Spheres of Influence

by: Peter Bodo | May 01, 2008

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Rafa It's funny but we're not accustomed to Rafael Nadal making controversial statements, and we're even less accustomed to Nadal being overtly critical. That's why this Reuters piece , in which Nadal is outspoken about the rigors of the clay-court tour, caught my eye. Here's the money quote from Nadal: "These people are destroying Europe and Europe used to be the foundation of the tour."

A few things struck me about that comment. First, I was startled by the language used by Nadal. Despite his formidable abilities as "destroyer" himself, especially at this time of year, it's still jarring to hear him use that verb. Second, was his use of that always vaguely contemptuous term, "these people" (as your mother used to say of the crude Honeycutts: "We don't mix with those people. . .). Of course, the literal accuracy of the quote is questionable (I find it hard to imagine that Nadal would choose a word as precise "foundation" when speaking English, and I don't think he's familiar enough with English to use "these people" in the way I describe). Perhaps the comment was translated from the Spanish. Perhaps it was sexed up in an effort at clarity - or sensation.

Last and most important, I think Nadal's observation is wildly inaccurate [[ed note: it appears that the quote is indeed inaccurate, but I'm letting it stand because it's a convenient jumping off point for issues that are independent of the alleged misquote]] . The U.S. and England were the foundation of the tour - at least they were if we're using "tour" in the most broadly accepted sense. About 30 years ago (give or take), pro-tour tennis was still a novelty of sorts in Europe, despite the strong local tennis traditions that existed in many nations. Spain was completely off the radar as a nation with "tour" events (and players). The Italian Open was a strange, makeshift event at which the skeletal, temporary bleachers vied with those giant marble statues in the Foro Italico for the attention of a visitor's eyes. The French Open was considered the biggest of the European clay court events, which meant that it still wasn't big enough to keep top players, including dominant champs Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert, from blowing it off to play - World Team Tennis.

This was not entirely a matter of greedy players going for the easy money, either. They opted for the easy money because the French Open (along with the Australian major) wasn't considered a "must play" event. It was clearly overshadowed by Wimbledon and the US Open.

Okay, I can almost hear some of you harrumphing:  Just because Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors didn't play in Paris doesn't mean it wasn't important. They're just silly, myopic, provincial Americans anyway! Well, Bjorn Borg, who's never been accused of being American, also by-passed the French in 1977, despite being the two-time defending champion. Doing so helped him battle Jimmy Connors for the WTT Most Valuable Player award!  WTT had few qualms going up against the French Open partly because on-the-ground realities suggested that the players could be persuaded to miss it.

Of course, Nadal could be forgiven an insufficient grasp of tennis history. Today, European and South American players dominate the tour about the same way the U.S. and Australia once did. And the rehabilitation of the Italian and French Opens, along with the rise of Spanish tennis and the continued prestige of Monte Carlo, have transformed the geopolitics of tennis.

Today, Europe and the U.S. are roughly equal in terms of the number of significant events they host. They also are the twin poles of a conflict that may only get worse in the near term, or until (make that unless) the US begins producing more great players, Europeans lose interest in tennis, or South American economies become strong and stable enough to demand  - and get - a greater share of tournaments (We won't even consider China, which is too new a force to assess).

Of these, the third possibility is the most remote, starting with an obvious and in some ways unacceptable problem: all the calendar weeks have been doled out. Even if the economy of, say, Argentina, skyrocketed tomorrow, and Tubby Dave Nalbandian got to be no. 1, the ATP would have to do some hard thinking - and an extra week to the calendar - to sanction a mega-event there.

The other two possibilities, I think, are also unlikely to come to pass. Two or three bankable American Grand Slam contenders could emerge, and overnight (it has happened before, right on the heels of the McEnroe era), but there are no signs of that happening despite the current drought being much longer the last one. And Europeans are pumping out enough players to keep the game healthy there.

Still, nobody should ever forget the lesson about Europe taught to us by Germany. When Steffi Graf and Boris Becker were running amok, Germans lifted tennis to No. 3 in mass popularity, behind only soccer and F-1 auto racing.  But television ratings, live attendance, prize money - an entire economy once so robust that broadcasting fees from German television accounted for over 90 per cent of the ATP's revenues - all went over a cliff when Becker and Graf faded, and nobody stepped into their large shoes. The crash almost bankrupted the tour.

The real conflict for the near future seems to be between the US and Europe, with a bone thrown to the emerging markets that ought to be, but aren't really, under Australian influence. Think about it: what's the major flash point in today's game in general? It's where the hard courts meet the clay, with hard courts symbolizing American influence and power, and clay the growing force of Europe.

Europeans directs special resentment at the two, big US spring hard court events, Indian Wells and Miami. Much to the Europeans' chagrin, those two events are, arguably, the biggest non-Grand Slam tour events of the year. And even the most ardently anti-American factions know that the demise of those events would have an enormous negative impact on tennis in general. Nadal's harsh comment is really a refinement of the argument he made in Miami, when he expressed bitterness over the way the players must bounce from exhausting, back-to-back hard-court Masters events in the U.S. onto the clay of Europe - for three Masters events in four weeks.

Insane? Of course. But isn't war always? And that's just where we are today - in an undeclared war between an emerging, seemingly self-sufficient Europe, with its clay - and clay-loving players - and the US, with its hard courts, entrepreneurial skills and marketing expertise (you could say that the US continues to be the major tennis power everywhere but on the field of play, so American dominance continues through the use of smoke-and-mirrors). South America and Asia remain on the fringe of the conversation for the obvious reason (lack of tournaments). Despite the terrific job done by the Australian Open, nobody does tennis like the US and Europe.

I've said in the past that anyone who would greet the downfall of American tennis with a rush of schadenfreude ought to be careful about what he wishes for. Because the wild card in this battle is the sheer heft and persuasive power of the US. Everything we know about culture, especially pop culture, suggests that if something goes out of style in American, it goes out of style everywhere. American notions, tastes, and habits have been that pervasive. Of course, that might change; the question is whether or not we've reached that tipping point. Europeans must be asking themselves, nervously, if that's the case.

The natural solution to this very dramatic problem is impossible but simple. The tennis world should be divided into three spheres of influence, and go with three tours: A spring European (clay) circuit, perhaps starting in temperate climes in South American, a summer (hard court) US circuit, and a fall (hard court/indoor) AusAsian circuit. The Grand Slams, left exactly where they are, would be convenient markers to signal the end of each segment. The Australian Open would continue to fulfill its role as the curtain-raiser, followed by the spring tour, which would officially end at Roland Garros. The summer tour would begin with Wimbledon and end at the US Open. The fall tour would end with the ATP Championships. The precious "Masters" designations could be re-distributed (in so big a project, why not?) and a system worked out for awarding ranking points based on strength of field.

What about Indian Wells and Miami? It's simple: put them on clay (Miami has been played on that surface). Untold numbers of tournaments have demonstrated that surface is the least important element in success.

I almost wish that Nadal's characterization of the tour's "foundation" would be accurate, but reason we're in our current bind is because it is not.

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