvement of Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique’s investment company Kosmos in the revamped Davis Cup format.
The ITF signed a 25-year $3 billion deal with Kosmos with the changes being voted in last August.
“He (Pique) knows nothing about tennis,” Hewitt told reporters on Tuesday before his side’s home tie against Bosnia Herzegovina. “It’d be like me asking to change things for the Champions League.
“The two biggest points of difference were, one, the home and away aspect of it and, secondly, (it) was the best of five sets. If you look at the pinnacle of our sport, which are the four majors, they’re best of five sets.
“Having (the finals) in one place is ridiculous.”
Kosmos declined to comment on Hewitt’s remarks.
ITF president David Haggerty says he is excited about the new format and that having a soccer World Cup-style event in one host city will open up the sport to new markets and fan bases and generate more TV revenue streams.
He argues that the few people outside Croatia and France would have watched last year’s final, won by Croatia, in Lille.
A further fly in the ointment is the ATP Cup — a team event to be launched in Australia next January — although the proof of the pudding will be how the Madrid showpiece is received.
While some nations are weakened this week, Russia can call on world number 11 Karen Khachanov and 16th ranked Daniil Medvedev, who reached the Australian Open last 16, against a Swiss side missing Federer and Stan Wawrinka.
Exciting talent Denis Shapovalov plays for Canada in Slovakia, while China and Japan meet in the competition for the first time in 10 years, although Kei Nishikori is missing for the Japanese.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Ken Ferris)