How Gerard Pique’s $3bn Davis Cup dream fell apart

Gerard Pique takes questions at the 2021 Davis Cup Finals in Madrid
Gerard Pique's remodelling of the Davis Cup has shut out non-European teams - Getty Images/Carlos Alvarez

As the Davis Cup finals unfold this week in Malaga, one significant figure is absent: the millionaire footballer and entrepreneur Gerard Pique.

Five years ago, Pique offered the International Tennis Federation $3 billion dollars over 25 years – football money, in fact – to take the Davis Cup off their hands. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Not only was Pique’s new model unpopular with many of the Davis Cup’s most loyal supporters – notably the Australians and their outspoken captain Lleyton Hewitt – but almost all the major sponsors quit. Soon, his company Kosmos were finding it predictably difficult to justify such a massive investment.

The deal collapsed in rancorous style in January, only three years into the proposed 25. And now, as the ITF try to pick up Pique’s week-long finals concept in Malaga, the two sides are fighting a legal battle at Lausanne’ s Court of Arbitration for Sport.

So how should we view Pique’s tennis cameo? His celebrity status has led to plenty of sneering references to the “Pique Cup”, implying that it was a vanity project all along. Yet this feels questionable. Did the Barcelona centre-back – who was still married to A-list popstar Shakira at the time of the original deal – really need any extra profile?

Pique’s allies insist that the new-look Davis Cup was a labour of love all along. He has since enjoyed greater success with other ventures, notably the seven-a-side Kings League. But football is his business, whereas tennis is his hobby and his passion. He idolises Rafael Nadal, and when he hosted a dinner for the players on the eve of the first finals week in 2019, he had to pause his speech for a moment because he became so emotional.

Pique was very personally involved throughout that first event. He bit back at critics on Twitter and sent one reporter – who was struggling with the Davis Cup app – a direct message suggesting he should delete and reinstall. In the press room, we wondered whether his business card should be amended to “Footballer, entrepreneur, and IT consultant.”

For all its teething problems – and there were many, ranging from the wifi to the 4am finishes – 2019 delivered some memorable sport. The high point came when Nadal and his doubles partner Feliciano Lopez (who also happens to be the tournament director in Malaga this week) took on Great Britain’s Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski in front of a huge, seething crowd in Madrid.

Rafael Nadal and Feliciano Lopez (left) celebrate during their match with Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski in the 2019 Davis Cup
Rafael Nadal and Feliciano Lopez (left) celebrate during their match with Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski in the 2019 Davis Cup - Getty Images/Alex Pantling

At the same time, though, Spain’s tumultuous triumph in their own capital only brought home the essential virtue of the old Davis Cup: one team was always at home. Whereas, this year, Spain lost to Serbia in the qualifying round, leaving the Malaga finals without their biggest draw card.

Attendance has held up surprisingly well. The 9,000-capacity arena was well stocked for Finland’s victory on Tuesday evening – partly because nearby Fuengirola is full of Finnish expats – and there are 5,000 Brits due in for Thursday’s quarter-final against Serbia.

But one huge downside is that the Davis Cup has effectively become a European Cup. The rest of the world has been shut out: a devastating development not only for the Aussies but for the South Americans too, who used to rank among the most passionate supporters.

Even within Europe, there are winners and losers. On Wednesday, Novak Djokovic took issue with the fact that Spain has now hosted “The Final 8” – as this week is known – every year since Pique’s bid came in.

“The fact that we, as a team, have not played in Serbia many years is not great,” Djokovic explained. “We don’t give an opportunity to people to watch us play, especially young tennis players.”

His own career took a huge leap forward after Serbia’s lone Davis Cup title in 2010, which he anchored in front of an adoring crowd in Belgrade.

So, where do we go from here? The ITF say that they will stick with this format for at least another year, while holding a strategic review into the shape of the Davis Cup from 2025 onward. Yet both commercial value and fan interest have declined during all the toing and froing.

The latest rumour is that the Saudi Arabians – who are desperate for a showpiece event to stage in Riyadh – are looking to “do a Pique” and take the Davis Cup off the ITF’s hands.

Otherwise, could the slams unite and step in?

Wherever the Davis Cup goes next, the current set-up has been patched together rather than truly thought through. What a sad state of affairs for an event which – despite its misleading name – is actually the oldest and longest-running world cup in any sport.

Admittedly, the Davis Cup was struggling when Pique arrived, with limited participation from the top players and negligible visibility in the USA.

But his intervention – however well-meaning – has only accelerated the grand old lady’s decline.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.