Eighteen months later and in a different location than planned, the first Billie Jean King Cup Finals finally begins today.
The tournament formerly known as the Fed Cup has been rebranded in tribute to the trailblazing former world No1 and reformatted to create a climactic week-long finale that mirrors the new-look Davis Cup, itself taking place later this month.
Neither of the men’s and women’s team events happened last year due to Covid-19, so their return to the calendar comes as a relief to the International Tennis Federation. In a fragmented tennis governance landscape, the Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup are the ITF’s crown jewels.
“We’re very excited,” ITF president David Haggerty tells City A.M. “Given everything we’ve all had to deal with over the last 18 months which we want to forget, we’re looking at this as the November to remember.”
Haggerty and the ITF, which organises all team competitions but not the elite men’s ATP and women’s WTA tours, are pinning a lot on the two “world cups of tennis”.
And with good reason: the Davis Cup Finals earns the ITF in $40m in hosting fees and the Billie Jean King Cup Finals a further $20m.
That is around two thirds of the organisation’s $89m total revenue for 2019, the last year unaffected by the pandemic.
In 2020 the organisation banked less than half that and made a loss of $7m, denting its reserves to $52m.
“We won’t be back in the black [in 2021] but we have made a decision that these competitions are very important,” says Haggerty. “They are very helpful in giving us the revenue we need.”
Revamping the Billie Jean King Cup and Davis Cup Finals
On Haggerty’s watch the ITF ushered in a major revamp of the Davis Cup as part of a $3bn, 25-year partnership with Kosmos, an investment group founded by footballer Gerard Pique and bankrolled by Rakuten chief Hiroshi Mikitani.
Starting in 2019 in Madrid, it saw the season-long schedule squeezed into an end-of-year extravaganza designed to be more compelling for viewers and sponsors alike.
It wasn’t without teething problems – some sessions featured banks of empty seats, while others didn’t finish until 4am – but nothing to dissuade the ITF from giving the old Fed Cup a similar makeover.
And while the inaugural Billie Jean King Cup was initially slated for an April window, its new November slot sounds like it is here to stay.
“I think most of the stakeholders believe that the end of the season makes sense,” Haggerty says.
“We’ve had conversations with the WTA about this as well and that’s where we’ve slotted in and that’s where we’ll be looking for for 2022 and beyond, in November for sure.”
This year the Davis Cup Finals will be held across three cities – Innsbruck, where Great Britain will play their group ties; Turin; and Madrid, which will stage the final – in a move that may help address the empty seat issue.
The ITF intends to retain the multi-venue format for future editions – “It ticked all the boxes,” says Haggerty – and there’s every chance it will come to the Billie Jean King Cup Finals too.
“It’s something that could happen, that preliminarily we are looking at,” the American added.
The Billie Jean King Cup Finals was due to be staged in Budapest in April 2020 but after being forced to postpone twice for Covid reasons, the Hungarian Tennis Association withdrew as hosts 12 months later.
Prague stepped in and the competition was rescheduled, but the ITF is yet to appoint any venues for either of its flagship competitions in 2022 or beyond.
Talks have already begun with “multiple cities” over staging next year’s Davis Cup Finals, but Haggerty hopes the inaugural Billie Jean King Cup Finals will stimulate interest from potential venues. Great Britain, meanwhile, will hope to do better and qualify in 2022.
“One of the things we felt was important was to showcase what it could be, because this will be the inaugural year that we move to this format,” he says.
“We want to be able to show that to all the nations and then have discussions about where the next editions will be.”
Haggerty on vaccination, Osaka and tennis’s domestic abuse allegations
Finding suitable venues is not the only challenge to have confronted the ITF this year, with Covid-19 vaccination rates, player-media relations and domestic violence allegations all posing questions of an organisation seen as the guardian of the game.
Men’s world No1 Novak Djokovic has notoriously declined to reveal his vaccination status, while some estimates put the percentage of elite players not jabbed at between 50 and 33 per cent.
Aside from being a public relations own goal, the issue is currently threatening to keep a host of stars from competing at the Australian Open, the year’s first Grand Slam, in January.
“I think it’s an individual choice that players should make but I think that as everyone steps back and looks at it, we’re safer together when we’re all vaccinated,” says Haggerty.
“I think that’s something that players are beginning to hear more. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of information out there that isn’t always accurate that people continue to repeat.
“We believe vaccinations are important and would love to see all the players vaccinated.”
Naomi Osaka shone a spotlight on player-media relations this year when she walked away from the French Open after being declined exemption from press duties.
The incident led Osaka to reveal her struggle with episodes of depression and anxiety and provoked debate about how sport should manage media coverage and access.
“We are champions for having people sit at the table and talk about what’s the best way,” Haggerty says.
“But to move forward we think it’s important that the players are covered by the media and the media are covering our events, so it’s important that continues.
“It’s just getting that right balance, that mutual understanding between players and journalists and tournaments and all the stakeholders together.”
In September, Haggerty was named a UN He For She Champion, in recognition of his commitment to achieving greater gender equality in tennis.
As part of that drive, the ITF is implementing equal prize money across the Billie Jean King and Davis Cup Finals for the first time this year and is planning on reintroducing mixed doubles team event the Hopman Cup, “most likely in 2023”.
“Any time that we have men and women together on equal footing it’s great for sport and culture, it’s the way the world should be,” he says.
Tennis has been accused of failing women, however, by allowing players accused of domestic violence, including men’s world No4 Alexander Zverev, to continue competing.
Major US sports leagues now allow for disciplinary action without a conviction. In the case of Zverev, who strongly denies the allegations, it took the ATP Tour a year to announce it was investigating and reviewing its policy.
“We’re happy that the ATP is investigating. They have addressed this and we will follow the outcome,” says Haggerty. “We think it’s very, very important, safeguarding for men, women and children. It’s critical for sport.”
On a unified men’s and women’s tour and Raducanu
Greater cooperation between the ATP and WTA tours could be on the cards if a proposed collaboration backed by private equity money comes to fruition.
Under the plans, which involve CVC Capital Partners, elite men and women would play at more of the same events. Haggerty agrees that it could make tennis more commercially attractive.
But he says: “We know the ATP and WTA are having discussions and it’s really up to them. We’ll see where they go.
“There are a lot of people that have advocated for men and women to come together in tennis. So I think the good news is the collaboration has been happening, between ourselves and all the different stakeholders, and I think that’s good for the sport.
“We don’t have to change the governance necessarily to change the way that we work together. Governance could be another way to look at it but that’s up to the men’s and women’s tours.”
British interest in tennis received a shot in the arm this year when 18-year-old Emma Raducanu completed a fairytale triumph at the US Open.
The likes of Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, the fellow teenager she beat in the final, could become the new faces of a sport facing up to the fading powers of all-conquering superstars such as Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
“I think we saw a breakthrough of new players on the women’s side that will inspire not just England and Canada but players all around the world,” Haggerty says.
“On the men’s side as well, we’ve seen [Daniil] Medvedev, who’s done quite well, Zverev, [Stefanos] Tsitsipas, a young generation of players coming I think that’s important for the growth of our game.”