Glory Days II: Ruling Class Descent?

Sunday, July 27, 2008 /by

Many of you know Ed McGrogan from over at Tennisworld. Ed also works with us at Tennis Magazine and is in Toronto this week. He sent me a few of his impressions of the event so far, and this is my response. More on Toronto and Carson tomorrow.

Ed,

Thanks for the dispatch from Toronto. You’re right that there is a cookie-cutter approach to the North American Masters venues. The center court there is pretty much the same stadium as the one in Indian Wells, and only a slight variance from the one in Key Biscayne. The ones in Toronto and IW are notable for how many seats they managed to squeeze behind the baselines, which means the bleachers on the sidelines are pushed farther off the court. Other than that, there isn’t a whole lot to love or hate about either place. They’re more colossal than the venerable arenas that house the Euro Masters in Monte Carlo and Rome, but they aren’t utterly soulless, as many of the indoor joints are (is that faint praise or what: “not utterly soulless!”). Like Ashe Stadium, they make more sense at night, when the bright sun isn’t blasting any semblance of atmosphere away—even these giant structures can gain a touch of intimacy under a black sky. On TV at least, they can also look pretty spectacular at dusk.

You asked about Montreal, and Jarry Park is a less colossal and concrete-heavy venue than Toronto, but it shows its age. I’ve never thought of Montreal as all that European in the first place—it has a lot of souvenir shops, though—and the tournament to me, like all the single-gender Masters, was notable for how small it felt in comparison not only to the Slams, but to the U.S. dual-gender Masters. This makes it more peaceful in some ways, but I couldn’t escape the sense, as I walked to a backcourt and found Yevgeny Kafelnikov playing Tommy Robredo, that something important was missing.

Are these events too cushy for the higher seeds, who are awarded first-round byes? Well, tennis does submit to the law of unintended consequences, like anything else. When these tournaments were formed into the Super 9 series and then tied together even more tightly as mandatory Masters events that were originally going to have one group of umbrella sponsors (didn’t work), there was a sense that the top players didn’t face each other often enough. The best way to sell the tour was to have Sampras and Agassi, and now Federer and Nadal, facing each other on as many Sundays as possible. The draws were condensed with the idea that the sport was better served if a more limited groups of guys—a ruling class—were marketed to fans, which went along with the “New Balls, Please” advertising campaign from the beginning of the decade. The result may have been a bias toward getting the star players into the late rounds, which is why their draws can look a little cushy now. You may be right, and it may be better for fans to see Federer and Nadal play one more round, even if it lessens the chance they’ll play each other in the end. It also lessens the chance that any of them will go deep at the back-to-back Masters like Rome/Hamburg and Canada/Cincy—the Cincy tournament director must be happy that he can give Nadal a bye right now. Then again, it’s already extremely tough for them to go back-to-back as it is. Overall, the Masters have been one of tennis’ rare successes of the last 20 years, so I’d say it’s better not to fix what isn’t broken.

You wonder, Ed, have we just seen the beginning of the end for both Andy and Roger, two members of the old ruling class that came up in the New Balls, Please era? Or if not that, will their careers begin their descent more quickly than we realize right now? You may be onto something. Both are approaching the age when it can happen—I mentioned 27 as the age when Sampras finished his final year at No. 1—and when it does happen, it can go quickly. Look at Borg and McEnroe. But it doesn’t have to go quickly. Look at Connors and Agassi and even Sampras.

Roddick has seen his share of ups and downs over the last four years. He seems to make a comeback every six months or so. This spring he was up; now he’s down. For some reason, though, this time it feels more real and more dire. He’s tried a lot of things and a lot of coaches, and at the moment he’s back with his brother in the stands, and a game that seems more defensive-minded than ever. How many times did he make it to the net or force the action against Cilic? He needs another fresh voice, but he’s beginning to run out of fresh options.

As for Federer, I speculated about all the things his loss to Simon could represent in my last post. I think in the long run he’ll fit the Sampras model, rather than the Borg model. He won’t go into free fall, but he won’t win everything anymore. One thing that will be interesting is to see how much he loves the sport and loves to compete when he’s not always winning. If he has to adjust to being No. 2, how will he react? Borg didn’t accept it; Sampras didn’t believe it, but he kept plugging away and won a few more majors. If all else fails, Federer will be motivated by the goal of winning his own last few majors, and passing Sampras.

Finally, you asked whether I’d ever seen a great qualifying match. I have to say, in all the times I’ve sat in the broiling sun at the “best deal in tennis,” the free qualifying matches at the U.S. Open, I have no memories of anything remotely great. Lots of Eric Taino and Jeff Salzenstein and Cecil Mamitt and Justin Gimelstob and Bjorn Phau and even Andy Murray one year, but not many tight or compelling contests. Either I haven’t been looking in the right places, or it just goes to prove, once again, that you get what you pay for.

Thanks for all the reports from north of the border.

Steve

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