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Friday, December 5, 2008
Updated: December 8, 1:54 PM ET
How to preserve the game's top dogs

You all saw the news that Roger Federer cut his preparations for the French Open by a hefty 50 percent for 2009 -- he'll be playing just two clay-court warm-ups for Roland Garros, instead of the four he logged this year.

This was an inevitable development for two reasons: Federer is at that stage in his career when the tournaments run together in a blur, and even Masters-grade events have a ho-hum familiarity to them. Second, The Mighty Fed shows signs of tiring from the grind the top players are put through, carrying the tour so that all those journeymen and aspiring top-tenners can make a decent living from the game.

Sometimes, it's almost enough to make you think they ought to bring back the challenge round -- the format that many tournaments way back in the stone age of the game used, and which survived as the Davis Cup format well into the Open era (it was fully replaced by our present "World Group" system in 1981).

The challenge round concept accords a champion special status by allowing him to sit out the entire tournament, until the final. The tournament is played to determine a challenger for the champ.

It sounds crazy in this day and age, but our present system is a little weird, too. After all, Rafael Nadal has already established himself as (arguably) the greatest clay-court player who ever lived. Yet if he expects to win his fifth French Open in a row come May, he has to take the same seven-match road as a lucky loser.

The only advantage Nadal gets is a seeding, which is less a perk than a way to ensure he doesn't meet any of the other top contenders too early in the tournament. In other words, it both highlights and softens the harsh reality of the tournament format.

Now ponder this: The only international, individual sport that has anything like tennis' following is boxing. Does the heavyweight champ have to fight his way through a tournament, or all the divisional contenders, to stay champ? Nah. That's for tennis players.

It's funny, but if they re-instituted the challenge round next year, Nadal and Federer would have a considerably lighter workload (they might play the same number of matches as, say, the No. 15 player in the world) and would actually be able to play almost every tournament -- since they'll have a free pass to the final at every tournament where either of them is defending champ.

A lot of people can't get their minds around this, of course, and television execs are already hatching their plans to have my head lynched. But if you really want to reduce the work load on the top players, avoid withdrawals of convenience, and provide great incentives to win, this probably would do the trick.

What you give up, in an era of multiple international stars, is being able to sell tickets for fans to see one guy -- the defending champ -- in action in the rounds leading to the final (which is why tournament promoters, and probably you, are already hatching etc., etc.). But the title-holder would be around, preparing for the final, and don't think that wouldn't be a PR windfall, or lead to a thousand story lines for the media.

And when it comes to Davis Cup, the virtues of a challenge round approach are even more striking. It would eliminate all or part of two of the biggest complaints about the competition -- that it eats up too many weeks of the calendar, and that the Cup winners don't have enough time to savor their achievement before having to begin defending the Cup.

Let's be realistic: Tennis has outgrown the challenge round format, but let's remember that people are creatures of habit. I'm not sure a single person would complain about the format if it were still used today.