So, it’s been quite a year for tennis(fans). It started out with everyone talking about the quality of the tennis we were going to witness the following year, with the all time greats (and favourites) shining on the courts of the happy slam: both Fedal and the Williams sisters seemed to be back.
And then? Well, Serena took time to start her ‘life after tennis’. Her absence mainly showed that she’ll be back — and dominating tennis — soon. Somehow, Serena not being there and Maria Sjarapova coming back (when she got invited) mostly got the better of the actual game. As if the quality of the line up of a festival prevailed over the quality of the concerts.
Surely the quality of the game on the men’s side got the better in the headlines?
Roger took the fifth and sixth grand slam (ranking of Indian Wells and Miami depends on the eye of the beholder) and most players skipped the Davis Cup (since the Olympics are still far away): It all seemed pretty standard. But then…
Roger Federer took a vacation during the season. Wait what? A vacation? Clay court has an impact on the body. The general idea was that skipping the clay court season would enable him — hopefully- to try and shine on grass (it did).
But from that moment on, we mainly talked about injuries and — here is the parallel with the women’s game — who was missing in the draw and who wasn’t playing were. (Well we also talked about Rafa outplaying everyone in Paris, Roger doing the same in London… But for my story’s sake : injuries, injuries, playing Laver Cup but skipping other tournaments is a sin, injuries, …
Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, … They all fell to injuries that were all attributed to the heavy calendar and long matches. David Goffin fell and got injured playing in Paris. But, in retrospective, that got little coverage. Apparently you’d best get injured while practicing or have it be a chronic injury.
With pretty much every contender of Fedal out, we stopped talking about the achievements of Fedal and got to injuries and who was missing at the start and-or end of the tournament.
And ‘we’ talked about how the game has to change to prevent injuries in the future (and have the big names playing and winning all the tournaments).
So the ‘Next Gen’ tournament became a lab for new rules that will make everything better: Shorter sets, No-ad, No-let, shot clock, … This should lighten the calendar for the players. Change the game in the sake of the players. Who could fault that?
So … The experiment seems interesting. But I would rather favour best-of-six set matches being an addition to the game (tournaments choosing to opt for a different scoring system with a seperate itf ranking) than replacing the best-of-twelve system. Because — I’m not a doctor or trained physician, but… — the strains caused by a series of games played in best of 5 shorter sets can’t be that much lower than the Best of 3 slightly longer sets!?! Can they?
So it seems we are changing the game for it to be better soothed for sponsors and tv… But TV doesn’t make us love the game. Players do. Local and major tournaments do. Shouldn’t tennis be changed for it to be better soothed to the players and for small tournaments to keep existing (in Belgium alone we’ve lost the WTA tournament of Antwerp and the challenger of Mons, voted best challenger in 2015 and 2016)?
How about changing a rule that doesn’t seem to be there for the sake of the players or the tournaments in general?
Mandatory tournaments… Why should some tournaments be mandatory (and others struggling)?
Why can’t players be the full master of their own career and planning? Most of us are, in some degree.
Most of the players will still mainly go for the slams and the bigger tournaments. Big wins create big records and legends. Big wins mean a better ranking. Better rankings lead to better draws. Et cetera.
All in all I believe the slams, Masters 1000 and Davis Cup don’t need the mandatory status. The best players will try to peak and win those tournaments to become part of the legend of tennis and keep their ranking and status.
But what about specialists? Why deny them the opportunity to peak? Why deny us the joy of keeping (and celebrating) specialists?
Why couldn’t we accept the fact that we have players / specialist playing mainly clay (South American season in februari, European in april and European summer), grass or indoor? This could lead to more players winning (big) tournaments and a larger number of players attracting visitors to the tournament grounds. This could also lead to less costs and more prize money for the ‘less known’ players. For tournaments, it could mean more ‘local’ players could be invited or qualify. Local players usually attract visitors. Tournaments need paying visitors, not a TV audience.
Injury prone players could rest more if they feel they need to.
For lower ranked players, having a rank that demands you to participate in mandatory tournaments could also be a poisoned chalice. South american clay court specialists having to play Indian Wells or Shangai — with nothing to win - could spend that time healing, resting, training, … Serve-and-volley players could do the same instead of playing Monte Carlo. Et cetera. Others could organise their work / life balance.
Most of them won’t though. They’ll keep going for the biggest trophies. But at least they would have the choice.
In my opinion, the future of tennis should follow the wishes of the players. It shouldn’t be the result of the opportunistic and mercantile re-engineering of the game. But if TV-sponsors (and their money) need the game to be re-engineered, can this really be stopped? Although I’ve spent an hour writing down my view and hopes, I really fear it can’t.