Chariots of Tired

by: Peter Bodo | October 14, 2009

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91850949 by Pete Bodo

As sure as night follows day, complaints about the unending tennis year follow the beginning of the fall ATP swing through Asia and Europe. I've already spent good parts of the past two days writing about the issue, both at ESPN and here at the home page. Novak Djokovic also weighed in on the issue; does anyone doubt that his reasonableness on the issue has a little something to do with the fact that he's a tournament promoter as well as a player?

Has there ever been an issue that has generated more, and more predictable, discontent among tennis players and some fans than the brutal length of the tennis year? I don't think anyone doubts that if you blew the whole thing up and started over, the players would enjoy a long break ending at Christmas. But you can't blow the whole thing up, even if you wanted to. What you have here is an overabundance of legitimate stakeholders (which isn't the worst problem to have by any means), none of whom wants to surrender what he or she's built, in many cases after years of struggle and hard work.

Wayne Bryan, the coach/activist dad of doubles team Mike and Bob Bryan, sent me an interesting email on this subject yesterday. Let me quote him:

"It should all shut down at a minimum at the end of October.  Tournaments could be doubled up.  We don't have to eliminate tournaments - just double or triple-up on some weeks.  And a super simple way to knock off one week is to get rid of that extra off week between Bercy and the London Masters Cup.  No reason for it, and it just makes the players train one more week.  They all want it over and done with.
It would be good for the fans to get a break too!  Who would want to watch football or baseball or basketball all year?!  There is a natural cycle to things and you need a winter to have an exciting and fresh new spring.  Same with tennis"

This is an interesting compromise, especially in an era that has produced multiple stars and a terrific depth chart of former Grand Slam winners and no. 1s. The field at each of the tournaments, particularly the triple-up ones, would certainly be diluted. But that can be adjusted in the ranking-points distribution scheme. The biggest problem you'd have would be the inevitable decline in the prestige of certain events - two of the nine elite Masters 1000 events are played in the fall, and they rely heavily (as does the ATP tournament and rankings structure) on quality-of-field.

Wayne touches on an interesting big-picture issue here as well. Why restrict the number of events that can take place in any given week? This philosophy is driven by the legitimate desire to ensure that the ATP stages highly competitive tournaments, but a good part of the think is also driven by a form of protectionism that may help individual tournaments but hurt the game at large. This raises interesting issues that cut right to the heart of market and regulation theories similar to the ones being punted around in Washington D.C. during this recession. How much intervention or outright control of markets do we need without choking off the sources of revenue and growth, or crippling otherwise functional and efficient markets?

By nature, I'm drawn to free-market notions - that may have something to do with having had to operate in just such a market (as a journalist and author) for good portions of my life. I know that competition makes everyone work harder and broadly improves the "product" - isn't the tale of the last 10 years in tennis a testament to that?  The ATP should re-examine it's current template, which may represent the worst of both worlds: the calendar is overloaded, yet it's exclusionary and contains protectionist mechanisms that inhibit the growth of the game.

Everyone in tennis is proud of the astonishing globalization that has occurred in the past few decades; this truly is a world game. But this a pretty big world. Maybe it can host five, seven, even nine tournaments every week (of course, it does this, if you count Challenger and Futures tournaments). Once upon a time, the men and women who built the tours were concerned with depth of field; they were loath to present a diluted product. But a glance at any main tour qualifying draw, and even at the Challenger draws, easily lays to rest any fear that the competition is not up to snuff. When guys like Jesse Witten or Turkey Marsel Ilhan go two, three rounds at a Grand Slam tournament before rejoining the Challenger circuit, you don't have a depth problem.

Furthermore, while having mandatory events makes some sense, why not let the rankings points on offer be the greatest inducement to players - pure and simple. Ah, but then some male version of Dinara Safina might replace a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal as no. 1!

So what? It's a computer ranking; a print-out washed away and distintegrated within months or even weeks by the tide of reality. Serena and Venus Williams have shown us that there comes a point where such considerations as computer ratings cease matter, or even be persuasive. Over the past few months, we dealt with an awkward situation vis a vis the rankings. But did the brouhaha over Dinara Safina's no. 1 ranking really hurt tennis?

91589485 My view is that it helped keep tennis in the headlines, and that - as always - the truth came out in the wash. The obsession with creating a perfect system, individual desires and needs be damned, is dehumanizing. The Williams sisters have been reprising a secular version of that great movie Chariots of Fire, by refusing to live in fear of the monolithic WTA computer, much like Eric Liddell refused to compete in track (for religious reasons) on Sunday. Everyone has his or her priorities and more power to them. The way I see it, everybody won in that recent WTA rankings controversy - including (and perhaps most of all) Safina.

Despite some rough spots, the current ATP template works pretty well. There's no pressing need to monkey with it. The concept nosedives after the US Open, though, so that's where the focus ought to be for the ATP. Perhaps we could essentially de-centralize the fall. Arlen Kantarian, formerly the CEO of Pro Tennis for the USTA, was on the right track when he toyed with the idea of trying to create a calendar featuring regional tours, enabling tennis to have, say, fall tournaments simultaneously in Asia, North America and Europe. I don't think ATP pros want to stow their rackets for two months starting at the end of October; what they want is a break from the demands of high-level competition, and the stress of travel.

To that end, I disagree with my colleague James Martin, who thinks that a winding down of high-value events in the fall might open a pandora's box of exhibitions. Such events have always been a significant part of tennis; in fact, some of the most storied of tennis happenings have been exos, whether you're talking about the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs match, the Pepsi Grand Slam tournaments where Bjorn Borg first got a handle on Jimmy Connors, or even the recent Roger Federer vs. Pete Sampras shoot-outs. Special events, including those staged for charity, can be low-load affairs that enable players to stay sharp during down time from the tour, they grow the game, help keep tennis on the sports pages, and provide earning opportunities.

Unless the knee injury he suffered in Shanghai is more severe than we know, Andy Roddick will have no trouble hopping on a plane (or, in this case, a subway), to help James Blake run his upcoming exhibition in New York on Dec. 1. I'm not so sure Roddick would have been so eager to help if Blake had scheduled that charity event for, say, Tangiers.

If I were Adam Helfant, the first thing I would do is sit down with the top players and say, okay, what are your most important concerns and beefs. Is it having to compete for ranking points in November, having to travel from Europe to China to fulfill a Masters 1000 obligation, or a lack or training time because of all the playing time. How do you see your ideal schedule, committment-wise and travel-wise? What is the ideal life you can envision, given the realities of what you do for a living?

The answers to such questions would provide the best jumping-off point for any tweaking of the system.

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