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Dunk a Clown 12/01/2008 - 6:00 PM

by Pete Bodo

A bit of housekeeping first: this morning, I received a note from a long-time reader and weblog editrix Aaress Lawless (cool name, huh?). TennisWorld has been nominated in On the Baseline's annual awards, in the weblog category. I've never paid much attention to "official" awards or contests, but as this is a group effort, I'm inviting you to check it out and vote if you're so inclined (just go here). You can also vote for your favorite players in any number of categories.

Lendl I've got a post going up on ESPN soon on a subject we discussed here some weeks ago, the great "tennis needs an off-season" debate. I covered much of the same ground we explored back then, but I also had a few afterthoughts, starting with the fact that tennis has a kind of "magic number" in the match stats, which is the number of matches played by anyone in any given year. This year, for example, Rafael Nadal was 82-11 in singles, and Roger Federer ended up 66-15.

Whatever else you want to say about The Mighty Fed's year, you can't exactly say he overplayed; Nadal himself had 12 more matches. For perspective, keep in mind that in 1977, Guillermo Vilas's best year, the Iron Man of the Open era posted an astonishing 145-14 match record, although I'm having trouble confirming that it was exclusively in singles (Vilas played very limited doubles throughout his career, so I doubt too many - if any - of those wins were put up on doubs).

I know for certain that Vilas's singles record in just the last six months of 1977 (his best year) was 80-1. The former no. 1 Ivan Lendl put up some formidable numbers, too. In 1980, Lendl went 113-29. And in 1979, John McEnroe played 177 official matches. He won 27 events (17 of them doubles titles) that year alone, although he's better remembered for that glorious 1984, in which he went  82-3 in singles. That winning percentage (.965) remains the best on record.

When you start throwing those number around, it seems that, for better or worse, 100 matches represents a high but attainable and sustainable number, and especially if, like me, you don't necessarily believe that the competition is incomparably better today than it was in the heydays of the players mentioned above. If I had to pin down a date for when the game really took a quantum leap, in terms of overall quality, I would probably pick some moment in the early careers of Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.

One reason I feel comfortable making that judgment is because the competition at any given time is no tougher - or easier - than the players themselves make it. Tennis, certainly in the early Open era but even today, is driven by a gold-rush sensibility, and because it's such an individualistic, wide-open enterprise(a reasonably good college player is always just a few qualifying events away from treading the lawns of Wimbledon, or prowling the hard courts of Flushing Meadow), both the motivation and pressure to stay on pace is high. Someone ups the ante on skill, fitness or even the number of events entered, you almost have to prepare a response.

The moment someone dials it up on either of two levels - results, or dedication - the pack seems to follow, like a school of those tropical fish that moves by a snorkeler in a wave so smooth it almost constitutes a pattern. There are just too many good players, many of whom have the requisite pride, for anyone to pull a fast one and simply out-want his or her peers. The sport embodies the old saw about a rising tide lifting all boats, if the talent of a Borg, Navratilova or a Federer can be described as a tide.

Or let's look at it this way: most players would give their left arms (excepting those who use a two-handed backhand) to be able to play 100 matches a year. That represents a heavy but by no means unique load for a top player, but a quick scan of the rankings shows just how few players even have the option. Nikolay Davydenko, a hard-working and highly successful player (the year-end no. 5), squeezed in 77 matches last year - fully a quarter below our threshhold.

Andy Roddick? The world no. 8, squeezed in just 67. And David Nalbandian, an international star and icon in Argentina, was limited to 60 matches. Gael Monfils, no. 14 in the world, played 47 singles matches. Was the tennis year too long and demanding for these familiar names, too?

It seems to me that far more players don't get enough matches, instead of getting too many. Yet almost all of them will complain about the grind of the ATP or WTA schedule. I think the real issue here may be the proliferation of weeks during which players are expected to perform at their peak. That is, if you just won Rome, it's pretty tempting to show up on Hamburg two days later and start kvetching about how tired you are - especially when all you see ahead of you is a winding trail of events, each of them incorporating a certain degree of pressure created by your past performance, the rankings, the need to make hay while the sun shines on your chosen field of play. The grind may be more debilitating mentally than physically, but we already know that the two areas are interrelated.

But let's set aside this issue of how many matches an upper-echelon pro ought to be able to play.

I've written before that tennis is an "interval" sport, with periods of rest alternating with moments of high stress created by the demand to perform. That demand has been inflated in recent years by the change in the status of the ATP, which has morphed from player union into tour organizer and (to some degree) promoter. The real problem therein is that the top players carry the sport, but under the present system their contribution is, as a matter of policy, ignored. You're not supposed to find out that there is indeed a golden goose in tennis, and it just keeps layin' 'em.

So an elite few may complain that they have to play far, far, too many matches, while very good players ranked not that far below them are entitled to complain about lack of matches (and, by extension, lack of confidence-building and bank account-padding chances). You don't hear such complaints voiced by the ATP or WTA hoi polloi for an honorable reason - those players know they're not earning the right to play more.

In the end, though, whatever your sense of justice or player solidarity is, it seems indisputable that TMF and Rafa are asked to shoulder a big work load in order to enable the Monfils and Cilics and Nicolas Almagros of this world to get enough matches. In that regard, top tennis players qualify as extraordinary humanitarians (I wonder if they could qualify for tax breaks, under some "charitable organization" provision), even as they sit on the sidelines watching their rivals woeful inability to capitalize on the inherent opportunity. Federer and Nadal are like two clowns, forced week-after-week to sit on the perch in the dunk-a-clown tank while a bunch of guys who mostly can't throw straight expend their energies.

When you look at this situation, you might better understand the beauty of the Challenge Round concept that was used in tournament play and Davis Cup back in the early days. Back then, the defending champion didn't have to play the early rounds (he'd already proved his worth); the tournament was held to determine a worthy opponent for the holder. The shortcomings of the format in today's world are glaring but, oddly enough, they have nothing to do what might be called the pure logic of sport. Why shouldn't the defending champ be entitled to sit out?

The sport most like tennis is boxing, and once a fighter gets to be champion of his division, he no longer has to slug his way through a slew of tomato cans in order to meet his top challengers. And it's important to note that individual and team sports are very different; the personnel on any give team changes year-to-year, and the weak link on a successful team doesn't have the same "right" to enjoy his status as do the handful of key performers.

If you think this idea is really crazy, just apply it. Imagine that the defending champ at any given event has a free pass to the final. It would have zero impact on, say, Monfils - as he didn't win an event in 2008. But TMF would get a free pass at four events in 2009, including the US Open (and remember, he struggled some this year), while Nadal would be exempt at eight events, including two Grand Slams - leaving him free to focus on those events where he was weaker. And keep this in mind: You would only be losing one star from every event - a hit that would be offset by the publicity generated by all the speculation leading up to any Grand Slam final where the holder is sequestered.

Hail, he or she wouldn't even be sequestered. You could easily ask the defender to be present for promotional purposes leading up the the final. The holder's preparation for his defense certainly would be closely watched by the most interested parties (like his native media).

This won't happen, of course. But I wish it would. Once the system got rolling, it would also add an extra dimension of intrigue, and more players would get the opportunity to break through (although that, in and of itself, is neither here nor there, value-wise). Anybody want to figure out how many players got shot to doll rags by Federer at Wimbledon in recent years, or by Nadal at Roland Garros?  Currently, the champion at any event is an impediment - the bullet in the chamber every player has to spin on the eve of the draw, and each round thereafter until he expires from causes natural or otherwise.

And ultimately, wouldn't a Challenge Round be a better solution than cutting back the calendar - especially if you acknowledge that the vast majority of players would prefer more to fewer playing opportunities.  Another interesting potential outcome here would be the prospect of top players supporting lesser events, because instead of pulling out of warm-up tournaments, the holder at Grand Slams would be inclined to play them, knowing that he or she will get plenty of rest during the first 13 days of any major. . .

Scoff at me if you will; the earth is only as round as you want it to be.

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Posted by Ruth 12/02/2008 at 07:47 PM

Charles: Thank you very much for your comments. What you said at the end of the first paragraph indicates exactly what I was referring to when I mentioned having read articles in which experts showed how the new rackets and the changes in technology have NOT, as many thought, made playing easier for the tennis pros of today.

In one article, an othopedist also contrasted the way several current women players served with the way players served years ago, and he wryly stated that the current style ensured him a lot of business with knee problems among the players (especially with the increased number of hardcourt events).

I'm glad that you also referred to the whole ranking situation that, as I'd said, pushes any player who wants to stay on top to play much more than he/she probably should play. I subscribe completely to the idea of decreasing both the number of mandated high-level events for the men AND the number of tourneys used to calculate rankings for both Tours.

I suppose that it would be impractical for the Tours to return to what they did years ago when the rankings were determined simply by dividing the points earned by the number of tourneys play (regardless of how low the number of tourneys played might have been). But using a number as high as 17 as the basis for calculating the rankings is wrong for all the reasons that you mentioned.

Incidentally, even though the WTA no longer uses the more quality-based method of ranking the players, I'd be a rich person if I had a dollar for every writer and fan who has presented his/her own "true" ranking for 2008 with Venus, Serena, and Maria at or near the top precisely because their points divided by their tourneys played produce a value that puts them way above most of the other WTA players.

Posted by codepoke 12/02/2008 at 08:26 PM

Well, I still think someone needs to answer what happens to Nalby in such a system, but I asked that question already and nobody's biting.

Ruth, you've got my interest. I am having a hard time imagining what a player could do on their serve that might injure their knees?

Posted by 12/02/2008 at 10:30 PM

I'm not sure how the players would feel about a challenge round...I suspect that they wouldn't care for it at all. I've heard Fed say many times that he likes to "work his way" into the tournament. Most players don't play their best until late in the tournament. I think this would actually give the challenger the advantage unless there are extreme physical conditions at the tourney.

Posted by Ruth 12/02/2008 at 10:32 PM

codepoke: What I remember is that the doctor talked about the way the women seemed to jump forward harder into the serve nowadays than they did in the past. I'm assuming that, once women (led by Tim Henman's daring grandmother) abandoned the underhand serve, there was, at first, less foot or leg movement when they put the balls in play (somewhat like the unathletic way that I served when I played) than there is now.

Some years ago, I also saw a video piece by Frank Deford (I think) on this same topic -- about the high and hard forward jump at the serve that was supposed to be mainly responsible for the knee problems of players like Graf, S. Williams, Davenport et al.

Posted by Syd 12/02/2008 at 10:39 PM


Good point. And Nadal also seems to get better as he goes through.

Posted by codepoke 12/02/2008 at 11:33 PM

Ah. Sure. I could imagine something happening that way.

I've just changed my service motion from pinpointing to a stable, spread-foot stance so I'm not at risk there. I already have to wear a full ACL brace to play, so whenever anyone talks about injuring knees my attention levels go through the ceiling.

Thank you for the explanation.

Posted by Candace 12/03/2008 at 12:52 AM

I would really like to see fed and rafa in dunking booths. ok i am a blonde. truly

Posted by DMan 12/03/2008 at 02:14 AM

Interesting proposal Pete, but thankfully one that will never be employed in pro tennis. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

So all defending champs need only suit up for the final? Please! That's not the way the *real* world works. Stars only have to show up in the final act, be the superhero, and all for just one day's work? I don't think so!

And exactly how would a ranking system work that way. You're defending champ, and you win one match - the finals - and you earn the same # of points as a guy who plays through several rounds and wins an event? And what about the prize money? Win one match and you earn the bulk of the prize money? And that's fair? And if you lose in the finals, do you earn the same # of points as runner up would earn? For playing one match?

It would not enable players to move up in the rankings at all. It's basically a way to "protect" pampered stars.

I no longer have sympathy for *any* pro player who complains about the schedule. Especially for someone like Federer. I mean the week after Shanghai and he's off to the Far East for some exo matches? And then there's the announcement he is going to play the very first tournament of the year in Doha. (What, was that the sound of a gazillion dollars being plunked into Roger's bank account?!)

The problem with the "demands" on pro tennis players these days is the STUPIDITY in the scheduling. Too many people want their piece of the pie. And no one is in charge. No one who will stand up and say, STOP THIS MADNESS with the scheduling! Why are there back-to-back Masters Series events? Why are the French and Wimbledon only 2 weeks apart? Why are there several weeks with 3 pro events going on at the same time?

Pro tennis continues to dilute its product. Which is why the sport has diminished in the eyes of the public. It's too disjointed, too complicated to follow/understand/appreciate. And it shouldn't be that way.

Until they fix it, the issue will continue to be: IT'S THE SCHEDULE , STUPID!!

And the schedule won't get fixed by giving the defending champs a free pass to the finals.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/03/2008 at 07:08 AM


Thank you for the blunt appraisal of the problem. And, if yuou've read this blog long enough or seen my posts on the subject, you will see that we are in total aggreement.

Posted by Gabriela Valentina 12/03/2008 at 10:32 AM

I don't know enough to be able to say if this is or isn't a good idea- perhaps it's the players who should be giving their opinon. I also wonder if a player doesn't need to work his way up to the fina(?)and needs a few matches to get into the swing...

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