By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – In the past year International Tennis Federation president David Haggerty has been booed by fans at the Davis Cup final and lambasted over structural changes to the lower rungs of the professional ladder.
The final year of the American’s first term as head of the ITF has hardly been smooth, but he is okay with that.
“I’m not in this to win a popularity contest,” Haggerty told Reuters.
Despite the flak he enjoyed an emphatic victory last month in the presidential election in Lisbon and believes his second term will start on a high in November when the inaugural edition of a revamped Davis Cup culminates in Madrid.
When bidding to succeed long-standing president Francesco Ricci Bitti in 2015, part of Haggerty’s election manifesto was to take the Davis Cup into the 21st Century.
It remains to be seen whether the new format — 18 nations playing off in Madrid’s La Caja Magica over eight days — will strike a chord with fans and players alike.
But Haggerty says there was no option but to make radical changes if the 119-year-old team competition was to survive.
“It was beginning to (die),” said Haggerty, who was jeered by French fans at last year’s final in Lille, the last one in its former guise.
Which is why in February 2018 the ITF agreed a 25-year $3 billion deal with Spanish investment group Kosmos, headed by Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique.
“I’m very excited about it,” Haggerty said of the event that will see nations split into six groups with eight going into knockout phase. “It’s going to be a great week of tennis whether you are in Madrid watching your team or watching a broadcast.”
Haggerty believes the Davis Cup has found a happy medium, retaining an element of the much-loved home-away format.
The February qualifiers from which Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Russia and Serbia joined the six nations automatically into the Madrid showdown — 2018 semi-finalists, Croatia, France, Spain and the United States, and 2019 wildcards Argentina and Britain.
“I think the new format meant that the first round of home and away matches was really compelling because the teams new a place in Madrid was at stake, they had a real purpose,” Haggerty said.
The ITF’s women’s team competition, the Fed Cup, will move to a similar format in Budapest next year — offering the same prize money as the Davis Cup.
Haggerty said the election result was an endorsement of the radical changes to the ITF’s flagship events.
“It great to see that the nations fully support the transformation we are implementing,” he said. “It’s a great mandate to have.”
While there is a general nod of agreement about the Davis Cup and Fed Cup revamps, Haggerty admits the ITF World Tennis Tour is still something of a work in progress.
Launched at the start of the year to create a clearer pathway from the juniors to elite senior level, it came under fierce criticism with players accusing the ITF of reducing opportunities to climb the professional ranks.
A petition gained 15,000 signatures and the ITF announced changes in August.
“It took courage for us to make those bold changes,” Haggerty said. “And it took courage to listen to the feedback and say, ‘you know what we might not have gotten it quite perfect’.
“We will continue to look and make sure that it’s fit for purpose. You don’t always get things right the first time.
“Our sport is complex, that’s what excites me about my job.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)