World Cup of Tennis | Piqué influence and Rakuten investment underpins ITF’s Davis Cup revamp

  • Barcelona player Gerard Piqué is founder and president of Kosmos Group 
  • Group is also backed by Hiroshi Mikitani, chairman and CEO of Rakuten, the Tokyo-based e-commerce company
  • ITF offering $20m prize money 

The old and the new collided in February this year when the International Tennis Federation announced it had secured a 25-year, $3bn (€2.5bn) investment from the Kosmos Group to revamp the Davis Cup.

The deal brought the longest running team competition in sport – and one that evokes the amateur days of Bunny Austin, Fred Perry and the Four Musketeers – together with Japanese e-commerce company, Rakuten, the investment group’s most prominent backer.

Barcelona footballer Gerard Piqué – Kosmos’ founder and president – played dealmaker as the ITF board of directors unanimously endorsed the proposal to create a major new annual season-ending World Cup of Tennis Finals that will crown the Davis Cup champions. 

In an effort to reduce the player withdrawals that have bedeviled the existing Davis Cup format and create a more compelling spectacle, the deal promises to decant the new tournament into a one-week slot in November featuring 18 different nations. 

ITF president David Haggerty said at the time: “Our vision is to create a major season-ending finale that will be a festival of tennis and entertainment, featuring the world’s greatest players representing their nations to decide the Davis Cup champions.”

Under the plans, which will be submitted to the ITF Annual General Meeting in Orlando in August, the World Cup of Tennis Finals will be played over seven days in November, in the traditional week of the Davis Cup Final. The Finals will feature a round-robin format followed by a quarterfinal knockout stage. Each tie will consist of two singles and one doubles over best-of-three sets. The 16 World Group nations will automatically qualify for the Finals, and two further nations will be selected.

The investment from Kosmos will include significant increases in prize money for players and ITF member nations, and the funding of grass roots projects and other tennis development programmes.

In a briefing with the press at the recent SportAccord Convention, ITF president David Haggerty (below) and the ITF’s chief operating officer, Kelly Fairweather, answered questions about the new tournament

Q:  How confident are you the top players are going to buy into the event? 

DH: This has been a journey for us. After the announcement I went to Indian Wells and had the chance to meet with a number of players and player council members and it's exciting to see Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic are two of the biggest supporters of the event. You also have Jo-Wilfied Tsonga and Gaël Monfils who are talking about it, Jamie Murray, Andy Murray, and Marin Cilic, so it's exciting to see the support. 

Q: What about Roger Federer? Does his involvement in his own Laver Cup event preclude him from getting involved with the World Cup of Tennis? 

DH: Well Roger is… I'll let you look up the quotes, but I think Roger said it sounds interesting, that [he wants] to learn more about it but I think that what we find very exciting is that in one week the players can play and fulfil their needs for Olympic qualification and they're also assured of significant prize money and they get to represent their nation so I think those three things woven together are all important. 

Q: What's the background to the partnership with Kosmos? Did they approach you, or were you in the market for a backer of that kind when you started this reform process? 

DH: Kosmos has been looking at tennis for the last two years and, frankly, had approached the ITF about two years ago – not me personally, but they had talked to our group. The passion I saw when I met Gerard Piqué and his group was quite energetic for us, quite exciting to see. Yes, he’s a sports person, a footballer, but he’s really interested in tennis and helping the ITF take its most important property, the Davis Cup, and make it even better. 

Q: What is Rakuten getting out of the deal? Is it purely an investment at this stage? 

DH: It would be an investment [but] it could be more than that. We are fortunate to have beIN Sports as our broadcast partner, BNP Paribas has been a long-term supporter of the Davis Cup and Fed Cup and they certainly continue. Rolex, Adecco and our international partners all continue to be in the mix. I think that this concept – going to an iconic city and having a final – allows you more predictability, to excite more sponsors to come. And that's what Kosmos see and that's what Rakuten sees as well.

Q: There's a technology element to Rakuten’s partnership with Barcelona. Are they going to do something similar for you that is going to help improve engagement around the Davis Cup? 

DH: We have exciting plans that I can't talk about. And I think we're still at this stage with some of this where we're working out the commercial details and some of the different details and obviously it's very confidential, so there are some things that I can't comment on.

Q: How involved have your existing sponsors been in the process?  

DH: We continue to keep them informed. We had a couple of good sessions with them with Gerard Piqué as well, because of course with the announcement we want to bring everyone with us as we can. I think one of the most important things to them is the top players playing more often and I think that this certainly gives that ability for the top players to be incentivized to play. And that excites them as well. 

Q: Lleyton Hewitt said the revamp was a money-grabbing exercise and called for you to resign if the motion fails in August. What's your comment on that? 

DH: When I was elected a couple of years ago, my mandate, my promise was to bring certainty and financial stability to the ITF – that we would find new projects and new ways to develop because we only have one thing that we need to do, and that is to help the nations develop the sport. This is a game-changer for us because with $22m a year that goes back to the nations, it's able to really fund the development of tennis. You can put rackets in the hands of people in Mauritius, as an example, as well as strengthen the Davis Cup competition, so it's really about the future of the sport and we are the only body that invests into tennis, that invests in development, and that's what this enables us to do. 

KF: I think the important thing is that when Kosmos put this offer to our board meeting in Barcelona, David will tell you there was unanimous support for it, so this is not just coming from one person, this is coming from the board as a group, for the reasons that David has already outlined. To get that injection of funding and provide that certainty into the sport in quite an uncertain market provides a lot of confidence to all of us and I think to the nations. 

Q: What has Kosmos got for their money if they're providing you with a degree of financial certainty? Have they taken the entirety of the rights from the deal, or will there be a kind of split in terms of what your revenues will be from sponsorship and broadcasting? 

DH: We will continue with the commercial partners that we have, and Kosmos will be able to bring new partners to the deal, which, again, are the economics that are important. We'll work very closely with them, on the commercial rights, on the operations, but they will, in essence, be doing a lot of the heavy lifting on that as well. 

Q: Rakuten have partnerships with other organisations, such as the NBA, where they have digital streaming rights. Is that something they've expressed an interest in with this competition? 

DH: We have an existing arrangement in place with beIN Sports and that will continue to be there. We will see where the future takes us with Rakuten and other potential sponsors and investors. 

Q: You're moving from a home final to a set-piece, city location final. What's the challenge going to be for you to carve out a space for yourself alongside the ATP Finals and the WTA Finals and of course the ATP NextGen tournament going into the November/December period?

DH: For us the excitement is that the ITF and Davis Cup is known as a team event, the world's largest annual team event. By having all these top players – because each team will have four or five players together in one location over a week period – it is going to make this a phenomenal extravaganza. It's not just going to be the tennis on the court but there'll be entertainment, there will be excitement. When a nation comes to watch their team, they're assured of three matches because there will be the knockout stage and then either the quarterfinals or the play-off. They'll see their team that they follow but they'll also have the ability to see other top players and other top nations competing as well. We think this is unique, it's different and it's not a tournament, it's really a team event where you wear your nation's colours, you play with the flag, so we're very excited with what we can do to really make this the World Cup of Tennis in one location. 

KF: For today's audiences, it's much more concentrated and fan-friendly. We've been working with Kosmos more at an operational level about what innovations we could introduce, because this has got to be where sport meets entertainment.

Q: Player burnout is a big issue. Do you think the fact that the event is not going to be spread over multiple weekends is going to persuade players to join in? 

DH: We've talked to the players to get their feedback and I think what they like about the competition is that it's the best of three sets and it's two singles and a doubles. We will most likely have five-person teams, so they'll be able to bring a couple of extra players, so it's not going to have the same sort of fatigue that a best-of-five match has. The schedule in tennis is something that you always look at, and we all say wouldn't it be nice to make some changes, but it's very easy to say and very hard to do. I think the predictability is one of the big selling points that the players see. And, again, $20m is a significant prize money week for the players where they will now prioritise this into their calendars, as opposed to seeing who they're playing, if they're playing away, pick a country and deciding that they’re not going to play there.

Q: What kind of profile venues are you looking at for this concept? 

DH: With Kosmos we're looking at the football stadiums to tennis facilities that are out there, looking across all continents in Europe and Asia and America. I think that we need three stadiums to host this, and then obviously you need the practice courts to go along with that and in November you've got to pick your city, so it could be some outdoor facilities, it could be an indoor facility. 

Q: What will be the process for awarding hosting rights? 

David H: It is really down to our consultations with Kosmos. They've been leading on this because they had discussions on potential cities and venues before we even got together, so we will collaborate with them to look at the list. I think that decision will probably be made in June. 

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