LONDON—You know it’s been a long day at a Slam when the biggest story is about two guys not playing tennis, and another one not wanting to play tennis.
It was one of those afternoons at Wimbledon on Tuesday. The day started out promisingly, with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic on the Centre Court schedule together. But neither stuck around for long. Djokovic won his first-round match in 40 minutes when Martin Klizan, who had his lower left leg taped when he walked on court, retired down 3-6, 0-2. It took Federer just three minutes and one game longer to get through his own first-rounder when Alexandr Dolgopolov, after speaking to the trainer during a couple of changeovers, retired with an ankle injury down 3-6, 0-3.
Instead, the day’s epic event happened not on the court, but in the interview room. That’s where a backwards-hat-wearing Bernard Tomic, fresh off of an indifferent straight-set loss to Mischa Zverev, poured his disinterested, angst-ridden heart out.
“I felt a little bored out there, you know, to be completely honest with you,” Tomic said.
“I’m still 24, and it’s tough to find motivation,” he continued, rising to his depressing theme. “I just couldn’t find anything. It’s happened to me a lot. I couldn’t care less if I make a fourth-round U.S. Open or I lose first round. To me, everything is the same.”
If this were someone other than Bernie, who once took a swing at a return with the handle of his racquet and who likes to describe himself as “set for life”—he also admitted that, “For sure, I don’t do the right work”—I might say that this is what happens when a tiny group of elite players dominate the Grand Slams so thoroughly. Are there other players whose motivation is sapped because they feel as if they can only rise so far, that reaching the fourth round at a major is the best they can hope to do? That’s a question for another day and a different person.
Only when Tomic was asked if he would give his prize money back did he snap out of his self-lacerating reverie and turn defiant. He said he would consider giving it to charity if “Roger and Novak” do.
As far-fetched as that scenario is, the question of accepting first-round prize money for less than full effort has been an issue at the majors since those tournaments began significantly increasing their payouts, and in particular their first-round payouts, five years ago. After steady raises, Wimbledon’s first-round losers now walk away with 35,000 euros. That’s far more than smaller tournaments can offer. If you reached the semifinals at the grass-court tune-up event in Stuttgart this year, you netted 3,000 fewer euros than someone who retired in the first round at Wimbledon. It’s easy to see the temptation for an injured pro to show up, start a first-round match, qualify for the money and call it a day. After all, if he doesn’t earn prize money, he doesn’t get paid at all.
There are withdrawals at every tournament, of course, and at some majors there are very few of them and the problem never comes up. By the time this fortnight is over, we may hardly even remember having talked about this issue. The players’ defense has always been that anyone who has a ranking high enough to get direct entry into a Slam has earned that prize money over the course of the year, and that’s fair. But it’s also fair for a spectator who has paid god-knows-how-much for Centre Court seats to expect to see a completed men’s match (or even two) for his or her ticket. The Slams, the game’s highest-profile events, are the last place where retirements should run rampant.
“The question always is,” Federer said on Tuesday, “should they have started the match at all? That, only the player can answer really, in my opinion. You hope that they would give up their spot for somebody else, even though they deserve to be in there.”
Either way, an attempt at a solution would seem to be long overdue. Jack Kramer, the crusty old men’s tour promoter, thought that first-round losers should get no prize money at all. Asked about it on Tuesday, Djokovic endorsed the idea of paying an injured player the first-round prize money and letting a healthy lucky loser take his or her place in the draw.
“I support that kind of rule,” Djokovic said.
It’s a common-sense concept that the ATP has embraced, but it hasn’t been instituted at the majors.
As I said, this is an issue that will likely vanish once the first round is over, but it would be nice not to have to confront it at the start of the next Slam. As for Tomic, he’s here to stay. He said on Tuesday that, despite feeling “super old,” as he put it, he’s going to be around for 10 more years. Let’s hope that when he looks back at 34, he sees this as a low point.
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