Not With a Bang But a Whimper
Undoubtedly, many of you are familiar with the T.S. Eliot line I borrowed for the headline of this piece. Although it’s one of the most overused and mis-used of quote, it pertains to the WTA’s calendar — again. It’s September 29th, and for the rest of the year only one of the top eight women is entered in more than one tournament (apart from the obligatory and rich year-end WTA Championships in Istanbul).
The exception is Caroline Wozniacki, who’s ranked No. 8 but is in only 14thplace in the “Race to Istanbul” points table. But even she also has just two tournaments left on her schedule (Beijing and Luxembourg). The ATP has also had his share of autumn blues, but let’s face it — Federer at age 32 has certainly earned his right to spend his time lying on a carpet, making daddy goo-goo faces for his daughters. And Andy Murray’s decision to undergo minor back surgery is as good a “note from the doctor” as anyone can ask.
I’m not in the habit of comparing men’s and women’s tennis, but I think it’s relevant to this discussion of the fall schedule. Even Federer is playing two tournaments before the ATP World Tour Finals this fall despite being free of commitment obligations, while Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic each are planning to take part in three running up to the World Tour Finals. It’s impressive — and amusing — that Nadal is playing the Swiss Indoors ATP 500 instead of the Paris Masters 1000, although it makes sense in a number of ways; clearly, the thirst for Nadal vs. Federer battles remains unslaked.
By contrast, the women’s tour has more or less gone dark. The usher sweeping up already, and the maintenance crew is searching for lost items. It may sound like a harsh judgment, but let’s face it: Serena Williams has clinched the No. 1 ranking for the year, No. 2 Victoria Azarenka has played one match since the U.S. Open — and has just one more regular season tournament on her docket (this week’s China Open in Beijing), and No. 3 Maria Sharapova is, like Murray, out with injury. The WTA Tour has basically run out of steam and is limping toward Istanbul.
The differences cited may not seem that great. But consider that the average tournament workload of the WTA star is significantly lighter than that of an ATP hero (I sure wish someone would calculate the average on-court time, per match, for both tours). WTA No. 1 Serena Williams has a healthy 15 events under her belt, and will finish with 17. ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic will probably end up with 20 events played. WTA No. 2 Victoria Azarenka has played just 11 events this year (and will be done at 14), while her No. 2 counterpart Rafael Nadal is already at 14 events — before he even begins his fall slog (I’m counting Davis Cup and Fed Cup ties as events for all concerned).
As well, the men have a few resonant story lines going into the home stretch of the year, but the women have none — not since Williams clinched the year-end top spot the other day. Moreover, the U.S. Open final definitively settled the question of who’s number one for 2013 regardless of what the computer kicks out — or what happens in Istanbul.
This wasn’t exactly what the WTA honchos had in mind when they carved out a longer off-season with the 2010 “Roadmap,” a tweak meant to address a perfect storm created by injury complaints (which are hard to verify), burn-out (the unexpected decisions by Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, two of the game’s greatest stars, to retire), and a nagging lack of interest that led many top players to pull out of events to which they were promised, all of which add up to make it seem like the WTA is an outfit that can’t deliver what it promised.
If you read between the lines of the Roadmap, you could also see that the WTA was trying to make the most of what it did have in the fall, a season that’s always been a tough sell. With the tennis year shortened significantly, the tour was hoping for increased fall participation. It hasn’t happened.
It’s also worth noting that not all Premier events are created equal. The Indian Wells Premier event offers $6 million in prize money and 1000 ranking points for the winner; the only fall event that comes even close to that is Beijing (China Open) at $5.1 million, while the Moscow (Kremlin Cup) Premier has prize money of just $795,000 — and a winner’s take of 470 points. The ATP Moscow event, which runs simultaneously with the WTA Premier event, is (justly) an ATP 250.
What’s interesting here is that the WTA worked long, hard, and successfully at creating a longer off-season, all of it carved out of the fall. But it’s awfully hard to see what benefit has been gained through this novel approach, in which reducing opportunities was somehow presented as a sign of, and stimulant for, growth.
Meanwhile, all the hand-wringing about burnout and the demands of the game has vanished. Older players have been winning big titles more frequently than ever before in the history of Open tennis. Now, that’s a bang, not a whimper. Too bad it doesn’t echo this far into the calendar.
If you enjoy reading Pete Bodo at TENNIS.com, you might also be interested in his latest novel, The Reckoning. A revised version of this father-son story set in the Rocky Mountains has just been issued by e-publisher Diversion Books. Click here for more on this grand adventure tale, or to download the book.