Paying Paul

by: Peter Bodo | November 23, 2010

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by Pete Bodo

If you watched all or even some of the match between Roger Federer and Andy Murray at The Urch today (admit it, the O2 arena looks like a giant sea urchin), any dreams you may have had of Murray ripping through the field at the ATP World Tour Finals now lie shattered into tiny pieces on that blue court. So much for the Braveheart narrative.

The good news is that while the blowout loss to Federer now puts Murray under considerable pressure in his group, a resurrection is not entirely out of the question.

The other day, I wrote about my ambivalence about the WTF and wondered why it has not quite become what the original game plan called for—the ultimate year-end championships that even casual tennis fans follow, much like casual fans of other sports follow their own version of the year-end championships. To most people who might tune in during Wimbledon or the Super Saturday trainwreck at the U.S. Open, the WTF is just another tournament, or so it would seem to me, based on mere anecdotal evidence.

One immediate reason that the WTF has failed to gain the amount of traction it's sought is timing. In the eyes of all but 31/12 (that's like 24/7, but over the year) tennis fans, tennis is largely a summer sport. The Australian Open has managed to carve out something of a "fantasy" niche, giving shivering fans in much of the U.S. and Europe hope that summer indeed will be back, hard as it may be to believe in late January. But largely, and partly because of the calendar slots of the three other majors, the interest in tennis is photo-periodic. That is, it peaks during the hours when the sun shines longest and strongest.

Still, that's only a small part of the equation. Let's remember that back when today's WTF final was played in New York, in January, it did garner a degree of attention and resonance that has yet to be duplicated. Granted, through most of those years (1977-89), the Australian Open was the end-of-the-year major. The "Grand Prix Masters" (as the WTF was then known) occupied a niche that has since been taken over by the Australian Open. Sure, it seemed a little weird to have what amounted to the year-end playoffs of any given year played at the start of the next year, but it worked. And New York-area fans, recuperating from the holidays and missing tennis, supported the event. The intense media interest (a sign of the times) helped make it a success as well.

Before we go into what happened next, let's address another component in the thus far failed strategy to make the the WTF something I called would call the "Ultra Major," much like the Super Bowl is the ultimate football bowl game. That's these crazy name changes.

At various times the event—and we won't even debate the wisdom of awarding title-sponsorship to an event of this magnitude, although it is done here and there in other sports—has been called the Grand Prix Masters, the ATP World Tour Championships and the Tennis Masters Cup. Which is it, fellas? It's not like Wimbledon has been variously known as The British Open (which it most certainly is), the UK Championships, the All-England Club Grass Court Finals or even the Throwdown in SW 19. And there isn't a more identifiable "brand" in tennis than Wimbledon. That ought to tell you something.

Anyway, what happened next was that the German tennis boom created by Boris Becker and Steffi Graf flooded the tennis market with Deutschemarks, and the ATP (among others) couldn't resist. The original concept that launched the WTF in 1970 called for the tournament to travel from one major city to another, annually. Tokyo, Barcelona, Boston and Stockholm were among the host sites. That lasted until the move to New York seven years later, when the allure of Madison Square Garden and the marketability of stars like Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe proved sponsor friendly.

Given the way the event took root in New York, the move to Germany (Frankfurt, then Hanover) seems like a short-sighted money grab. But it's also true that the New York event, what with the Australian Open becoming a late-January event and declining sponsor and fan interest in Gotham, had outlived its usefulness. The mistake, if it can be called that, was that absent a native German competitor, the necessary degree of support for the event was unsustainable. Still, the event was held in in Frankfurt for six years, and Hanover for another four.

By then, we had a real theme: the year-end championships was going to follow the money. If that sounds distasteful, keep in mind that tennis is a nomadic sport, and the ATP was doing pretty much the same thing the Great Plains Indians did as they followed the buffalo. Still, it might have been wiser for the ATP to narrow the options it would entertain, and develop a plan that was either nomadic or sedentary, but not both. After the German experiment, the ATP went nomadic again. The first ATP WTF after Hanover was in Lisbon; the next one in Sydney. Shanghai (2002) and Houston (2003 and 2004) then got in the mix before Shanghai won out and hosted the event from 2005 until the move to the present site, the Urch (London), in 2009.

Can a nomadic people adapt to a sedentary life? In general, not very successfully. Yet the sedentary life has proven to be the most viable in tennis, as the four majors and any number of successful Masters 1000 events can attest. These name and venue changes have all damaged the ambitions of the ATP. Is there a less identifiable "brand" in any sport than the official year-end playoffs of tennis?

There's hope. Perhaps the Urch will become the "new" Madison Square Garden for tennis, which would be a great coup and a positive development for tennis. And that's partly why I found this news about the longer off-season in tennis discouraging. If you notice, one of the extra weeks that will now make it a seven-week ATP off-season for the ATP was won at the expense of the WTF, because all the ATP did was eliminate the week of rest between Bercy, the final Masters 1000, and the WTF.

That the top players would sign off on this tells me that they don't really care all that much about the WTF. It's like they said, "Yeah, yeah, take away that season-extending week of rest; we just want to get out of Dodge." Can you imagine the reaction if the ATP had tried to wedge a Masters 1000 in the week before a Grand Slam event? This is nothing short of robbing Peter to pay Paul, the WTF being the "Peter" in this scenario.

Well, it's their tour. But don't blame me if, as 2011 winds down, support for the WTF among the top players begins to wane and we have a re-hash of all those past stories about the brutal schedule, injuries, the need for a longer off-season, etc. And the bigger long-term issue is how this might affect the promotion and success of the WTF. The tournament has gotten off to a great start—wasn't it great to see that crowded arena, with those roving searchlights (I keep thinking somebody stole a pocketbook and they called in the helicopters), and all the other trappings of what passes today for a magnum caliber sporting event?

The progress made by the move to the O2 is now seriously threatened by this change in the calendar, but this is business as usual if you look at the history of the WTF. I see only one way to break this pattern. First, settle on a name and stick with it. Then, get the players together and ask them if they want to develop the WTF into the Ultra Slam, or are content with the status quo. Until then, the ATP will continue spinning its wheels, and staging a year-end playoffs that can't deliver the same goods we get in comparable events in other sports.

P.S. Well, this is becoming something of a series, so I'll finish up tomorrow or Thursday with some thoughts on the format of the WTF.

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