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Friday, October 16, 2009

Making Shanghai Fun

Like clockwork, it’s all falling apart on the ATP tour right now. Juan Martin Del Potro is getting a head start on his sophomore slump. Andy Murray and Roger Federer are AWOL, and probably happier for it. Andy Roddick, Tommy Haas, Stan Wawrinka, and Gael Monfils went on the DL for the week, some with more reason than others. Marat Safin is going out as a loose cannon (did we really think it would end well?). And, according to Roddick and Rafael Nadal, the schedule still stinks. It might even be worse than ever. We’ll find out if their complaints, which are ringing a little louder than usual, can create a full-fledged tipping point for this age-old question. Meanwhile, the show goes on, as best it can, in Shanghai. Let's see what's been worth seeing there so far this week.
Dead Flower
It’s designed to look like it’s in full bloom when the roof flies off, but the stadium is so wide open that the players appear to be contesting a Masters event on their own private island. Even when the stands are crowded they look empty, the fans reduced to blurry blobs of humanity somewhere on the horizon. But that beats what’s going on in the Grandstand; was there anyone in attendance for Nikolay Davydenko’s first-round win there the other night? I counted 14 people, coaches included, taking in Ivan Ljubicic’s upset of Fernando Verdasco. Unfortunately, the empty seats and life-sucking lack of energy only reinforce the notion that the season should be over by now. What may be more concerning is whether guys like Federer, del Potro, and Roddick, if they’re feeling a little banged up and sick of their jobs after the U.S. Open, will commit to this event in the future. I can only guess that the reason it exists and will continue to exist can be summed up by those pesky little Heineken signs that you see behind the players. If you’re a sponsor, one billion Chinese will never be wrong.
Another Minute, Another Schedule Complaint
I’m starting to think we need the season to be this long; what else would we do at this time of year if we couldn’t complain about it? My colleagues at Tennis.com, James Martin and Peter Bodo, have taken sides on this issue this week. I’ll only add that the troubles don’t just stem from the fact that the players and the tournament directors have conflicting interests. The players themselves have conflicting interests as well; the division is between the very top guys and everyone else. So far in 2009, Federer has entered 12 tournaments and played 63 matches. Tommy Robredo has entered twice as many events—Shanghai is his 24th—but has played just two more matches than Federer. Robredo has earned $950,000 in prize money for his efforts; Federer has earned more than $6 million for virtually the same amount of time on court. Some guys, those who regularly reach finals and command high fees for exhibitions, can use the rest. Other guys need to play as much as they can because they know their earning years are short.
When players complain about having to show up for mandatory events, they're also complaining about having to show up for tournaments where they're not getting appearance fees. It's not the only reason the top guys are unhappy, but it's hardly a coincidence, either. You can pack the events more tightly together—though that would create other issues regarding proper rest between tournaments—or change their locations, but the tour shouldn’t scrap the mandatory aspect of the Masters Series. It's the ATP’s only long-term success story of the last 20 years. Getting everyone together eight times a year isn’t too much to ask to make it happen.
The China Syndrome
Not being pros or tournament directors, how should a tennis fan approach the fall season? It’s a tricky and changeable question. On the one hand, my ideal would be a schedule that stopped dead in early October with the season-enders and the Davis and Fed Cups. But do I feel that way because I’ve never gone through the fall without tennis? Would I miss it? I can only analyze how I experience these late-year events myself. With the 500-level tournaments, tuning in for the final on Sunday is clearly enough. I was entertained by last week’s Djokovic-Cilic match in Beijing for the hour and a half that it was on. But at the same time it felt like pointless overkill. "It's a weekend," a sports fan might think if he stumbled on it, "so there must be a tennis match somewhere." Football and baseball were on as well, both of which made more sense in October. Tennis has no season; it's always there, like wallpaper.
I’d like to think a Masters would seem a little more essential to me, and I have gotten up early this week to watch taped matches from Shanghai. But while I’m watching, I’ve also been reading and listening to music. I wouldn't sit and stare at a match between, say, Simon and Troicki or Gonzalez and Davydenko, that’s being played in front of a dozen people, without otherwise occupying myself. But as a background to my morning routine, it’s a nice addition—next week I’ll be doing the same thing with the TV off, anyway. And there have been some compelling moments. There was the anguish on Verdasco’s face near the end of his loss to Ljubicic. There was Ljubicic’s reaction to his win: He sat down in his chair and lifted his eyebrows, as if to say, “Wow, OK, this feels pretty good.” There was the spirited battle between Blake and Nadal, and the newfound positive energy of Novak Djokovic. There were the jaw-dropping winners, hit with near-disdain, by Monfils. Were these worth staging the tournament for? Or did the dismal sight of the very same Monfils throwing in the towel after the third game today—I knew immediately that he was going to retire—negate the good stuff?
Taken together, if this is all I’m getting from Shanghai, it's an argument against fall tennis for me. Better to have the time away from the sport and come back craving the new season in January.
Of course, if Nadal and Djokovic come out firing in the final and give us Madrid II here, forget I said anything. Home page.

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