by Pete Bodo
It was a
pleasure to see American players make their presence felt at the ATP event in Atlanta last week. The hard-court season is an eight-week affair ending with the championship matches at the U.S. Open, which makes this a two-month celebration of the game in the U.S.—a
pleasant mission that goes well beyond merely seeing, or wanting to see,
U.S. players do well. It's about hosting and showing the rest of the
world what you've got, talent as well as spectacle-wise.
Of course, any party is less successful than it ought to be if the host is shrinking violet, or
doesn't figure prominently in the festivities. I'm hoping
that Atlanta, while a "minor" ATP 250 event, sets a good tone for the summer, and that the American
boys and girls can can make their mark over the next few weeks now that the U.S.
Open Series has kicked into high gear with significant hard-court events in Stanford (WTA) and Los Angeles.
If you want to see just how big an undertaking this USO Series is, just check out the television schedule. We're talking over 50 hours of coverage for the eight events that are sub-Masters or Grand Slam events. That's good for tennis.
Unfortunately, the USO Series subdivision at the U.S. Open website is sorely lacking a historical or archival section, which it makes it that much harder to assess the situation. But I've always felt the USO Series, the brainchild of former USTA CEO Arlen Kantarian, was a stroke of genius. It created a logical, easily understood template for the entire post-Wimbledon summer of tennis, despite the flurry of clay-court events just coming to an end. This series-style approach is possible at only two majors, the U.S. and French Opens. The opportunity to build momentum from week to week to a grand (slam) finale is a tremendous asset at every level.
The length of time and number of events in the USO Series may seem like overkill, especially when the U.S. can no longer seed the events with top American players. But that's only because this is an enormous country; if the major clay-court meetings of spring took place mostly in France (let's not forget the important role of Canada in the USO Series) it would be a lot easier to pull together a comparable Roland Garros Series. It's also fair to wonder why anyone would really feel a desire or need to do that, to get all maniacal and stressed out about templates and systems. The answer is simple: the USO Series approach was predicated on the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. Link all the tournaments together in a compelling way and everyone benefits.
Anecdote: Bill Oakes, the director of the Atlanta tournament, told me a few days ago that he was delighted that his new (although "resurrected" might be a better word) tournament was part of the USO Series: "We're automatically part of something bigger than ourselves, part of a longer, ongoing story, and we become part of the U.S. Open Series integrated broadcast schedule, plus we get Hawkeye—all of which are valuable to us as we try to build this event."
I confess I'm not sure how the Hawkeye angle works (does the USTA provide Hawkeye, as part of it's constituents' package?), but the rest of Oakes comment is self-explanatory.
The wisdom of this Series approach has been confirmed by better overall television ratings, even though the past four or five years haven't exactly been boom years for U.S. tennis. But one of the more disappointing failures of the USO Series is the relative lack of support its generated among top players. Thankfully, some diligent tennis geek has gathered the historical and statistical information that the USTA ignores and posted it in a Wikipedia entry (there's a good reason to donate to the Wikipedia cause).
In 2004, the first year of the formal USO Series, the top three male finishers, respectively, were: Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi. On the WTA side, they were Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo and Elena Likhovtseva. Last year, the corresponding top three were: Sam Querrey, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro; and Elena Dementieva, Flavia Pennetta and Jelena Jankovic.
In 2004, the top finishers among men owned a total of 11 Grand Slam titles (eight contributed by Agassi) The three best women had a total of three (all won by Davenport, although Mauresmo was on the cusp of her best phase). Last year's top six finishers (male and female) have exactly one major title between—the one del Potro earned at the U.S. Open.
Sure, it's crass to talk about money, or reduce everything to least-common denominator commercial terms. But the "Bonus Challenge" offered to players who perform well through the USO Series is noteworthy, and the players ignore it only because they're spoiled, and beyond the reach of the kind of financial incentives that even on a far smaller scale drive so many of our lives.
The male and female singles champions at the U.S. Open will earn a record $1.7 million this year; with the USO Series bonus incentives, those champions could walk away with an extra million ($2.7) by finishing atop the USO Series standings. And that's above and beyond the money they'll earn at the individual series events.
I know, it's funny money. Crazy money. Dough that makes you want to scream, But children are starving in Ethopia! But let's set that aside for now. It's also "who cares?" money to the Rafael Nadals and Serena Wiliamses of this world, because they're more careful about not doing things for "just" money, while the rest of us schmoes find ourselves doing all kinds of things just for money. Lucky them.
But the fact that the money is there is encouraging, and vital to the health of the game we've created and supported. If and when that money goes away, the players will dissolve into the woodwork, too. And pretty soon we'll have another one of those "Is Tennis Dying?" crises . . . Nobody cares about money when they've got it, and those who have it don't like talking about it, often for reasons that aren't particularly noble. I hope the investment in the USO Series (Olympus has been the main sponsor) continues to be considered worthwhile.
Roger Federer reaped the rewards of the Bonus Challenge in 2007, taking home $2.4 million. In 2005, Kim Clijsters was the successful double-dipper, carting off $2.2 million after she won the singles. Nice work if you can get it, but I'm not sure enough of the most eligible candidates are applying for the job anymore.
All of this leads me to take a slightly altered view of the tennis landscape today. It seems like we now have a year that's fundamentally divided in halves. The first half of the year ends, figuratively as well as literally, with the final day of Wimbledon. That concludes a competition-dense schedule featuring three Grand Slam events, and the majority of Masters Series events on a combination of the two most common surfaces, hard and clay courts. More and more, it seems, the players do the heavy lifting of career in the first half of each year.
The second half is dominated by a major event (the U.S. Open), and three lesser ones: the respective year-end championships, and the Davis and Fed Cup finals. The USO Series represents a brave and in many ways visionary attempt to invest the second half of the year with the sense of importance that exists continuously in the first half. Were it a complete success, it would certainly constitute a bold bit of entrepreneurial maneuvering and meet anyone's definition for maximizing the potential of the sport. But it's pretty clear that despite the professional, well thought out template provided by the USO Series, it's getting more and more difficult to recruit top players and build momentum—not just for the U.S. Open, but for the entire second half of the tennis year. I wish that could be different.
The downstream effect of the divided year probably is signficant. The respective WTA and ATP year-end championships have lost traction (at least until the ATP division moved to London) in the ongoing drive to convince the public that they're tennis milestones no less significant than the Grand Slam events. The amounts of money earned by the top players also hurts this effort, because it blunts their incentive in the second half. If you were a Nadal or Justine Henin, you probably wouldn't be all that eager to go out to break rocks under the hot August sun in the U.S. and Canada, either.
The situation is unlikely to change until such time as the U.S. begins to produce great champions again. English speakers, like Murray and Hewitt, are a pretty good stand-in (and they've shown pretty strong support for the hard-court circuit), but one of the great hidden byproducts of an American tennis renewal would be the impact it might have on the USO Series. Incidentally, Venus and Serena Williams have pulled their weight, although the Olympic Games schedule for 2008 pulled them off the USO Series courts. In 2009, Venus and Serena both played Stanford, Cincinnati and Canada leading up the the U.S. Open, and that's a respectable duty sheet. But it's a mind-blowing statistic that neither Williams sister has ever finished among the Top 3 in the USO Series standings going into the American major.
John Isner, Sam Querrey, Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick may energize the U.S. base this summer, but those other boys—Roger and Rafa, Andy and Novak—sure cast a long shadow.