The Shanghai Masters 1000 event has begun, launching what might be called the final quarter of the Masters year. After Shanghai, we have the Paris Indoors (another Masters 1000 event) and then the ATP World Tour Finals.
The Masters Series concept has been shown to have great legs, an attribute not to be underestimated in tennis, where even time-honored or ostensibly successful tournaments, including some very big ones, can suddenly disappear. Hamburg, once a Masters event, is gone—or at any rate demoted to an ATP 500, which is not the same thing but close enough. And we know how perilously close Indian Wells—one of the most consistently successful Masters events—was to vanishing, even though it would have been destined to pop up as a second Masters event in Asia (click here for more on that).
By and large, though, the Masters events have really matured as credible and welcome mileposts on the men’s calendar. Before the Masters concept proved it was here to stay, the ATP tour was a jumble of more-or-less equal tournaments—the more or less often a function of the size of the purse and/or the amount of money the promoters were willing to shell out to attract big names, often with under-the-table appearance fees.
That problem with “guarantees” once seemed as insoluble as it was widespread, but the Masters Series (spawned in 1990) proved to be the key to breaking the deadlock. Once the fundamental ideas behind the Masters Series were accepted and embraced (the two main pillars: mandatory participation by all the top players, and a prohibition against appearance fees), it freed up the players to maximize their extra-prize-money income opportunities for more than half the year—the weeks when there were no Grand Slam or Masters tournaments in progress. All parties agreed that they could live with that.
So the Masters seem here to stay. In the sui generis structure of men's tennis, the four most important events are not under the control of the official professional establishment (the ATP), but the Masters have become the ballast of the ATP tour—and a massive counterweight to the ITF and the power of the Grand Slams.
Nine seems to have become the magic number for Masters 1000 events, and I doubt the players would check off on adding any more. It’s also hard to imagine the elite nine tournaments who enjoy Masters status changing much, which probably is a mixed blessing—especially if Asia becomes more of a player on the international stage, or if the South Americans, who already pour so many quality players onto the tour, become disgruntled about the lack of premium events on the continent. So far, though, they haven’t helped their own cause, owing to their troubled economies and inability to make the tennis-tournament business model work.
The Masters tournaments are self-sustaining and self-mythologizing; in total they enjoy a kind of collective monopoly on the services of the top players. In the long run, that may not be such a great thing, either, as the two major shake-ups in the Masters calendars demonstrated. Who in his right mind would give up a Masters slot? The ATP itself came darned near to going belly-up because of Hamburg’s resistance to being demoted to an ATP 500, with its date pushed back to summer. That was one step of a two-part deal that also cleared room for Shanghai to operate in its present, sensible time-slot, thanks to Madrid happily vacating its fall time slot in order to take over Hamburg’s spring week.
Anyway, history demands that we acknowledge not just some randomly rotating magical Masters nine, but a solid dozen tournaments that have or had earned the distinction—including three that I like to think of as the “lost” Masters events.
The most short-lived of the lost Masters events was the Stockholm Open (a Masters from 1990 to 1994), which sounded like a good idea at the time. After all, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg (13 Grand Slam titles between them) et al were still powerful forces on tour. You can imagine the chagrin of the enthusiastic Swedes when Boris Becker crushed Edberg in the first two best-of-five set finals—without losing a set on either occasion.
The next two winners were Goran Ivanisevic and Michael Stich. Becker then drove the final spike into the hearts of the Swedes, and the final nail in the coffin of the tournament as a Masters event, when he won his third title in Stockholm in 1994. I guess the Swedes got sick of dumping money on Becker and settled for being demoted to an ATP 250—not the worst fate when you consider how reluctant some top players have become to pursuing a heavy fall schedule. The Swedes can now go out and buy one or two big names and, at least while Robin Soderling was around, have a shot at whipping up some home-town enthusiasm (and ticket sales). The last Swede to win his native championships was Thomas Johansson, who upset Andre Agassi in the 2004 final, 7-6 in the third.
The second lost Masters event was Stuttgart, or the Eurocard Open. It had a slightly longer run than Stockholm (1995 to 2001), but came to a grinding to a halt after Becker retired and German tennis went over the cliff. Stuttgart impresario Ion Tiriac was no fool; sensing a developing new market in Spain, he successfully managed to tear down his Stuttgart Masters and rebuild it in Madrid. It was step one of the two-step process by which his October indoor tournament ultimately morphed into an outdoor spring Masters—played this year on blue clay.
Becker won the first Stuttgart event, but he couldn’t plunder and pillage as he had in Stockholm. In fact, no champion was able to win Stuttgart more than once before Tommy Haas won the last Masters event there in 2001. Give the tournament credit, it stuck with the best-of-five set final to the bitter end.
The final lost Masters event, and the most notorious, is the current ATP 500 in Hamburg. From 1993 to 2009, Hamburg was a Masters event. But powerful political and commercial forces joined to more or less drive the tournament out of the elite group.
In all fairness, Hamburg appeared to be most dispensable Masters event in an overcrowded calendar (it followed immediately after two other clay Masters events, Monte Carlo and Rome, which made it one too many). Who can forget the way Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, fatigued following their epic Sunday final in Rome in 2006, simultaneously withdrew from Hamburg—which began the following day?
Ultimately, Hamburg was at the epicenter of the 2008 shake-up that resulted in a new Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai (Asia’s first), and a tweaking of calendar slots that also transformed Madrid into a spring Masters and shoehorned it into a slot between Monte Carlo and Rome (where Hamburg had once followed those two). The altered calendar was a net plus for the ATP, although it’s a shame that the casualty in these commercial and political maneuverings was one of the tennis’ great tournaments. But that’s a story for another day.