Hard Going for Hard Courts

Tuesday, July 23, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

It turns out that the promoters of the Hamburg tournament, the de facto “German Open” (it’s a pity that title sponsorship fees are such a significant portion of the revenue stream), may have the last laugh after all. You’ll remember that a few years ago, Hamburg was demoted from a Masters 1000, and it was obliged to move from the European spring preceding Roland Garros into July — and to continue life as an ATP 500.

The legal battle over the down-grading of the German Open was vicious, and the wrangling brought the ATP perilously close to extinction. But the ATP won (thus enabling Madrid to become a spring Masters 1000, among other things), and the Germans were left licking their wounds.

They may still be licking, but it’s probably through smiling lips.

For Hamburg appears to be on the road to permanent residence in the best of two worlds, retaining and building on its traditional prestige while escaping some of the obligations of a Masters 1000.

Last week, all eyes were on Hamburg because attracted the greatest tennis star of them all, Roger Federer. That may seem like a mere serendipity for Hamburg, for Federer lost early at Wimbledon and declared that he needed more matches as well as a crucible for testing a new, larger-headed racquet (He’s also playing in Gstaad this week).

But those decisions by Federer also add to the growing credibility of the post-Wimbledon clay court circuit — an unlikely but increasingly viable alternative to a rest period followed by a wholesale shift to the traditional hard-court segment in the U.S.  culminating with the U.S. Open a month from now.

The U.S. Open Series began this week in Atlanta, but the architects of the game apparently never got the memo. For the European clay events are still in full swing, and will continue with at least one more tournament next week — the same week as the hard-court Washington 500.

The overlap underscores a pattern that has been developing for years now, and it reflects the changing geo-politics of pro tennis. The trend is particularly striking because it also highlights how few quality players the U.S. really has with which to populate its struggling hard-court circuit. Remember Los Angeles, the tournament that had been played at this time last year? It’s gone. Remember Indianapolis? It’s gone.

Were it not for the difficulty of changing the ATP calendar, the growth of a summer European clay circuit might even accelerate, and not just because Europeans now dominate the sport. It’s also because of the nature of the game, the environment, and the surfaces under consideration.

So let’s see what the ATP draws this week in three theoretically equal ATP 250 tournaments tell us.  In Atlanta, the top four seeds are: (in order, starting with No. 1) John Isner, Kevin Anderson, Ivan Dodig, Igor Sisling. At Gstaad, the order is: Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Janko Tipsarevic, Juan Monaco. And in Umag (Croatia), the field is led by Richard Gasquet, followed by Andreas Seppi, Fabio Fognini, Alexandr Dolgopolov.

The mean ranking of the four seeded players at each tournament is:  Gstaad, No. 16, Umag, No. 19, and Atlanta, No. 34.

Okay, Federer skews the average this year because he’s No. 5 in the world, and it’s unlikely he would have entered Hamburg had he performed at his customary level at Wimbledon. But that still doesn’t explain why the mean ranking even at Umag is roughly twice as good as that of the Atlanta seeds.

Two of the top four seeds in Atlanta are Europeans (and No. 2 Anderson is a South African who developed his game in college in the U.S.), so the generalizations go only so far. But they go far enough for us to agree that the better players are mostly Europeans, and content to stay at home on the continent even with an ATP 500 coming up (Washington, D.C.) next week, followed by two Masters 1000s, and the U.S. Open.

Of course, tennis was always an attraction in Europe (on clay) in summer. But the big capitals had shot their wads by the time Roland Garros was over. The post-Wimbledon segment consisted of small tournaments in resort communities like Gstaad, Kitzbuhel, Bastad. The circuit we have today might not exist were it not for the USTA and its growth strategy.

The USTA took the concept of a summer on clay to another level during the peak of the tennis boom. In 1977, the year Guillermo Vilas won two majors and 16 of the 31 ATP tournament he entered, his summer itinerary after Wimbledon began at Kitzbuhel, Austria, and progressed through Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky;  South Orange, N.J.; and Washington D.C. — until the grand finale in Forest Hills. All of them, including the U.S. Open, were clay-court events.

The massive shift away from that model occurred in 1978, when the USTA opened its brand-new National Tennis Center, featuring hard courts chosen partly for philosophical reasons. Because most of the courts in the U.S. were (and are) hard courts, the USTA was trying to send a populist message and grow the game.

The strategy was admirable, and it worked. But one side effect was the ultimate re-structuring of the American summer events into a hard-court circuit (the takeover of the pro tour by the ATP would also play a role in this, but it’s too complicated to go into here). With a continuing wealth of American players, the hard-court circuit flourished. In addition to Cincinnati and Los Angeles, over the years there were hard-court tournaments in Indianapolis, New Haven, Long Island and the American Kitzbuhel (a world famous ski resort), Stratton Mountain, Vermont.

The shift of emphasis in North America allowed the European clay circuit to grow. And over recent years, the increasing physicality of the game, the torrid heat and humidity of the American summer, and the growing viability of clay courts as an acceptable training surface for the present-day style on all surfaces but grass made the European clay more appealing.

Lately, players also seem to have decided that they don’t require a long run-up to the U.S. Open — or any other tournament. After all, they don’t get one at the Australian Open, and it makes no noticeable change in the pecking order. If Novak Djokovic can win the Australian Open on hard courts with no warm-up tournaments, why can’t he — or anyone else — do that at the American major?

One of the realities that emerges out of all this is the importance of the elite players. I can’t imagine anyone looking to expanding the American hard-court season with so few able players to promote and vindicate it. And the Europeans have never loved the U.S. summer for many reasons, including some cultural ones. They have a hard time appreciating the American mid-west, with its empty spaces and malls. I don’t know of any players who’s ever expressed an interest in touring a working Ohio farm.

As little as six or seven years ago, the U.S. Open Series sounded like a terrific idea and a wonderful marketing opportunity for the game. But it never really got much traction. If you want to know how to run a “series” culminating with a major, just look to the schedule preceding Roland Garros.

Who knows where all this will go? But the idea that Wimbledon will end up serving as a kind of “all-star break” between two significant clay-court segments, and the U.S. Open closer to the beginning rather than the end of a long hard-court segment, looks more and more like the emerging reality with every passing year.

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