Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Tennis [Print without images]

Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Esoteric round-robin format has its share of flaws

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

Four Points

Except for this coming weekend, where the Argentineans and Spanish will contest for Davis Cup supremacy, the year came to a close at the Tennis Masters Cup on Sunday in Shanghai. Just to clean things up, a final few reflections from a business perspective. Next year the tournament moves to London and takes on a new name as the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.

Round-robins a brainteaser
There's no denying there's a purpose behind the round-robin concept as an exclusive forum to showcase the top eight players of the year in a grand finale. It's a special event where fans can watch the best in the business play on at least three occasions during the week. But the truth is, the round-robin has always had its flaws, one being whether fans can follow the intricate mathematics of how it all works out.

Back in the early days, when the year-end tournament was called the Grand Prix Masters and was held at Madison Square Garden, the double-elimination round-robin format left players a lot of leeway to finesse results. Anyone who can remember back to 1980 will recall that Ivan Lendl tanked his final round-robin match to Jimmy Connors because that outcome would enable him to avoid facing Bjorn Borg in the semifinals. At the time Connors declared Lendl a "chicken" for throwing the match. Reaction was so vehement to the cunning maneuver that the season-ender was briefly changed to a 12-man knockout extravaganza.

The re-invention of the round-robin for year-end conclusion returned with a few more safeguards: Ties between two players in the same groups are decided by their head-to-head encounters, and a three-way tie goes to the player with the highest percentage of sets won. It keeps the competition more honest, but not always more exciting.

The formula, however, is as demanding as tour officials understanding the Pythagorean theorem. This year's Tennis Masters Cup turned out to be fairly straightforward, but it also left things a little too predictable. For instance, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray knew going into their last matches they were already guaranteed semifinal berths. Djokovic's loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final group match was nothing more than an exhibition.

China is crazy for tennis
As the Tennis Masters Cup -- a joint venture between the ATP Tour, International Tennis Federation and Grand Slams -- bids farewell to Shanghai, it can boast a successful run that brought nearly 500,000 fans to the event, which has been held here five of the past seven years. Interest is growing: Chinese citizens are picking up rackets and taking to the courts. The Chinese Tennis Authority is reporting that since 2004 there are 8.12 million people in the country playing tennis. Much of that increase is believed to be directly related to the interest in pro tournaments in the country such as the Tennis Masters Cup and the Beijing Olympics. Outreach tennis developmental programs are also expanding.

The Tennis Masters Cup might be moving on, but the ATP (as well as the WTA) is not abandoning China, as it realizes the financial potential in Asia. Qi Zhong Stadium will host one of the eight premiere ATP Masters 1000 events, a 56-player traditional knockout tournament in October.

Where the Olympics go, tennis will follow
The men's year-end tournament seems to follow in the path of the Olympics. On the heels of the announcement that Beijing would host the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Tennis Masters Cup found its home in Shanghai, another large metropolitan Chinese city. And now that the tournament is on the move again, it will settle for a four-year period at London's O2 Arena -- coincidently London will host the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The season-ender, however, is undergoing a transformation along with the 2009 move. It no longer will be a cooperative event that teams the ATP, ITF and Grand Slams as hosts. Next year's tournament will be a strictly ATP Tour production and will be known as the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Before the organizations joined together for the Tennis Masters Cup starting in 2000, the ITF actually ran its own year-end finale called the Grand Slam Cup. But it was determined that two season-ending events was one too many. The ITF is not planning to get into its own year-end business again and will instead consider the Davis Cup and Fed Cup finals as their calling card to closing out a season.

Recession aside, sponsors step up
The world might be in a financial crunch so extensive that tennis officials and players have broached the subject of tennis being hit by the downturn. But news in Shanghai came that at least two long-term tennis sponsors are not abandoning ship.

Rolex, the top-of-the-line Swiss watch company, has inked a deal to become the presenting sponsor of the ATP Shanghai Masters 1000 tournament. Fans can rest assured the Shanghai Masters 1000 will likely feature headliners such as Roger Federer and Andy Roddick -- check out their wrists and you'll see they're contracted to Rolex.

And the world's most famous crocodile branding -- Lacoste -- committed to continue as the official apparel and footwear partner for the already branded Barclays ATP World Tour Finals through 2013. That means umpires, linespersons and ball kids in London will be sporting the famous crocodile on court.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Stat of the week

Djokovic

4: Novak Djokovic was the only player on the ATP circuit this season to win four singles titles in as many continents: Australian Open (Australia); Indian Wells (United States); Masters Series Rome (Europe); Masters Cup (Asia).

Quote of the week

Bjorkman

"I've been very fortunate to be able to play for so long. It started as my hobby, and I've been able to do it for 17 years, which is great." -- Jonas Bjorkman, 36, after playing his final career match.

Is she or isn't she?

Ristic

Earlier in the week one of the local Chinese reporters at the Tennis Masters Cup inquired about the pretty lady in Novak Djokovic's friend's box. There was no hesitation by Djokovic, who quickly quipped, "It is Miss Universe." The local media seemed to think Djokovic was serious and the woman in question was a beauty queen. But in actuality, she is only Miss Universe in Djokovic's world -- it was his girlfriend, Jelena, a university student who was making a rare visit to watch her favorite player in action.

Still in charge

Drewett

Tennis Masters Cup Tournament Director Brad Drewett is set to assume that role again when the tournament shifts to London next year. However, being that Drewett is based in his home country of Australia and found the monthly travel to Houston during the two years the year-end event was played there a challenge, there will be some aspects of the job he will redistribute among London-based staff.

Nevertheless, the potential is there for Drewett to be out of the season-ending tournament director business, as he's considered one of the leading candidates from within the ATP organization to replace Etienne de Villiers as the chairman of the ATP Tour. Drewett declined to be interviewed on his candidacy, feeling it inappropriate to talk about his bid for the position since he is currently an ATP employee. One issue that could surface if Drewett inherits de Villiers' job is where he will be based. In the past it has been believed that operating the tour from Australia would be a challenge, considering the time difference from the rest of the world's business operating hours.