- Tandon Kamakshi
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When the ATP board meets in Shanghai next week to hammer out the final details for 2009's newly christened "ATP World Tour," thoughts of Rafael Nadal will hang in the air when the topic of tournament suspensions comes up.
The world No. 1 pulled out of the season-ending Masters Cup on Monday after hurting his knee at Paris last week, creating an intriguing test case for board members to ponder: suspension-worthy or not suspension-worthy?
The nine ATP Masters Series events are being reduced to eight "Masters 1000s," but players who skip one will pay for it the following season by missing the Masters event where they had their best result.
The rule is as follows, ATP spokesperson Kris Dent told ESPN.com: "It is planned that next season players who withdraw from any of the eight mandatory ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events, without fulfilling promotional activities or fulfilling requirements for an on-site withdrawal, will be suspended from a subsequent Masters 1000 event where the player earned the most points in the previous 12 months."
But players who are legitimately hurt will be let off, he added. "Clearly, if someone's long-term injured, they're not going to have the suspension. I believe there's going to be an injury tribunal set up to establish whether people are injured or not."
After valiantly meeting all the demands of this year's crammed calendar, chances are Nadal would be given the benefit of the doubt. But right after his announcement on Monday, it wasn't an absolutely clear-cut case. By his own admission, the decision to pull out of Shanghai was made before he underwent medical tests and was done partly as a precaution ahead of the Davis Cup final the following week.
James Blake, who, like many of his fellow Americans, usually skips one or two clay events during the spring, describes the expected workload as "mind-boggling" but is resigned to the new measure.
"I think we're going to have to deal with eight for eight mandatory events. It's unfortunate because I don't think that's good for the players," he said in Paris last week, where both Nadal and Roger Federer pulled out midway with injuries.
"You come in here to this tournament and you see the top two players in the world getting injured -- it couldn't be a clearer signal that the year is too long. There's too many mandatory events, too many times that we have to be playing."
Blake was the ATP player council vice president when the rule was being developed by tour officials, but said he had had little opportunity to prevent it. "I don't feel I had any say when I was on the council to begin with, but I don't think it's going to change," he said.
The good news is that next season promises to be a little less compressed than this year's Olympics-skewed schedule. And with extra weeks between some Masters events, different Davis Cup dates and a significant reorganization of the fall schedule, there should be fewer periods of intense, sustained pressure.
"If I look at the schedule for me for next year it is going to be so much easier than this year," said Federer in Madrid. "Obviously because there is no Olympic Games involved, we have those extra couple of weeks."
Add the introduction of additional incentives for playing Masters events and the ATP is hoping to largely avoid the thorny issue of when to suspend. "More money, better bonuses, considerable profit-sharing models -- the feedback from the vast majority of players is that they see the benefit of the model that's being put into place," said Dent. "Suspensions are there as a very last part of it."
The increase in sticks and carrots might seem to imply the ATP Tour has a problem with top player participation, but that couldn't be more false. Even in this most demanding of seasons, the top five all played each of the nine Masters events. So why the need to bring in a more stringent rule?
Because, says the tour, increased guarantees of player participation were the tradeoff for getting the top tournaments to increase prize money, improve promotion and invest a total of $1 billion in their facilities. A simplified and renamed tournament structure is being unveiled, featuring a new combined men's and women's clay event in Madrid and a new Masters event in Shanghai.
The new look is the outgoing legacy of ATP chief Etienne de Villiers, and it's an aptly ambiguous one given his turbulent 2½ years in the game. Soon after the former Disney executive with big ideas but limited tennis knowledge swept in, the men's tour became embroiled in what was no less than an ideological struggle.
De Villiers laid down the gauntlet at the 2006 U.S. Open. "There's always going to be the tradeoff between the Corinthian view of sport and what's best entertainment," he said. "At the end of the day, we're in the entertainment business."
In return, the so-called Corinthians gave him enough rope to hang himself. The South African-born, London-based de Villiers had early success in settling the tour's doubles strife, but the decision to introduce round-robin tournaments in 2007 proved to have serious repercussions. The complications caused by their unwieldy structure and midmatch retirements came to a head at the Las Vegas event, when de Villiers impulsively agreed to override the rules following a disputed result (involving James Blake). Officials reversed the decision the following day, but the format never survived the controversy. Neither did de Villiers' credibility.
"It's a good example of why you can't look at tennis and treat it as a business," Andy Roddick observed at the time. "There are players involved and matches are won and lost. It's not completely a show."
More trouble followed in short order. Attempts to downgrade the Monte Carlo and Hamburg Masters led not only to lawsuits from the tournaments, but a joint public statement from Federer and Nadal saying they were unhappy with the way things were being handled. Monte Carlo eventually settled its suit, but Hamburg briefly brought the ATP face-to-face with the prospect of its own destruction when the case went to court this summer.
The turmoil galvanized the players and made them determined to have a greater say in the tour's decision-making. The existing player representatives on the ATP board were swept out this summer. Then in an unprecedented move, the world's top three -- Nadal, Federer and Djokovic -- joined the player council that elects the player board representatives. Federer is currently the council president and Nadal the vice president.
De Villiers, once a familiar sight, has kept a low profile for the past few months and announced in August that he would not be seeking to renew his contract when it expired in December. Federer struck a conciliatory note when reflecting on the situation last month. "It wasn't all that bad," he said. "A few things could have been done in a better way, especially communication."
Somewhere amidst the drama, tour officials did manage to get broad approval for the upcoming revamp, with final details to be worked out in Shanghai. But not everything may be rubber-stamped -- rumblings from at least one player representative suggest some modifications could be attempted.
There's little doubt that tournaments will be delineated more clearly, but certain elements of the reorganization continue to receive external criticism. The new ranking-points structure has recently raised concerns, as have some of the name changes. Doubt also surrounds the decision to print writing on the nets -- a major aesthetic change that got a firm thumbs-down from Federer after a quick trial in February and has received little open dialogue.
But Dent counters that the changes are based on objective research -- the polling of 20,000 fans conducted on behalf of the ATP. "Sixty-one percent of people have come back to us and said they don't understand how the sport works. Now that is frightening," he said. "It's disappointing that some people aren't willing to accept what fans are telling us."
He feels critics are missing the big picture by focusing on individual details. "We're very confident [about] the changes," said Dent. "People have taken chunks of the overall plan and chosen to criticize those without looking at the whole of it."
Next season will provide the answer both the detractors and proponents are waiting for: Can the whole make up for some of its parts?
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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