When used right, round robin works

The year-end championships are a perfect example of how well round robin can work. So what went wrong last week in Las Vegas?

Updated: March 6, 2007, 5:39 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

The round-robin story out of Las Vegas will keep bobbing along until the ATP brass hashes things over at a board meeting in Florida later this month. While the future of the tour's current experiment hangs in the balance, it's worth remembering that the format -- with different algebra applied -- has long been used without inciting the kind of riot it did last week.

Retired standouts Jim Courier and Todd Martin both said they think four-man round robin groups, as opposed to the three-man alignment used in several tournaments already this season, are more practical and fair to the players.

When each player has three games instead of two, fewer ties ensue and there's less chance of having to "drill down into percentages of games or sets won" to decide who advances into the knockout round, Courier said.

"By and large, it's a lot cleaner and more straightforward for fans to understand," he said.

The four-player format is used in both the men's and women's year-end championships, in which only eight players qualify. Two players advance from each group into the semifinals.

Martin said he's far more comfortable with that setup than the three-man geometry in which one player in the last group match can hold disproportionate power over the fate of the other two.

No one has implied that Juan Martin del Potro had any ulterior motive when he elected to retire due to breathing problems when he was losing 6-1, 3-1 to James Blake in the final match of their round-robin group in Las Vegas. But del Potro's decision triggered the rulebook domino effect that ultimately put Evgeny Korolev through to the quarterfinals based on his defeat of Blake. It's easy to see how an unethical player or players could manipulate the situation.

As Martin put it, "If Player A and Player B are on the same page, Player C can be hosed on purpose."

Yet rewriting the retirement rule would open up more gallon jars of worms. There has to be some incentive for players who are:
(A) Already through to the next round, or

(B) Already eliminated to play their last match -- otherwise, the marketing impetus for this format, to guarantee more matches by seeded players, would be neutralized.

Two players withdrew from separate groups in a tournament in Buenos Aires, Argentina, two weeks ago, complicating the competitive map as replacement players were brought in but could not advance, win or lose.

Martin's objections are also philosophical.

"I don't like seeing guys bat .500 [go 1-1 in group play] and be able to move on," he said. "In a four-man group, you have to win the majority of your matches to progress."

Courier remains a fan of the concept, and said he was disgusted by the way the players piled on to criticize round-robin play.

"You'd think they'd never heard of it before, when in reality there's a long, successful history of round robin at the ATP level," he said. "They all play and compete all year to qualify for the Masters Cup championships."

He'd like to see a 32-man draw start with eight groups of four playing in a round robin and send two from each group to the quarters.

That's far simpler than the current head-spinning, "32-hybrid" format, in which the 16 lower-ranked players initially play a regular knockout match; those eight winners join the 16 seeds to form eight groups of three for round-robin play; and the eight group winners advance to the quarterfinals.

"Going from single elimination in qualifying to round robin back to single elimination is too confusing," he said.

But Courier still thinks round-robin play and the advance scheduling it allows is a fan-friendly innovation, and pooh-poohs the argument that it potentially creates more meaningless matches.

"If you're a pro, you try," he said. "If you don't, you shouldn't be on the court."

Of course, no permutation of round robin is completely without its problems.

Longtime fans may recall the stink Jimmy Connors raised in 1981, calling Ivan Lendl a "chicken" and accusing him of tanking his third and final round-robin match at the year-end championships in order to get a more favorable semifinal pairing and match time. (Both players already had advanced to the semis with 2-0 records when they played one another. Lendl lost a second set to Connors in 18 minutes and wound up winning his semi against Gene Mayer, while Connors lost to Bjorn Borg.)

Lendl denied the charge. "I can understand how somebody can say I did, but I say I didn't," Lendl said at the time.

Numero dos
Now that Roger Federer has passed Connors for consecutive weeks at No. 1 (162 and counting), we thought it was time to indulge our curiosity about Rafael Nadal's more obscure and possibly more interesting rankings achievement.

Raphael Nadal
AP Photo/Kamran JebreiliRafael Nadal's grip on the No. 2 ranking is almost as strong as Federer's on the top spot.
Nadal has owned the No. 2 slot since July 25, 2005 -- 85 straight weeks -- the day after he won a clay-court tournament in Stuttgart. ATP media relations director and stats guru Greg Sharko confirmed our suspicion that this is a record, at least as far as he can reach back, and as long as weekly rankings histories have been meticulously recorded.

The top 10 is normally a game of musical chairs and such stability in one spot is the product of a confluence of strange forces. It took a player who can perform well enough to withstand challenges from below, yet is unable to crash through the concrete ceiling above.

Nadal has won eight tournaments since Stuttgart -- though none since last year's French Open -- four on hard courts followed by four on clay. He's beaten Federer four of the six times they've played since they became tennis' one-two punch. That has been enough to keep the Spanish flag planted just below the Swiss one on the summit, but obviously not nearly enough to conquer it.

Nadal will carry a 62-match win streak on clay into the spring season. He surpassed Guillermo Vilas last year in that category, but there's another contest between the two that Nadal won't want to win. Vilas logged a total of 67 weeks at No. 2 in his career but never made it to No. 1. The young Spaniard would prefer to see his career end differently.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.