Did A Perfect Storm Lead to the Hegemony of the Big Four? - UBITENNIS
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Did A Perfect Storm Lead to the Hegemony of the Big Four?

skip schwarzman

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As the 2018 season ramps up, and notwithstanding the ATP year end finals, we all marvel at the year’s results from Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer. Here is a moment’s pause to consider their unprecedented reign at the top of the tennis world along with Djokovic and Murray and, perhaps to a great degree, how it came to pass.

 

A quick statement of historical fact: the domination of either the men’s or women’s field by such a small group as Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Murray has never happened before in the history of the game. Ever. Most of us are familiar with the numbers, but here’s a brief summary:

  • Since 2004 no one outside the group has held the #1 men’s ranking, period, at any time during the year.
  • Between them they’ve won 50 of the 56 singles titles at the Grand Slam tournaments since the group’s first Grand Slam title, Federer’s Wimbledon title in 2003.
  • They’ve taken 3 out of 4 Olympic gold medals in singles since that first Grand Slam title.
  • There have been 130 Masters tournaments played since Federer’s ’03 win at Wimbledon; the four have taken 101 of the titles.
  • Since 2005 the Big Four have won 84% of the combined Grand Slam, Masters, and main tour ATP tournaments played.

Whew.

How is this possible?

It is easy to say they are supremely talented. It’s accurate. We could leave it at that. There is nothing false about the statement.

At the same time there has been a convergence of changes in tennis – some organic, others with intentional goals – that have helped the Big Four make history this way. Like a hot house environment for creating new varieties of flowers, the world of pro tennis became fertile ground for an intensification of a particular style of play; advances in equipment led to stroke production changes, and when changes in playing conditions and tournament structures were added to that mix they all blossomed into modern tennis, and we got the junta we call the Big Four.

Consider:

Racquet head size

 Radical changes in equipment make their greatest impact via the young athletes who start out learning the game with the new gear; they are the ones best able to exploit the advantages afforded by the newness, having fewer habits to break that are based on the old tech.

As an example:

  • the oversized racquet was introduced in 1975
  • Pam Shriver was the first to use one in a Grand Slam tournament final, in 1978.
  • Michael Chang, 3 years old in 1975, was the first to take a major title with an oversized frame, winning the French in 1989.

It took 14 years for the bigger head racquet to come of age in the pro game.

The strings

1997: Gustavo Kuertan introduces Luxilon polyester strings to the ATP in a big, big way, winning his first of 3 French Open titles. When asked what Lux did for his game, Guga answered, “Three French Open, one Masters Cup.”

The poly strings gave players the previously unheard of ability to swing hard, really hard, and keep the ball in play. The more successful a player’s technical adaptation to the strings the more the ball stayed in court when cracked explosively. The most obvious result?: the Nadal forehand and all its progeny (e.g., Sock, Edmund).

To see the converse, watch Eddie Dibbs’ forehand in this 1976 match against Cliff Drysdale. Dibbs’ forehand grip and swing don’t look odd or old-fashioned to the modern eye, but with a wood racquet and gut strings he didn’t have the option of repeatedly explosive forehands. The equipment didn’t make it possible. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to, or that it hadn’t been thought of, it just couldn’t be done. Yet.

1997: Federer is 16 years old, Nadal is 11, Djokovic and Murray are both 10; all young enough to take the raw clay of Kuertan’s strings’ potential and mold it into tennis’ new technical and tactical paradigm.

A Word About Details That Never Mattered Before 

Once we mention racquet head speed it’s worth a moment’s pause to give credit to aerodynamics in racquet design. If one’s searching for the holy grail of ultimate swing speed, and who isn’t these days, fine tuning a racquet’s aero qualities begins to be worthwhile, ergo sticks like the Babolat Aero Drive model line. Maybe we could have swung 65 square inch head wood racquets fast enough to create spin, but with their tiny sweet spots we’d never have found it profitable. Once frames could be made narrow, and racquet throats open, aero became valuable.

The ATP tour changes the field of play, literally

This is the breakdown of tournament court surfaces between 1990 and 2017:

1990: hard 31 (37.8%) / clay 28 34.1%) / grass 5 (6.1%) / carpet 18 (22%)

2017: hard 39 (56.5%) / clay 22 (31.9%) / grass 8 (11.6%) / carpet 0 (0%)

Though this sampling of just two specific years of ATP results is far from an exhaustive survey, I believe that overall they support this argument:

  1. Racquet sports are more fundamentally defensive than the more pervasive, big time sporting contests. You have to score points in football of any type, basketball, hockey, and baseball; without scoring a point the best you can do is tie. In tennis, like all racquet sports, all you need to do is not miss, continually, and you will win.
  2. The reward for playing defensively increases as the conditions make it easier to get a ball back in play. After considering the weather, court surface is the most telling match condition, which is why clay courts have always benefitted defensive play the most, well before Open tennis. (This is not to say there is no offense on clay, but the points are longer, a clear sign that it’s harder to put the ball away.)

Conversely, faster courts benefit offensive play, which translates into shorter points characterized by more point-ending shotmaking.

Combined with the commonly acknowledged slowing of hard courts over the past 15 years, and similar changes in grass courts, the disappearance of quick courts like carpet means defensive play has gained in value at the expense of offense.

Consider:

A comparison of two 128 mph Federer serves, one in 2001 and the other in 2008, illustrates that the 2008 serve arrives at the receiver 9 mph slower than its 2001 counterpart. Clearly the return, the defensive beginning to a point’s offensive opening of the serve, has become more easier, and therefore more important.

SIDE NOTE   2001: Did the ammunition get specialized, too?

Although the 2001 Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) approved a previous experiment in tennis ball standards and made permanent 3 types of approved balls, there’s zero evidence the Type 3 balls have ever been used at professional tournaments

  • Type 1, to speed up playing characteristics; standard tennis balls but made with shells of harder rubber than full standard Type 2 balls
  • Type 2, fully standard tennis balls
  • Type 3, to slow down playing characteristics; a ball 6% larger in diameter than Type 1 or Type 2 which leaves a racquet at the same speed as the other balls but slows down more quickly due to the increased friction caused by the greater surface area

The ITF was quoted as having created the Type 3 ball with the goal of “slowing the game down and reducing the dominance of big servers on fast surfaces.” Read more about this here, here, and here, but remember that there’s no online confirmation that balls at pro tournaments were ever switched to Type 3 standards.

 

2001: The top players get an extra layer of protection

In 2001 the major tournaments, i.e., those with 128 draws (irrespective of whether they were Grand Slam tourneys or not) began seeding 32 players rather than 16, which had been the previous standard. (This is changing back, to 16 seeds, in 2019.)

Functionally, this means a top 16 seed won’t see a player ranked 17-32 (inclusive) until the 3rd round, at the earliest. Before this, of course, a top seed might have met dangerous floaters ranked 17-32 in the first or second rounds. That’s a big deal, especially on any court that’s quick enough to give a shot at taking out a top player to a big hitter who’s in the zone.

Every player still has to beat whoever’s on the other side of the net, round by round. But if the structure of the draw keeps the 2nd tier players away from the 1st tier for an additional round or two, well, you have to believe that gives the players seeded 1-16 a better chance of finding their form in 128 draw tourneys.

 

Every year since 1968…..

Someone once taught me Rule #1: “More money is better.”

In 1969 Rod Laver became the first player to win $100,000 in prize money in one year.

Think about that.

What did that mean about how Laver and others, earning far less on the pro tour, were able to ply their trade, well after 1969? Many top pros were still being housed in private homes during major tournaments in the early 70s. Bringing coaches, significant others, physios, and others on tour with you simply wasn’t an option. Knowing how and when to change prize money from one country’s currency to another was a prized skill, if not an art, and that assumed you had prize money to begin with. And air travel? Well, let’s just say that first class never came into the conversation, let alone Net Jets.

As a result, pros of the past played more matches per year. They had to, they had to earn a living. We can argue that the style of play was or wasn’t more taxing, but more matches is more matches. Take a look at another 1990/2017 comparison and tell me you wouldn’t prefer the 2017 schedule.

1990 #1 Stefan Edberg  singles matches played 85 / doubles 28     113 total matches

2017 #1 Rafa Nadal       singles matches played 78 / doubles 2        80 total matches

Edberg played 9% more singles matches in 1990 than Nadal in 2017, and 33% more matches overall.

Increased prize money gave tennis’ top pros the ability to schedule their years more around their competitive needs than their financial concerns. Less tired translates into losing less.

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It would be silly, or worse, to say Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray are great only because of of these changes in tennis, that without new racquets and techniques, slower courts and rule changes they’d have toiled namelessly in the middle ranks of tennis pros. Drop any one of them in any generation’s mix of champions – especially, given their ridiculous overall records, Federer or Nadal – and they would have been top-ranked players. Of that there can be no doubt.

The nature of these shifts in tennis, however, still makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts; take any one or two of these tennis evolutions on their own, say polyester strings, and the game would not have seen seismic change. Poly strings in wood racquets, for example, even in Vilas’ open throat wood-composite Head stick, would have never been a worthwhile advancement, and wouldn’t have changed the game they way they have in concert with the other evolutions. The earliest Prince racquet, in aluminum, was never a legitimate tool for the pros, it simply wasn’t up to the job. But it paved the way for Chang’s Prince Graphite, and we know what that led to…..

The Big Four would shine like super novas in any tennis era. At the same time there have to be reasons why this almost incomprehensible domination by a few players has come about for the only time in tennis’ history. Otherwise we have to say these four are simply far, far more talented than all who have come before and I, for one, am not ready to say that.

The fact is that the game has mutated, shifted so that playing defensively is, excuse the expression, easier. Bigger racquets with bigger sweetspots that let us control more balls in more extreme situations; strings, grips, and swing paths that allow for hellacious amounts of get-out-of-jail topspin compared to gut; slower courts. They all increase a player’s chance to get the ball back one more time, and if great gets aren’t what you see more than ever from the best players, points that no one seems to be able to finish, then you haven’t been watching. Do we really think the serve/return/volley, serve, serve, serve/return excesses of the early 90s, Eastern grips, and bumpy grass courts disappeared all by themselves?

The Big Four, none of whom are 3 or 4 shots per point specialists, have ruled tennis by exploiting their amazing talents. They’re astounding athletes. Yet we also see that in no small way their domination has been fueled by the increased access to defense; in their cases, phenomenal defense. They’ve been given the means to get one more ball back, again and again, more often, than ever before in tennis’ history. They’ve made the best of tennis’ perfect storm of evolutionary changes.

On the other hand, they could be aliens.

 

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Thanks, as always, to my bounce-it-off-me editors, Rolo Tomassi and my long suffering wife, LB.

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Coronavirus And The Adria Tour: Should Djokovic Be Held Accountable?

Formally not, despite many people, including him and his wife, testing positive to the virus causing COVID-19. More than a few, if we consider that Novak Djokovic is the president of the ATP Player Council.

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By Alessandro Stella

The debate surrounding the cases of the coronavirus at the Adria Tour, which soon turned into a Djokovic berating platoon, is clearly the theme of the week in tennis. After the announcement of the positive test of Grigor Dimitrov, who was on the court in Zadar against Borna Coric on Saturday, the Croatian player also announced the ensuing morning that he had contracted the coronavirus. Next came Marco Panichi, Djokovic’s physio, and Kristijan Groh, Dimitrov’s coach, while according to some early rumours (confirmed by the Telegraph) Djokovic would have refused to submit to the swab in Croatia as asymptomatic to test himself directly on his return to Belgrade, together with his family members – he later tested positive, along with his wife Jelena, fellow countryman Viktor Troicki (his wife was also infected) and NBA star Nikola Jokic.

 

Why Djokovic is getting all the slander is easily explained: as the president of the ATP Player Council, he promoted the organising of the Adria Tour, an event slated to take place in four countries (the final two stops have now been cancelled) with his brother Djordje as the director, and whose opening fixtures, those of Belgrade and Zara, took place at full capacity and without any regard for social distancing, both on and off the court. In addition to post-match hugging, the players were also in close contact during the collateral activities of the event: a football game in Belgrade, a basketball game in Zadar, and even a night out at a local club. Even before he came under attack for promoting an exhibition without strict health protocols, the world No.1 had already been accused of having deserted at ATP Zoom meeting of June 10, in which the guidelines for the restarting of the season were discussed.

THE ADRIA TOUR DIDN’T BREAK ANY RULES

Let’s try to make order. The first question should pertain the legitimacy of the event, while the second should interrogate its propriety. Let’s start with the former: the Adria Tour was held in compliance with the Coronavirus protocols enforced in the countries that hosted the first two gigs, namely Serbia and Croatia. “It can be criticized,” Nole said during a press conference at the Belgrade event. “We can say, for example, that maybe it’s dangerous. But it is not for me to evaluate what is right from a public health standpoint: we are simply following the rules of the Serbian government.”

What Djokovic claims is true. On the website of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the policies adopted by the various countries to combat the COVID-19 pandemic can be consulted, and from the Serbian one we can learn that as of May 7 the containment measures – which for approximately a month had entailed a 12-hour curfew a month from 5pm to 5am – were relaxed. For the last month, it has no longer been necessary to provide evidence of negative testing upon entering the country, and starting from June 5 the restrictions on public participation in outdoor events have been removed, albeit with a metre of interpersonal distance still being “strongly recommended.”

To recap, there are no formal bans in Serbia, although the government still suggests – without obligation – to take some precautions. A choice, that of President Aleksandar Vučić – who has just been re-elected with a landslide majority, 62.4% of the votes – which according to some European media had the specific purpose of restoring a patina of serenity in the wake of the elections, initially scheduled for April 26 and then postponed by two months because of the virus.

As for Croatia, at the end of May the ban on organizing public events with more than 40 participants was lifted, and the feasibility of each event has since been referred to the evaluations of the Croatian Institute of Public Health, which evidently gave the go-ahead to the Adria Tour. Following the positive tests of Dimitrov and Coric, the head of the infectious diseases department Bernard Kaić spoke on television to calm the citizens of Zadar, explaining that “it is necessary to spend a lot of time with the infected person in order to become infected,” and that therefore those who were simply sitting in the stands are not at a high infection risk.

IS DJOKOVIC IN THE CLEAR THEN?

Theoretically, yes, even in the event that the legal responsibility of organizing the Adria Tour could be traced back to him. The question that cannot be overlooked, however, concerns the public role of Djokovic, and therefore the appropriateness of promoting an event that has completely disregarded social distancing (remember, strongly advised by the Serbian government) while the pandemic is still reaping victims in several parts of the planet.

In addition to being the strongest tennis player on the planet, which in itself would be enough to expect additional attention for actions and statements that may have direct consequences on the community, Djokovic is the first reference of tennis players by virtue of his role as the president of the Player Council. It is a political position in all respects, which implies political responsibilities (limited to the world of tennis, of course). Nobody forced him to take on this responsibility, which once assumed should be honoured in full.

Are we therefore assuming that Djokovic did not fully honour it in this case? Yes, to a certain extent. The Adria Tour could certainly be organized, but if the positivity of so many of the participants – there is no guarantee that they got infected by participating in the performance – had emerged on the side-lines of an event held with the suggested precautions, Djokovic would not have become the target he has become in the last few days.

One more aspect should be factored in. Djokovic rightly pointed out that it is not up to him to evaluate what is right vis-à-vis public health, but, precisely by virtue of the same principle, he doesn’t seem to have the prerogative to send such a free-for-all message like he did by planning the Adria Tour in this fashion. This does not imply that there were any bad intentions on the part of the Serbian player, just as there was no bad intentions in the words of the Italian politicians who, a few days before the outbreak of the epidemic in Lombardy, invited to everyone to go on with their lives as usual, and the same goes for British politics. Whether it is out of personal conviction, because he believes – rightly or wrongly – that the virus is no longer dangerous, or for a more Machiavellian purpose (perhaps to convince the US Open to relax its strict measures?), Djokovic has endorsed an initiative that could have had negative consequences on other people.

He was reckless, like the other players who were present, and it would be ethically incorrect not to point it out. It is one thing to be convinced that the virus never existed or is no longer dangerous, another thing is to translate this thought into actions of public interest.

To say that he was reckless doesn’t mean that he deliberately favoured the transmission of the virus, because there may also be no causal link between the Adria Tour and the early positive testing of Dimitrov and Coric, but rather that he chose to ignore the precautions who at this moment have the crucial task of guiding us at a time of collective uncertainty, of hypotheses and conflicting scientific opinions.

Djokovic does not know if the virus is still dangerous or not, as we do not know it or even those who have studied the subject for years (this should already be enough to induce in us a certain evaluative moderation, sadly forgotten). Djokovic may also be right, but it an unaware manner; he cannot be sure of the message he is sending. This is what precautions are for, however useless they may seem, and indeed the hope is exactly that one day they may be proved to have become useless – it will mean that everything has gone according to plan.

What is mistakenly interpreted as a devaluation of the scientific method and adduced as an argument in favour of the free-for-all thesis, namely that virologist A is convinced that asymptomatic cases are not dangerous for the transmission of the virus while virologist B argues otherwise, is actually the normal scientific debate that occasionally ends up in the public eye due to the planetary scope of the subject matter.

Science is actually stumbling in the dark, because that’s how it goes before the evidence makes everyone coalesce around a thesis, and we have a civic duty not to make things worse in this period of reckoning and stabilisation for researchers. If some virologists mess up in the haste of expressing themselves, if politicians and decision-makers overwhelmed by the crisis make shaky and incomprehensible choices, that doesn’t legitimise more than usual to do what we want to fight a supposed design that would enslave us to the drug companies (by the way, they are certainly not be the only corporate entities in the world that are trying to make up for missing revenues; many others have lost and will lose money because of the crisis, and are certainly not raising glasses of Dom Perignon, so the ice for this conspiracy theory feels paper-thin at best).

What the scientific community perhaps has not been able to communicate with sufficient clarity is the following concept: we do not  know what we should know about the virus yet, nor do we have a valid strategy to cure and eradicate it, so in the meantime we ask you to sacrifice a few of your liberties so that enough time can be had to find a definitive countermeasure. Planning and hosting a tennis exhibition with some kind of social distancing in the stands and fewer on-court hugs, all in all, would have been a bearable sacrifice.

 

Translated by Andrea Ferrero; edited by Tommaso Villa

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Is It Acceptable For Novak Djokovic To Remain As ATP Player Council President After Adria Tour Fiasco?

Regarded as one of the greatest of all time, Djokovic’s recent antics raises the question as to if he is the right person leading the ATP Tour on a political front.

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Novak Djokovic is a household name and role model for thousands around the world. The world No.1 has won more prize money than any other player in the history of the sport and is known for his charitable donations. However, his recent role in the Adria Tour could have big repercussions for him in the coming weeks.

 

Djokovic founded the Adria Tour that took place in Belgrade, Serbia and Zadar, Croatia before it was cancelled. Over the weekend the worst possible scenario occurred when Grigor Dimitrov tested positive for COVID-19, which forced the final to be scrapped. The following day, three others at the event also tested positive, including Borna Coric. Meanwhile, Viktor Troicki also turned out to be positive, but only played in Belgrade.

More than 40 hours after Dimitrov’s confirmation on Twitter, Djokovic then announced he and his wife also have the virus. The Serbian opted not to have a test in Croatia and instead chose to travel to Belgrade and do so. A controversial decision given the situation, but one he was allowed to do according to regional COVID-19 rules.

“Everything we did in the past month, we did with a pure heart and sincere intentions. Our tournament was meant to unite and share a message of solidarity and compassion throughout the region,” he said in a statement.
“The Tour has been designed to help both established and up and coming tennis players from south-eastern Europe to gain access to some competitive tennis while the various tours are on hold due to Covid-19.”

The 17-time grand slam champion said that his event was organised at a time when ‘the virus was weakened.’ Yet it was visible to many that the Adria Tour was a ticking time bomb in the midst of a pandemic. A lack of social distancing occurred throughout, players attended parties or functions, and played basketball.

It was stunning watching a video of their press conference that took place last Friday. All players sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a room whilst speaking to reporters. In a way it is a shock (but a big relief) that Alexander Zverev didn’t catch COVID-19. He sat next to Dimitrov throughout as the two shared a microphone. At one stage he took the microphone from the Bulgarian, answered a question, passed it back and then immediately rubbed his eye. Maybe the saving grace in that incident was that he held the microphone in his right hand and rubbed his eye with his left.

“In hindsight, it’s not something that should have gone ahead,” former world No.1 Andy Murray commented about the event. “It’s not surprising how many people have tested positive after seeing some of the images of the players’ party and the kids’ day. There was no social distancing in place.
“I don’t think it has been a great look for tennis. The only positive is that, until it is safe to do so, we have no fans at the event to reduce the risk as much as possible.”

Djokovic always had good intentions for his event and for years he has been trying to bring something like this to the region. I remember speaking to him two years ago during a press conference in Madrid where he said he planned to do such a thing. Although this is not what is under scrutiny.

As the president of the ATP Players Council, Djokovic is held to a higher accountability than most of his rivals. He is the leader of a panel who represents hundreds in the sports and reports their views of the ATP Board when it comes to critical decisions being made. During an era of COVID-19 many players have voiced their concerns over the Tour resuming during a global pandemic. In an unfortunate case of irony for Djokovic, the Adria Tour perfectly illustrated why they are worried.

“Prayers up to all the players that have contracted Covid- 19,” critic Nick Kyrgios said, retweeting a video of the players dancing shirtless in Belgrade.
“Don’t @ me for anything I’ve done that has been ‘irresponsible’ or classified as ‘stupidity’ – this takes the cake.”

The lack of accountability

Djokovic and his team have fully apologised for the incident that has happened, but they have stopped short of taking full responsibility. Incredibly Djokovic’s father Srdjan has accused Dimitrov of causing ‘great damage’ to Serbia, Croatia and his family. It was alleged that the former top 10 player didn’t undergo testing when given the option after feeling unwell.

“Why did it happen? Because the man probably came sick, who knows where. He didn’t get tested there, he was tested somewhere else… I don’t think that’s right. Well, what can we do now… He inflicted great damage to Croatia and to us as a family and to Serbia,” Srdjan told RTL.

Those comments directly inflicting responsibility for the fiasco onto one person is poor to say the least. First, it is unknown as to who at the event contracted the virus first or where. Dimitrov could have even caught it from Coric, who is experiencing no symptoms and is therefore asymptomatic. In Serbia there have been outbreaks of COVID-19 among football teams and recently a national basketball training camp was cancelled. Srdjan like any other parent is defending his son, but his argument to divert the blame solely on Dimitrov is a very weak one.

Goran Ivanisevic, who is Djokovic’s coach and tournament director of the Zadar event, said yesterday that critics were trying to score ‘political points against them.’ At the same time one the most prestigious Serbian sports websites even suggested that Dimitrov deliberately announced his positive test at a time to force the final to be cancelled. The blame game is very much an ongoing theme.

As for Djokovic, in his statement there was no admission that the protocols in force in his events could have been improved or the lack of social distancing was problematic. Without a doubt he regrets what happened, but it is enough of a move from somebody who is a world No.1 heading the Players Council during a worldwide pandemic? To an extent, no it isn’t.

Some will argue that the backlash is typical given Djokovic’s at times unfair treatment in the media by some publications in the past. A valid point, but focusing solely on this incident the criticism was always inevitable. Furthermore, Djokovic isn’t the only person being singled out. The Croatian Tennis Federation is also under heavy fire. The director of the WTA Bol Open, Feliks Lukas, has publicly called for the head of the federation to reign due to his involvement.

It has been suggested that the Adria Tour could have a negative impact on Djokovic’s legacy. I would say that this is very unlikely given his extraordinary achievements on the court. One that thousands of players could only dream of achieving. However, in terms of his ATP Player Presidency, it looks doubtful that he will continue in this role for much longer. Whenever he will inevitably speak out over his colleagues’ concerns about COVID-19 in the future, he will be accused of hypocrisy and rightfully so.

Of course, this opinion of mine is irrelevant, it is the players who are the kingmakers. One journalist has already reported that an unnamed player has already called for Djokovic to resign from his ATP Council president position (UbiTennis can’t confirm this).

Djokovic has done a lot of good during his time as ATP President, but during the time of COVID-19 may be the best option for him is to step aside. Unfortunately, one of the sports greatest athletes of all time has unintentionally cast a very dark cloud on tennis.

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The New 2020 Calendar Works, But Only For 120 players…….And Serena Williams

Low-ranked players are on a warpath – once again, the TV money prevailed. The Cincinnati Master “poached” the qualies from Flushing Meadows. However, the US Open is trying to be flexible to lure the stars.

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The ATP-ITF-WTA mountain has brought forth something far bulkier than a mouse. Starting August 23, a pair of Slams and a trifecta of Master 1000 tournaments will take place over a seven-week span, hoping that Covid-19 will not strike again – an unprecedented bonanza for tennis-starved fans, even if the two Slams were to be played with a personnel shortage.  

 

Looking at historical precedents, 79 of the men’s Top 100 boycotted Wimbledon in 1973 in solidarity with Nikki Pilic (despite Stan Smith admitting that he wasn’t the most popular athlete on tour), but the Championships didn’t really suffer from the blow, and Jan Kodes, that year’s winner, never saw his status as a Slam champion diminished in the slightest – it should be remembered that the Czech won a pair of French Open titles and reached two more finals at Forest Hills, so his accomplishments can’t really be disputed.

Roland Garros is currently looking poised for a more competitive field, since it will take place a month later and since 75% of the ATP Top 100 and 70% of the WTA Top 30 spawns from Europe. The US Open, on the other hand, could benefit from Cincinnati being moved to Flushing Meadows, creating a three-week barrage of points and money not to be easily relinquished.

The question is: how many players will be able to scratch their way through seven weeks at such a high level, four of which laden with five-setters, all the while crossing the Atlantic halfway through and living in unfamiliar conditions? The risk of injuries to multiple players is real. The necessity to start earning again will push many to go all the way, but it will also force others to skip a few gigs to maximise their winning chances.

Each of the involved tournaments were desperate to host their respective events, lest a financial disaster might happen. Rome is the ultimate example: Angelo Binaghi, the president of the Italian federation, claimed multiple times that he was willing to move the tournament to other cities and on different surfaces just to make it happen – he deserves understanding, as do all the other promoters and owners.

Wimbledon was insured, while everybody else was not. However, the AELTC is just short of being a charity, since most of its revenue goes to the LTA, and thus it’s far easier to invest for a company whose first objective isn’t necessarily to make money, while other owners, like Madrid’s Ion Tiriac, can’t afford to be so magnanimous with their investments, and the same goes for the Italian and French federations.

The US Open (and the New York Times) immediately highlighted that Serena Williams is on board, and enthusiastically so. After losing four Slam finals, mostly as the favourite and without winning a single set – Patrick Mouratoglou explained some of the issues she’s faced – Serena’s chase for her 24th title, which would put her on par with Margaret Court, will be the leitmotif of the tournament, provided she goes far.

However, new tournament director Stacey Allaster is having to rely on the support of the entire USTA to quell the doubts of European top draws like Nadal, Djokovic, and Halep. Their misgivings are probably the reason behind the update in the rule concerning the number of staff members that the players will be allowed to take with them to the Big Apple – despite rumours of just a person being allowed, the final amount was set at three. Other concessions involve the possibility for the wealthiest to rent a flat near Corona Park instead of being confined to the JFK bubble. I can only marvel at who will be tasked to check that the players don’t go clubbing, given the precedent set in Belgrade last weekend.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the US ultimately heeded to the call of money. The best players presented heavy demands to enter the draw, and they got all they asked for.

The whole testing machine is still to be finalised, especially in terms of frequency – I asked a question on the matter during the USTA press conference on Wednesday, but it’s all still up in the air. Every official is calling on the players’ sense of responsibility but, judging from the latest exhibition tournaments, I’m not sure many actually do have one.

Moving on to the lower-ranked players, the US Open has decided to devolve $6.6 million to both tours (3.3 each), which will then spend them however they want, either to compensate the players who were damaged by the cancellation of the qualifiers, or to organise and/or support a few ATP Challengers and WTA Internationals.

The US Open will guarantee a spot in the draw to the top-ranked 120 players. Federer aside, everybody else should be game: it’s rather unlikely that dozens of clay specialists might decide to skip the hardcourt season to focus on the Madrid-Rome-Paris trio, or that a similar amount is too scared to play. Those who’ll make it to the later stages in New York might elect to skip Madrid, sure, but those who are all but certain to bow out early will definitely participate in both.

Life is going to be hard for those who won’t make the main draws of the Slams. After four months of inactivity, these players will be forced to stay put even longer, since the Challengers’ schedule is still scrambled. Not just that: while the early rumours pointed to the tours being active in December, that now no longer seems to be the case. On paper, something could be done after August 14, perhaps a $150k could be organised in Orlando during the Washington week…

Even if it were possible to plan a few Challengers, though, these would be so few that no players with a lower rank than 180 would be able to break in before the cut-off. In addition, we need to remember that only the winners of such events make relevant money, while entering the main draw of a Slam automatically means $50k, they could make twice as much, should they win their first-round match – that’s without speaking of the different standings of these achievements. Anyway, the bottom-line is that the omens aren’t great for those who are ranked outside the Top 200.

Illya Marchenko, world No.200

As largely expected, business won, even though the ATP top brass somewhat “pretended” to have chosen one of two options during last week’s conference call in order to appease the players ranked between the 200th and the 400th spot, when, in realty, the other has never been viable, e.g. the possibility to cancel Cincinnati and play the usual three qualifying rounds in New York. The first option meant that the same players would feature in both events, while the second meant throwing a bone to some players ranked outside the upper echelon of the sport.

The ATP picked the former exclusively for financial reasons, as a Master 1000 event means TV rights, sponsorships, and money, while the qualies’ revenues are usually non-existent. Moreover, a few of the top dogs (Shapovalov among them) began to complain about having to debut in a five-set format, and the ATP didn’t miss the chance to placate them, while de facto throwing everyone else under the bus. Sure, the US Open offered a lump sum as compensation, but who knows how it will be spent and according to what criteria.

The point system is being scorched as well, because of all its contradictions and idiosyncrasies. It would be just right for a player to have a full year to defend or improve on its previous results (therefore defending and improving on his/her own revenue), but now someone like Gianluca Mager, who scored big in February, will only have the months spanning from August to January to benefit from his wins, while the Fognini’s of this world, who built their ranking in 2019, will keep their spot until the end of 2020 and all the way to April 2021 – quite a difference between 5 and 16 months. To be clear, however, there still is no clarity on how the rankings will be assessed and when the points will be “thawed”.

I will finish by pointing out the Paris Master 1000 tournament is currently slated to go ahead between November 1 and 8, about three weeks after the end of the French Open. In the same city. With the same players. Money goes to money, an old truth that I still have to see refuted.

Article translated by Tommaso Villa

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