A Series of Sufferings

by: Peter Bodo | July 18, 2014

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Don't expect Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to play any more events than they have to before the U.S. Open. (AP Photo)

This admittedly isn’t the best of times for U.S. tennis. It seems like the bad news outweighs the good news time and again, at least on the men’s side of the ledger. Given how mired down the nation is in mediocrity, even an idea that once looked like a sure winner—the U.S. Open Series—seems increasingly irrelevant.

It does, however, provide an awfully nice paycheck to some lucky winners of this linkage between American hard-court events.

The Series consists of nine total events, including two ATP Masters 1000 tournaments and two WTA Premier 5 tournaments (Canada and Cincinnati). It has a dedicated and unobtrusive sponsor in Emirates Airlines. The aggregate may not have the heft of, say, the European clay-court season—which in jest I sometimes like to call the Roland Garros Series—but it’s a significant number of tournaments and the payoff is nothing to sneeze at: A cool million dollars for a player who finishes atop the Series standings and also wins the U.S. Open (as Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams did last year).

The top three finishers of either gender all earn bonus money at the U.S. Open, based on how they perform at Flushing Meadows. In addition to that ultimate million dollar payoff for the winner of both, a U.S. Open finalist who also finished second in the Series collects an additional $250,000. The smallest check would go to a player who finished third in the series but lost in the first round of the U.S. Open: $3,750, which is decent pocket change when you’re looking at two weeks of walking around New York.

The architect of the U.S. Open Series concept was the former CEO of USTA Professional Tennis, Arlen Kantarian. He clearly hoped to encourage participation by the top stars in the North American segment, despite the sometimes brutal heat and humidity, and the wear and tear associated with hard courts. But he also saw the benefits of creating a compelling, ongoing narrative and synergistic relationship between the summer events and the ESPN television network.

Kantarian and I sometimes talked about how the tour is organized. I know that he was intrigued by the idea of creating four distinct circuits, each built around a Grand Slam event. The tournaments would accrue value (based on prize money and player participation) and ultimately create a kind of super-circuit, with journeymen players vying to make it onto the main tour. I suppose he was willing to go up against the Masters Series concept to achieve his ends.

Launched with great fanfare in 2004, the U.S. Open Series was judged credible in the States, but the Europeans merely shrugged and said, “Whatever.” Had the balance of power not been in the process of swinging toward Europe at an accelerating pace, it might not have mattered. But as the wellspring of American talent began to go dry, the U.S. Open Series began to lose momentum.

Now a decade old, only four players have bagged the ultimate bonus by finishing atop the Series standings and also winning the U.S. Open. It’s a quality list, too: Williams and Nadal (both last year), and Kim Clijsters (2005) and Roger Federer (2007).

This attests to the degree-of-difficulty offered by the Series, but in a not-entirely-satisfying way. I can sum up the problem in two words: Mardy Fish. As good a player as he was, Fish won the U.S. Open series in 2011, and you know who won the U.S. Open that year. The same guy who, up to that point, had won nearly everything else he took a whack at, Novak Djokovic.

The problem for the U.S. Open series is simple: You can do awfully well by merely showing up. Sam Querrey has won the Series, as have Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki, and Andy Roddick. Among them, only Roddick is a Grand Slam champion.

Furthermore, American men have won four of the 10 editions of this challenge, which paints an unrealistically rosy picture of the U.S. game. Meanwhile, only two American women have finished atop the standings. That tells you how much more support WTA players from outside the U.S. lend to the hard-court segment.

There’s nothing wrong with sweetening the pot for players at U.S. tournaments and having Americans walk off with a large share of the dough; it’s just marketing, and a valiant effort to create enthusiasm for the game at home. But the approach seems destined to yield a series of sufferings at a time when the elite players are earning enormous amounts and the demands of the game are such, or perceived as such, that the best pros would rather cut back than add tournaments to a schedule.

Oddly, Nadal has kept us from fully comprehending this trend because of his year-in, year-out loyalty to the spring Euroclay circuit. Once Nadal loses that enthusiasm, we’ll see what we really have—a top tour of about a dozen events: The Grand Slams and the big events the elite players are obligated to enter. Those top players will make periodic visits to the lesser events—the ATP 500s and 250s, and WTA Internationals—but mostly to pick up some extra cash or scramble for ranking points.

Take the case of Djokovic, who is probably more representative than Nadal of where the game is going. Djokovic played nothing before the 2013 Australian Open, yet he won the event. He did play all three Masters 1000s on red clay in Europe, but nothing before Wimbledon (where he lost the final to Andy Murray). Djokovic also played the two hard-court Masters in North America preceding the U.S. Open, where he was beaten by Nadal in the final. In other words, Djokovic played no tune-up events before the majors that weren’t mandatory.

Federer is another interesting example. He’s free from the constraints of mandatory Masters participation due to his record and age. That same year (2013), Federer played just three Masters tune-ups, skipping Monte Carlo and even Canada. He did, however, take part in Halle, a grass-court ATP 250, which sheds light on his priorities.

The Euroclay circuit is Nadal’s personal playground, but the emerging trend is clear: The top players feel that when it comes to tune-up events, less is more. And that’s bad news for an entity like the U.S. Open Series, even if its other laudable goals of the series—a coherent television package, increased participation—remain worthwhile.

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