The Fifth Major

Thursday, March 14, 2013 /by

In my last conversation with Ion Tiriac, the man behind the blue clay at last year’s Madrid Open, he characteristically cut right to the chase while we were talking about the future of his tournament and said, “Where is it written that there can be only four Grand Slam tournaments?”

For some reason, the remark stayed with me, less because I think there ought to be more tournaments officially recognized as “majors” than because the rhetorical question is a good one—it really illustrates how our flotilla of four Grand Slams evolved more or less by accident, yet ended evolution.

As fond as I am of the majors, I can’t think of anything game-related that calls for those four tournaments to be the “crown jewels” of tennis—other than tradition. It’s not like, say, the Super Bowl, or the World Cup, a pair of events that are supreme in a truly relevant way: They determine an indisputable champion in their respective sports. That can’t be said of any of the majors.

Also, the four majors no longer reflect the geopolitical realities of tennis to nearly the same degree they once did. They just happened to be the tournaments that were in the right place at the right time—and with the right leadership—as the game evolved. You tell me why Paris, and not Rome, Madrid, or Frankfurt, ended up hosting the clay-court major.

We understand these subtexts, which is why the subject of a “fifth major” comes up from time to time. Butch Buchholz, the mastermind behind the Miami Masters, hoped to turn his event into that elusive “fifth major.” He subsequently had to tamp down his enthusiasm and settle for “the Grand Slam of Latin America.”

Tiriac would like for Madrid to become that coveted fifth major. And the ATP has tried to shape its year-end World Tour Finals into the equivalent of a Grand Slam event, while standing apart from the majors for a variety of reasons—including tennis politics.

These efforts were not exclusively commercial or self-interested. People want to build new things. They want to earn accolades as pioneers and game-changers. They want to leave a legacy. In a basic way, the most successful people in tennis also hope to move the game forward. It’s fair to ask: Why should we be stuck with the same four Grand Slams when so many other major sports have continued to evolve, and find new audiences and approaches to how they do new business?

Well, I’m here to tell you that we don’t need a fifth major. We already have one. It’s going on right now, in the California desert at Indian Wells.

At the moment, the tournament may not meet all the requirements of a major, but every one of those shortcomings (beginning with the 10-day format and the byes in the draw) are an easy fix—should the lords of tennis have the will to do it. The big stuff, it’s all already all in place.

The main stadium at Indian Wells seats 16,100—the second largest dedicated tennis stadium in the world, after Arthur Ashe stadium in New York (and another new permanent stadium is on the way). The spacious site covers over 50 acres, and the tournament this year is sure to surpass its attendance record of 370,000 (by comparison, Wimbledon’s attendance last year was 484,805). The tournament draws those fans from a deep, traditional, knowledgeable local pool, as well as visitors to the popular Palm Springs area tourist destinations.

And in Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle and one of the richest men on the planet, the tournament has an owner who can act as unilaterally as he would like, much like other successful entrepreneur-promoters, including George Steinbrenner and Mark Cuban. Ellison is utterly dedicated to continuing the spectacular growth rate established by the original owners of the event, former ATP pros Charlie Pasarell and Ray Moore. The potential is enormous.

For those reasons, the ITF and the four self-interested Grand Slam nations (Australia, France, England and the United States) are crazy not to embrace Indian Wells as a major. Can you imagine the long-term rewards for tennis if the required tweaks (starting with a two-week, 128-player draw) were implemented?

Sure, a fifth major in Indian Wells would be somewhat inconvenient for, among others, the Miami Masters and the tournaments that immediately precede Indian Wells. But the long term gains for tennis in general probably would substantially outweigh the costs to the affected constituents. Begin with the buzz and instant credibility generated by the decision to bestow Grand Slam status on a tournament for the first time in over a century.

I’ll also say this—if Indian Wells continues to grow so robustly, it will make the four traditional majors look like low performers. And that’s another good reason to bring the tournament into the Grand Slam fold.

Some people might automatically bridle at the idea of another Grand Slam, or another major in the U.S.—wouldn’t Spain, and perhaps even Argentina, be more deserving?—or even at the notion of another hard court mega-event. But let’s look at some of the circumstances:

1. The lag time between the Australian Open and Roland Garros is too long, and the back-to-back hard-court Masters at Indian Wells and Miami don’t amount to the best scheduling.

2. Rafael Nadal may be on a personal, anti-hard court crusade—although he’s been a voluble supporter of Indian Wells—but his peers in the Big Four as well as other marquee names aren’t cementophobes. Hard courts are not just here to stay, they will probably continue to dominate the tour for many reasons, including economic ones.

3. While American success in tennis is on the wane, tennis fans in the nation are abundant and wealthy. You could argue for another Grand Slam in the fall in Asia (it would also be on a hard court) for a number of reasons, including promoting tennis multi-culturalism. But a real fan base and tennis culture doesn’t yet exist there. Beijing, Shanghai, and Tokyo host fine tournaments, but none of them have anything like the resources, global media positioning, and track record of Indian Wells.

4. We know that the fall circuit isn’t going to dissolve into a utopian three-month off-season some would like to see. At the same time, players don’t really want to be preparing for yet another stressful Grand Slam after the concentrated three-and-a-half month summer tennis “season.”

Let’s also look at the current Masters tournaments, and see how they would shape up as candidates should the world suddenly demand a fifth major:

Miami: Although it was more successful out of the gate than Indian Wells, the west-coast event has been pulling away lately. European players—who rule the game, if you haven’t noticed—really prefer Indian Wells to Miami. The Florida event has successfully established great relations with South American players and—more important—an enormous base of Spanish-speaking fans. But trying to expand on Key Biscayne would be fraught with legal and political obstacles.

Monte Carlo: The facilities are already stressed with a one-week event at this private club. Besides, would you really want to start the clay-court season with a major?

Madrid: Tiriac has aspirations to challenge Roland Garros, but it seems a perverse, doomed effort. He’s got the facility (the Caja Magica), but not the crowds (thus far). And really, would the world welcome another clay-court major mere weeks before the start of the French Open?

Rome: See above. The big European clay-court events all have a common problem—they’re already part of a highly successful “Roland Garros Series” that leads up to the clay-court major. Leave well enough alone, most people would say.

Toronto/Montreal: Nobody, but nobody, wants to play two Grand Slams during the peak of the North American summer, especially not having just endured the Roland Garros/Wimbledon double.

Cincinnati: See above.

Shanghai: The ATP abandoned Shanghai as the site of the World Tour Finals some years ago, partly because the event just didn’t resonate in the tennis capitals of the world. And as I wrote above, the players aren’t looking to have a major in the fall. That market needs to mature.

Paris (Bercy): John McEnroe used to say that the tour ought to have an indoor major, but the logistical problems posed by having a two-week indoor event are formidable. Besides, who would want an indoor major followed by the ATP World Tour Finals on an already overcrowded schedule? Certainly not the players.

So there you have it. Let me repeat that while I don’t think the game desperately needs another major, I believe it already has something very close to one in Indian Wells. Why not exploit this tremendous asset by recognizing it as such? It wouldn’t take a whole lot of figuring, or impose a whole lot of hardship, to take full advantage of the potential. It’s time to recognize and act on the opportunity.

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