The Racquet Scientist: WTA vs. ITF
The WTA has stepped out to criticize the ITF (and, by extension, the International Olympic Committee) for changes in the qualification rules for the 2016 Olympic Games. The new procedures call for a player to make him or herself available for Davis Cup or Fed Cup at least once in each of the four years leading up to the games. The present regulations ask only that a player be available on two occasions in the two years before the games.
"Without question, the athletes and the WTA believe in a strong international team competition (sic)," WTA chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster said, according to Tennischannel.com. "They enjoy the concept of a team environment playing for their country. The WTA also believes that a strong women’s international team competition is good for our sport. Where we have a difference of opinion with the ITF is in the commitment system, which is just too much in today’s women’s professional tennis world."
First of all, if the WTA truly believes that Fed Cup is good for the sport, why wouldn't it prioritize it, rather than relegating it to the "if we can find a way to squeeze it in there" class of events?
And just how much is "too much?" That's the key question. Because the new qualification rules will certainly force some stars to take a longer, harder look at Davis Cup and Fed Cup, trying to determine how they might fit participation in either of them into their busy schedules. This ought not to be a big problem, because the vast majority of players play significantly more than the required number of mandatory tournaments for ranking purposes. This is something that never gets enough attention when we talk about the demand and commitments on the players.
Let's be frank about this: Schedules are made with two goals in mind: rankings and money. Penciling in at least one week annually for national team play, if the long-term payoff is participating in the Olympic games seems like a pretty worthwhile investment—especially when you factor in the benefits of competing in the Olympic Games.
Some will agree with the WTA that this demand is onerous, and unfair in what ought to be the pay-as-you go world of professionalism. For them, direct-entry based on rankings might seem like the only fair solution, Davis and Fed Cups be damned. But then what do you do about the rule that limits nations to only X number of players? Most pro players admit that the rule is a good thing—after all, this is the Olympics.
The other day, ITF communications specialist Barbara Travers informed TENNIS.com that: "The Olympics is not a regular tournament; it takes more than ranking to participate. In order to compete in the Olympics, every athlete must be in good standing with their national governing body. The mechanism to demonstrate the willingness to represent your country in tennis is by making yourself available to play Davis Cup by BNP Paribas or Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, something we acknowledge that most players have embraced. The reward is playing in the Olympics. . ."
Simmering behind this disagreement is the age-old tension which afflicts any number of sports that evolved into pro spectacles, from solid and often grass-roots amateur organizations like the ITF and its affiliates, including the USTA. When you lack such an organization, you can end up as merely a nativist enterprise, like American baseball and football—both great games. Those old-fashioned outfits were, and still are, essentially idealistic, even as they've grown and prospered through the professional movement; they still want to "grow the game" and celebrate things like international brotherhood through competition among nations.
Those goals are at the heart of the ITF as well as the Olympic movement. It's often in conflict with pragmatic, hard-nosed professionalism. And there's just one reason the moneymen haven't steamrolled over the vestigal amateurs like the IOC and ITF: In many sports, including tennis, that "old-guard" still owns and controls the biggest events (like the four Grand Slams). That's their reward for having been there, even when the money was not.
I have no problem with the IOC and ITF attatching these pay-to-play riders. After all, the vast majority of players are thrilled to play Davis and Fed Cup. The demands of representing their nations only seem onerous to some big stars—exactly the ones who can afford to give back to the game by playing Davis or Fed Cup.
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