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Friday, November 14, 2008
Can we fix the fading YEC

Nothing speaks as eloquently to the issue of tennis' overlong season than the ongoing Tennis Masters Cup, the year-end championship of the ATP Tour. The concept of a YEC playoff was introduced in 1970 as the logical conclusion of a new "Grand Prix" system, in which players earned performance points throughout the year and collected year-end bonuses linked to the number of points they earned.

That was then and this is now, and our present YEC, which wraps up this weekend in Shanghai, differs from the early-stage YECs in two significant ways:

1. The Grand Prix was originally conceived (by hall of fame former player Jack Kramer) as a tool for encouraging players to compete as often as possible and to create playing opportunities at the dawn of the professional era (the theory being that tournament promoters had a better chance of success if they were part of a coherent system, offering inducements beyond on-site prize money).

2. In the glory years of the YEC (1977-85), when the tournament was called the Masters and held in New York's Madison Square Garden, it wasn't the last event of a given year -- it was the first big event of the new year (for most of that span, the Australian Open was largely ignored by the pros and often played at the end of the calendar year). Nobody found that straddling the calendar was confusing or unsatisfying.

In fact, one of the critical errors made in this period was moving the Masters out of its mid-January slot and holding it in December and, ultimately, November. It's hard to compete for consumer dollars during the holiday shopping season.

Those are two enormous considerations, and ignoring them accounts, at least partly, for the current quandary, which is neatly summed up by the fact that world No. 27 Radek Stepanek had a chance to win this event, even though he showed up in Shanghai as an alternate, midway through the tournament, without socks or rackets of his own.

You can't just put down the player-commitment problems (Rafael Nadal withdrew with a bum knee and Andy Roddick went home after rolling an ankle one match into the round-robin segment) to a bad year. It seems nearly every year is a bad one for the YEC. Look what happened in 2005, when Nadal, Andre Agassi, Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt withdrew from the event, and Roddick lurched out with a bad back -- all of which left Roger Federer as the only top-five player to finish the tournament.

With today's overloaded schedule (the official season ends with an important Masters Series event, which is almost immediately followed by the YEC), enormous increase in prize money (over the Grand Prix-era figures) and vastly improved competition, the beauty of the concept has faded. And only the lower-tier YEC qualifiers, who have a tremendous amount to gain from doing well in the YEC, feel any enthusiasm for the event.

The YEC has one more chance at recapturing its diminished luster and credibility. That will occur next year when the tournament moves back to London, where the power of a major media market and proximity to a vast pool of fans (and the home bases of many top stars) might turn the tide back the other way. But by this time, the outgoing current is awfully strong.