Time to See the World

Thursday, November 07, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Every tennis tournament has its season. Here in the northeastern corner of the United States, we watch the Australian Open in the middle of the night, hunkered down against the cold. Wimbledon comes along, appropriately enough, in the high heat and lush green freedom of summer. The U.S. Open, which is traditionally sweltering the first week and brisk the second, marks the start of the slow turn toward autumn. Tennis is a game of individuals, yes, but it’s also a game of times and places. Fans know what season it is by the tournament that's being played. Many of us don’t feel like it’s truly spring until that glorious day in April when we see the Mediterranean sparkle from the top of the Monte Carlo Country Club.

What about the ATP’s last event of the year, the World Tour Finals? It’s the tour’s crown jewel and celebratory showcase, so you would think it would come with its own seasonal associations. But because the tournament has moved from month to month, continent to continent, and name to name over the course of its 44 years, it’s not so easy to pin down. In the 1970s and 80s, when it was held at Madison Square Garden in New York, the event occupied an out-of-the-way spot on the sports calendar, just after the end-of-year holidays. But in its own way, it worked. The Masters lifted the gloom of January just a little. Watching, it almost felt like you were in Manhattan for Christmas.

In its first years in London, the tournament livened up the long and often dry Thanksgiving weekend in the States. Finally, we had an alternative to Detroit Lions football. Now that the ATP schedule has been shortened, the World Tour Finals has moved forward three weeks, to a nondescript early November time slot. At first, I thought the WTF would cease to mark any particular moment at all, but I was wrong. This year it began on the first weeknight after we turned our clocks back an hour in the U.S. (or, in most cases, we allowed them to turn back automatically). This is normally a dire day, when you begin to walk home from work in blackness, the inevitability of winter smacking you in the face the whole way. But it’s also, as I’ve discovered over the last four days, a pretty good week to watch the World Tour Finals. 

There’s a silver lining to everything, right? In the case of winter’s onset, there’s two. The cold outside means that the heat comes on inside, so you get to enjoy the sensation of warming up. And the early darkness means you don't feel guilty about pouring your evening Martini just a little earlier. Once those things have been achieved, you can sit down and watch the matches you’ve taped from the day in London. Fittingly, there’s a cold outside/warm inside vibe to the O2 Arena, which is echoed in the theatrical lighting that shrouds the audience in darkness but leaves the court a bright blue. I’m not sure what it feels like to be in the crowd there, but the effect works well on TV. The smoke-machine introductions, the sharply dressed court officials, the players’ families gathered in the stands: The tour has succeeded in giving the World Tour Finals the feel of a special event without being tacky about it. And as with all indoor tournaments, the elements—sun, wind, cold, heat, cold—and the unpredictability they bring are out of play here. What you get, all you get, is tennis.

This lighting and presentation was something new for the sport when the World Tour Finals came to London in 2009. It made tennis look serious and glamorous at the same time, and has been such a hit that the tournament's stay in the city has been extended to 2015. The ATP, which puts the event on with AEG, is happy with London from a financial perspective. There’s enough local interest to sell out the 17,500 seat stadium twice a day for a week. Barclays, the British bank, is the title sponsor. And the European TV audience is well-served by the location, which is something you couldn’t say for the previous host city, Shanghai. 

Yet traditionally the tournament, in an attempt to grow interest in the game globally, has moved from city to city, and there’s been some talk this week that it should get back to that tradition. Novak Djokovic, for one, would like to see the World Tour Finals go on the road again.

“It would promote it around the world,” said Djokovic, who thinks that a three-year residency in a city makes sense. “It would be even better if we get to be more creative with this tournament.” 

It’s easy to imagine, for example, a highly successful and exciting World Tour Finals in South America, which has never staged a tennis event of that magnitude. Last winter fans in Brazil and Argentina gave Federer and Nadal explosive welcomes when the two of them made rare appearances there.

Speaking of Rafa, he also wants the tournament to make a change: to its surface. Not surprisingly, he would like it to be played on clay.

“We qualify on all the surfaces,” Nadal says, “so it would be great to change the surface every year.”

Of course, the player this change would help the most would be Rafael Nadal. He’s never won the World Tour Finals, in part, he believes, because he has always had to play it on indoor hard courts, the worst setting for him. Of Nadal’s 60 career titles, only one of them has come indoors, in Madrid in 2005.

The 27-year-old Rafa says he’s thinking more about future players than he is of himself. Whoever he’s talking about, he does have a point. This season, 22 of the ATP’s 65 tournaments—just over a third—were played on clay, and it’s a common surface in the game’s current hotbed, Europe. The year-end tournament has only been played outdoors three times in four decades, and never on dirt. Tradition and late-year weather have kept it on indoor hard, but it wouldn’t be impossible either to move it to a warm location or build an indoor clay court. It’s something to consider.

It was left to Federer to defend the current set-up. This shouldn’t be a surprise, either. He loves the great indoors almost as much as Rafa loves clay, and London has always been good to him. Twenty of Federer’s 77 career titles have come indoors, and that percentage has risen in the last few years. Six of those wins happened at the year-end championships.

“I truly believe the World Tour Finals should stay indoors,” Federer says, “and I think indoors deserves a great event. I kind of secretly hope it could stay here at the O2.”

Federer, citing the Madrid Masters' move from indoor hard to outdoor clay in 2009, believes the indoor season has already dwindled too much. And it’s true, looking back over 30 years, it’s amazing how much less tennis is played inside. When the sport first went professional in the 1970s, it moved out of cramped, old-line tennis clubs and into hulking modern sports arenas; that was where the big-money future was. John McEnroe won 51 of his 77 career titles indoors. (We talk about how slower courts have helped hasten the demise of the serve-and-volleyer; you have to think the switch from indoor to outdoor has had its effect as well. The controlled conditions indoors typically help power servers. A topic for another day...)

Federer defended the indoor season by saying that matches don’t get delayed, and tournaments are more orderly for players and spectators—“you know what you’re getting into,” as he put it. Like both Djokovic and Nadal, he has a point. One of the nice things about the World Tour Finals this week has been knowing exactly when a match is going to go off. And an indoor space can be an enhanced space; that theatrical lighting at the O2 wouldn’t be possible outside.

So which of the Big 3 is right? As I wrote at the top, tennis is about events, and having this one in London for so long has allowed it to become another recognizable stop on the calendar, with its own winter-season associations. In the end, though, that success only makes me sympathize and agree with Djokovic’s desire to get the World Tour Finals on the move again. His words—“it would be even better if we could get more creative with this tournament”—are too tempting to ignore.

The bar has been set high in London, and it would be easy, and profitable, to stay at the O2. Taking the World Tour Finals anywhere else would be a risk, and would be second-guessed if fans and sponsors in another city don't respond. The pressure to produce something spectacular would be high. But if the ATP can do so well in the U.K., I’d love to see what it could pull off in Rio or Berlin or Buenos Aires or Amsterdam or San Francisco or Capetown or even at the Barclays Center in my home borough of Brooklyn. It’s a big world, and tennis is watched all around it.

If the tournament goes to clay at some point, that would be great, but it doesn’t seem essential to me. What’s essential is creating what has been created at the O2: An atmosphere that brings us tennis with a twist and a flavor and a look that it has never quite had in the past. The rest of the sport’s big events are immovable, and set in their ways. That's fine; we get a sense of history from that—spring should always start in Monte Carlo. But the World Tour Finals is the one men's tournament that doesn’t have to look the same every year. Most tennis events connect us to the past; this one connects us to the future. In 2016, we should uphold tradition and send it somewhere new.

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