TWGH - The Player/Fan Pact

by: Peter Bodo | March 01, 2007

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[Ed. Note: Peter Bodo is on vacation until March 5th. In his absence, we are proud to present TennisWorld's Greatest Hits (and Misses). We hope you'll find these entries as relevant today as when they were originally posted. --S.]

DATE: 3/29/2006

So here I am in Miami, and I have to tell you, it’s dead as a doornail. It’s after 2 P.M. already, and the only thing that’s been going on is the less-than-marquee match-up between Tatiana Golovin and Jie “Strait Outta Si Chuan” Zheng.

It’s okay, as such things go, but the stadium is maybe one third full. And this is the quarterfinals of, arguably, The U.S.'s second most prestigious pro tournament. The quarterfinals of what Butch Buchholz, founder of the NASDAQ 100 (and one of the all-time great guys in tennis), had dreamed up as the “fifth Grand Slam”, later revised to “The Latin Slam.”

Woooo – sorry! Did I offend someone? Proud honorary Latino and Miami booster TiC? Am I stereotyping with my use of the word “Latin”, like that last time, when I dared apply that adjective to Rafael Nadal? What about when a South American guy uses “Latin?” Is that equally offensive? Less? More? Is anyone else having trouble keeping up in the Piety Derby?

PfpSo where were we?

Well, it’s a dishwater dull day because that’s what you get when so many of the top players are either upset, unable or unwilling to give their best, or simply decline to show up.

So I'm going to forgo match coverage for now (I'll post on Myskina tonight) and delve into an ongoing political/ethical issue.

TW regular Ruth has posted a few very well-reasoned and balanced comments on what seems to me an ongoing scandal and ethical mess – the ease and unconcern with which players ignore their first and foremost obligation to the fans: to show up at tournaments they are committed to playing and, once there, to do their best in them.

In fact, let’s agree to call this most basic contract between paying fans and money-taking players the Player/Fan Pact.

Now, if you’re so much of a Kool-Aid drinker that the player(s) you slavishly worship can do no wrong, you can stop reading and return to sticking pins in that Peter Bodo voodoo doll.

But if you’re at all open to the idea that tennis players have responsibilities that come with the profession (like the rest of us do), you have to be disturbed by the way Rafael Nadal (among others) pulled out of Rotterdam for what seemingly amounted to no better reason than this: He did better than he expected at his previous tournament, and therefore decided to skip Rotterdam in order to rest.

Maybe you see nothing wrong with this. The really curious thing is that Nadal doesn’t either, and that may prove be a bigger long-term problem for the game than Nadal bailing on an event. Word is that Nadal was genuinely upset by the fact that he was criticized for pulling out of Rotterdam. Given that Nadal basically seems like a good kid, the only way to interpret this is that Nadal can’t imagine what he did wrong.

Sorry, but if Rafael Nadal isn’t aware of the way he breached the PFP, and the disappointment he caused to so many ticket-buying fans, tennis players have become even more self-absorbed and oblivious than their worst critics suggest.

At the start of the Indian Wells tournament about three weeks ago, Lindsay Davenport had the courage to address the problem in this remarkably candid interview. If you read this closely, you can’t help but conclude that another basic contract is being violated here – the Tour/Fan Pact.

So, even though it’s early in the year, here are some pretty sobering numbers. Eleven of the top 23 WTA pros (including Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo, and Mary Pierce) decided to skip the big Indian Wells event. Many of them did show up for the NASDAQ 100, but it was partly because Miami is now a mandatory event for the women.

Yet the tournament has been surprisingly volatile; the Belgian lasses (The Little Backhand That Quit and Champagne Kimmy Clijsters) both were gone; the Williams sisters never bothered to show up. Is the game so deep that we can expect the Golovins and (perhaps) Ai Sugiyamas to reach the semis at sub-Slams? Or is something else going on here?

And if the former is the case, are you still buying tickets?

The trend seems clear. The top players simply won’t play as much as the tours want them to. It hardly matters that they (the WTA women, anyway) have player commitment contracts (if you want to delve into the truly esoteric annals of the WTA player commitment system, go here.) Davenport nailed the issue, right on the head. And the bigger the stars, especially the veteran stars, the less they want to play.

I don’t believe in making people do things they don’t want, but I also think it’s wrong and shameful to perpetrate a farce – whether it’s for pure convenience, or out of a desire to have it both ways (great rewards, no responsibilities).

It’s a violation of the PFP and the TFP to hype tournaments and market players when the players have no real intention of playing the events. The public deserves better from the tours, the tournaments, and the players.

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