Rescuing the Davis Cup: “The essence has been lost a bit, we have to recover it”, says Tennium

Kristoff Puelinckx
Kristoff Puelinckx, at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club / SEBASTIÁN FEST
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BUENOS AIRES – Shakira, Bizarrap and the Davis Cup. There is no little that has gone wrong for Gerard Piqué in recent months, although there is no reason to be alarmed about the former Barcelona player’s future: he has many businesses, money for 70 generations of Piqués and a new girlfriend who loves him. And the Davis Cup? Beyond the lawsuits, it is no longer his problem, it is the problem of Tennium, a new player of growing presence in tennis that comes to the rescue of a tournament mistreated in recent years.

“The essence of the Davis Cup, which was a competition of countries with a lot of grassroots tennis involvement, was lost a little bit. That has been lost and we need to bring it back,” believes Kristoff Puelinckx, the Belgian CEO of Tennium, during an interview with CLAY.

For decades, the tennis world has been accustomed to hearing the names IMG and Octagon when it comes to big sports marketing agencies dedicated to moving the tennis business. But for some time now, Tennium, which calls itself a “boutique agency” and prides itself on something the others don’t have: the only thing it cares about and devotes one hundred percent of its efforts to is tennis. The word “diversification” is not part of her business dictionary.

Owner of the tournaments in Buenos Aires and Antwerp, Tennium runs Barcelona and Hamburg, will relaunch the Hopman Cup in Nice this July and is developing, in an agreement with the WTA, a tour of women’s tournaments in South America, Spain and Andorra.

When in January Dave Haggerty, president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), terminated early his 25-year deal with Kosmos, Gerard Piqué’s sports business agency, someone needed to come to the rescue. And there was Tennium, which has the merit of developing simultaneous business with the ITF, ATP and WTA, three organisations that only very exceptionally manage to work together.

Tennium’s challenge is not an easy one, hosting a tournament that was mistreated by the ITF itself. Davis Cup, a tournament that dates back to 1900, had certain characteristics that made it unique. Much of that has been lost in recent years, and can Tennium recapture something of the pre-Pique Davis? Kristoff Puelinckx chooses to be cautious.

Interview with Kristoff Puelinckx

– Given the short time available, will it be a Davis Cup without major changes or are you planning major changes?
– At the format level, the format is defined by the ITF, not by us. At the tournament organisation level we plan to evolve the tournament to include more involvement of the participating federations, more integration with the cities of Valencia and Malaga, better integration of the tennis fan community locally and internationally and evolve the fan and corporate customer experience during the tournament as we do in all our events. It will undoubtedly continue to be a tennis party with some new features and innovations compared to previous versions.

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– For how long will you manage Davis Cup and what are the goals with that competition?
– At the moment the collaboration is for one year, because the 2024 format is not yet defined, so we don’t know what role we can play in the future, but we are confident that we will do a good job and extend this agreement with the ITF over time.

– Is there a chance of a return to the old format? There is a lot of criticism about a certain loss of the spirit of Davis Cup, which travelled around the world and inspired young future tennis players.
– As I said, we don’t define the format. That is up to the ITF and the Davis Cup Committee. The issue of the format is never easy. What is clear, and as many players commented, is that the old format was not working anymore, because the top players were not participating. We are seeing better player participation in the new format and increased fan interest. We think this new format is catching on and people are liking it. But again, it’s not our decision.

– But do you like the new Davis Cup format?
– I think it has some good things and some things that are a bit more difficult. But something had to be done, because, I insist, the top players were not playing. I think we need a little more involvement from the federations in the first rounds, to go back to the home and away in those rounds. The final is not bad, but you have to think about it a bit, maybe do it every two years, maybe in a reduced format. I think it was a good step, but too many steps were taken, the essence of the Davis Cup was lost, which was a competition of countries with a lot of grassroots tennis involvement. That has been lost and we have to recover it.

– In addition to the Davis Cup, Tennium will manage this year’s Hopman Cup, which returns after years of absence. Why will it be held in Nice?
– We looked at various options, we thought about holding it on grass in England, we spoke to the British federation (LTA), but it didn’t work out for various reasons. And the south of France in summer is incredible. In France they know a lot about tennis, it’s a unique place, and the city was very supportive, that’s important.

– The Hopman Cup returns in the year in which the United Cup, organised by the ATP and WTA, was born. Does it make sense to have two mixed tournaments?
– The Hopman Cup is going to be a more boutique tournament, smaller than the United Cup, which is very big and with different levels of players. I think ours will have a higher level, it will be a more exclusive tournament with a global projection, it will be broadcast to more than a hundred countries. Beyond that, we have a very good relationship with the ITF, the ATP and the WTA. We have earned the respect of the tennis world. That has to be sustained.

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– Is there a Tennium plan to promote women’s tennis?
– Yes, we now have six tournaments for girls. Buenos Aires, Uruguay, a good partner in Chile, in San Sebastian, Valencia, Andorra. We have a strategic partnership with WTA to further develop tennis in South America and Southern Europe. We are making a difference and we aim to create a tour in South America. In men’s tennis, we have made a lot of progress in the Barcelona tournament, which we have been managing for three years. We have improved the corporate and fan experience a lot.

– What differentiates you from IMG and Octagon, two agencies with a long history in tennis?
– In the end, IMG and Octagon are very different. Octagon doesn’t manage tournaments: even though it owns them, it rents them. IMG focuses on very big tournaments. We only do tennis, we are specialists in this, it sets us apart. We are much more expert by being specialists. That allows us to make a difference and have people with much more knowledge, because we only do tennis all year round. We are interested in supporting grassroots, we come from there, we want to support tennis. We can say that we are a boutique agency, very specialised. We don’t do football, we don’t do other things. We have former players like Martín Jaite or Sebastián Grosjean and business people, like me, or Martin Hughes, who comes from the consumer sector. Enric Molina joined us four or five years ago, we acquired Lagardere’s player business three years ago. We have Feliciano Lopez and Richard Gasquet, who are at the end of their careers, but also Holger Rune, who is incredible what he has done in the last 18 months. We have a lot of talent.

– The tournament in Buenos Aires is a phenomenon of popularity. You have asked the ATP to upgrade it to 500. Is that possible in the short term?
– It is no secret that we want a 500 in Buenos Aires, the market is for that, it is a historical tennis country, with a lot of fans. It is a very slow process, the ATP has announced that there could be up to three upgrades in the world, but there is a lot of competition. The truth is that the public in Argentina is different from any other country, it is a much more emotional public, especially when Argentines play or with a top player like Carlos Alcaraz. The crowd goes crazy. In other countries it’s more calm, rational, temperate. Becoming a 500 will take time, it’s not for 2024.

If you enjoyed this interview with Kristoff Puelinckx, don’t miss this link to many other interviews with the great tennis stars.

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