Friday, September 26, 2008
Updated: September 30, 6:02 PM ET
It's not just about the majors
One of the most frustrating problems in tennis is the chronic inability of the tour year-end championships to get much traction, even while die-hard tennis fans sit around bemoaning the fact that the Grand Slam year is over and wondering if they should bother tracking the fall hard-court circuits, which are underway in Asia and will soon move to Europe.
The obstacles for the tours have been obvious. The Grand Slams are the 800-pound gorilla in the tennis room. They earned a special place in the hearts of tennis fans, and plenty of tennis entrepreneurs and "revolutionaries" who thought they could subvert that tradition have been left shell-shocked and broke. But the majors have also suppressed some of the potential growth in the game, to everyone's detriment. Casual tennis fans believe the game is all about the majors -- and just the majors.
Tennis is a sport tailor made for having a crucial year-end championship, which was demonstrated in 2000, when Gustavo Kuerten wrapped up the all-important year-end No. 1 ranking with a fantastic performance under intense pressure at the Lisbon YEC (now officially known as the Tennis Masters Cup). He had to go all the way to the final match of the official tennis year to get the job done. It was like a World Series being decided on a home run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs -- in the seventh game.
Tennis has an 11-month season; it's played on most continents, and its infrastructure (a points-based ranking system and a bewildering schedule of events of varying importance) all lend themselves to having a year-long race culminating in a YEC championships that determines the final rankings, including the all-important top spot (as it did in 2000).
Yet media attention, fan interest, player support and even attendance at many tour championships have been abysmal. Part of this is because tennis is largely seen as warm-weather, summer enterprise, especially with three of the four majors taking place between the end of May and the beginning of September. Another part of this is because the media bigs (sports editors and television producers) are lazy and inattentive, and largely myopic when it comes to appreciating some of the great things about tennis -- especially its global nature. And another part of the problem is that the tours have too often gone where the sponsorship money is instead of staging their YEC in a major media market.
Tennis needs to make a renewed effort to popularize YECs. The men are on their way to doing this by moving their grand finale to London as of 2009. The women, regrettably, have followed the money and are going to be playing their final event far from the spotlight and tennis' fan base, in Qatar. The money in the desert might be good, but nobody is going to care, and only those who drink the tennis Kool-Aid will watch.
It's a sad state of affairs, because right now as many as 40 of the male players have a shot at making the YEC (only four have clinched berths: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray), which means that for those guys, these next few weeks are going to be very interesting -- as they ought to be for us -- if only we embraced the YEC concept.