On 17th September 2023, Great Britain beat France in Manchester in dramatic fashion to advance in the Davis Cup. They reached the last eight of the competition by saving four match points against the French in the decisive doubles clash. That’s all well and good but if you’re reading this article, we assume you aren’t entirely sure what the Davis Cup is!
The Davis Cup is an unusual event in that it somehow floats between being very important and being a bit of a sideshow. Moreover, to a degree, that shifting significance seems to be true for both tennis players and fans alike, with the event not capturing the public imagination in the same way as golf’s Ryder Cup yet, from time to time, evoking the same sorts of emotions.
Davis Cup Explained
Beyond the relatively small number of really serious tennis fans, knowledge about this tournament is quite limited. Even people who would say they love the sport and watch all the Grand Slams, taking a bit of an interest in other tournaments too, might be a little unclear when it comes to the Davis Cup. And those who are recent converts to the wonderful world of tennis may know next to nothing. So, let’s start at the beginning.
The Davis Cup is the number one team event in men’s tennis. It was founded over 120 years ago (in 1900) and is named after the man who helped establish it, American Dwight F. Davis. It is held every year and is administered by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and sees teams from 155 nations (in 2023) battle it out. The women’s equivalent of the Davis Cup is the Billie Jean King Cup, which was founded as the Federation Cup but prior to being named in honour of the US great was known as the Fed Cup.
As with most tournaments of this nature and with such a lengthy history, the exact structure and format of the Davis Cup have changed several times over the years. The first tournament was a challenge between Britain and the USA but more teams were soon invited, with Belgium and France joining in 1904. A joint Australia and New Zealand team, known as Australasia, soon followed, and they were the first “nation” other than the two founders to win – in 1907.
The winners are now referred to as the world champions, with Davis Cup organisers describing the tournament as the “World Cup of Tennis”. Now, almost all ITF members take part, with Russia and Belarus currently suspended following the invasion of Ukraine.
There are five tiers of nations within the Davis Cup, with further geographic subdivisions in the middle three tiers. At the top of the pyramid are the 18 teams that compete in the Davis Cup World Group. Beneath that, a system of promotion and relegation exists.
Finals Where the Action Hots Up
Following changes to the Davis Cup structure in 2019, the World Group matches were effectively replaced by the Davis Cup Finals. 16 nations play in the group stage of the Finals, with the two finalists from the year before automatically making the last 16. They are joined by two wild card teams, plus the 12 winners from the qualifying round which takes place at the start of the year (February in 2023). That qualifying round pitted 12 teams who ranked third to 16th in 2022 (the top two qualifying automatically) against 12 winning teams from the second-tier World Group.
The 16-team group stage sees four groups of four play in September. Games are hosted over six days with one member of each group playing host. That is why Britain were playing France in Manchester, as the hosts of Group B. Each team plays one another in a round-robin format over three matches. There are two singles games and one doubles, referred to as rubbers, within each match, or tie. The top two from each group progress to the last eight.
Knockout Stage: The Last Eight
The group winners and second-placed teams progress to the Knockout Stage. This all takes place at one venue, in 2023 that being Malaga, in Spain. The winners from the groups play one of the runners-up from that stage so in 2023 GB will go up against Serbia, who finished above Spain in Group C but behind the Czech team.
From here the tournament is a straight knockout, with GB set to play Italy or Netherlands in the semis if they progress. In the final they would then face one of Canada, Finland, Czech Republic or Australia, who are all in the other half of the draw.
Whilst the current event is the biggest the Davis Cup has ever witnessed in terms of the 155 nations that took part, the length of both ties and rubbers is shorter than has usually been the case. Nations at all stages of the finals now consist of just three rubbers, two singles and the doubles. Additionally, these are played over three (rather than five) sets, with tiebreaks used in all sets. All in all this greatly reduces the amount of tennis being played by the top stars.
Davis Cup Most Successful Teams
The contest has not always been open to much of the world and so it is little surprise that those teams who were involved from the very start, or close enough, dominate in terms of overall Davis Cup wins. The list below is correct following Canada’s triumph in 2022.
- 1) USA – 32 wins and 29 times runners-up
- 2) Australia (including Australasia) – 28 wins, 20 times runners-up
- 3) France – 10 wins, second nine times
- 4) GB – 10 wins, second eight times
- 5) Sweden – seven wins, second five times
The Americans have won the Davis Cup far more often than any other nation. However, this century it has been very open. In the 21st century Spain have won six titles, whilst the “big five” listed above have won the Davis Cup just five times between them. France have won twice this millennium, as have Croatia, and the Czechs, whilst Russia have also won twice, but three times if we include their 2021 victory when competing as the Russian Tennis Federation due to a WADA ban.
Great Britain last won the competition back in 2015, beating Belgium 3-1 (when it was a best-of-five tournament) on home soil with Andy Murray coming to the fore. In the 21st century there have been 12 different winning nations, meaning the Davis Cup is anything but predictable.