Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland arrives on court before his men's singles first round match against David Ferrer of Spain during the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at O2 Arena on November 21, 2010 in London, England.

From the smoke over the battlefields of the year’s final major emerges the curious coda to the tennis calendar.  We outline  four of the key issues that separate the fall from other stages of the season, discussing their impact on players and spectators for better and for worse.

1)      The Race(s) to the year-end championships

Point:  A sport that features new tournaments and new champions every week, tennis doesn’t fit especially well with the concept of accumulating points throughout an entire season for a single goal.  In the fall, when the Race becomes a dominant storyline, a series of quarterfinals can prove more meaningful than a title.  Spectators also must wrap their minds around the notion that a player’s fate depends in part upon the exploits (or lack thereof) of his leading rivals, not the case in the linear narratives of a tournament where players craft their own destinies.  This system thus rewards cumulative and comparative forms of accomplishment, much less prominent a factor when Slams rather than YECs loom ahead.

Counterpoint:  While tennis remains an interval competition, the battle to reach the equivalent of a season-ending “playoff” offers a common denominator with other sports that more general fans can appreciate.  Moreover, earlier rounds of the fall tournaments become increasingly significant in the context of the Race and thus increasingly compelling to watch.  Which unseeded opponents can play spoilers to the contenders?  Whose draw will most boost their hopes for Istanbul or London?  For one of the few times all season, the rankings system attracts attention for the right reasons.

2)      The unpredictable results 

Point:  In a span of the season with the spottiest participation and least determined efforts from many elite contenders, few classic matches between the great rivals of the era occur.  Among the examples of this trend was the unremarkable final between Federer and Nadal in London last year, or the equally pedestrian encounters between Federer and Djokovic throughout the fall.  And players often struggle to carry momentum from October and November through the offseason into the Australian segment when the intensity elevates again.  Now more than at any other time, the Llodras of the Tour can feel emboldened to defeat the Djokovices, the Melzers defeat the Nadals, and the Monfilses defeat the Federers.  Consequently, some tournaments conclude in lopsided final weekends between mismatched opponents or title matches pitting second-tier opponents against one another.  (This argument applies mostly to the ATP, since the WTA’s era of parity produces unpredictable results in all seasons.)

Counterpoint:  Far from foregone conclusions, early rounds can become adventurous rollercoasters that do more than rehearse for the final weekend.  As players like Nalbandian, Tsonga, Soderling, and Ivanovic could attest, one man’s complacency becomes another man’s opportunity.  Overshadowed by the giants of the game throughout the core of the season, less immortal but stunningly talented competitors can unleash their flashes of brilliance on relatively important stages.  Although Tour hierarchies bend without breaking, the fall illustrates the depth and diversity of the sport while providing an antidote to the ATP’s relentless predictability.  As much as one admires the dominance of a Rafa, a Novak, or a Serena, tennis becomes more human and engaging when their understudies seize these fleeting chances to shine.

3)      The concept of the Asian season

Point:  Historically rooted in the clay and grass of Europe, tennis also has found a lasting home in the United States and Australia, from which so many great champions have sprung.  Centered upon Asia, not a bastion of the sport’s traditional past, the fall season sometimes seems irrelevant to fans from other regions.  By enlisting in frequent exhibitions and promotional activities during this period, elite players inadvertently encourage the perception of Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and the rest as glorified exhibitions not far removed from the season-starting Abu Dhabi event.  As fans struggle to adapt their schedules around faraway time zones, the temptation grows to succumb to post-Slam withdrawal and cast one’s thoughts to Australia.

Counterpoint:  If Asia had a major, its tournaments would become significantly more legitimate and more closely followed (see below).  The Road to Roland Garros and the US Open Series almost certainly would decline in popularity if the French Open and US Open did not provide worthy climaxes for those sequences.  In that sense, comparisons between them and the Asian season prove futile.  While one should not underestimate the significance of tradition, furthermore, tennis can only gain by expanding into new markets and acquiring new fan bases, particularly as players from Asia continue to excel.  As American stars continue to stagnate, fans here have started to adopt a less nationalistic mentality by following foreign talents.  One of the key, distinctive advantages that this sport possesses over its more mainstream rivals lies in its multicultural diversity, and the Asian season capitalizes upon this asset.

4)      The year-end championships themselves

Point:  Since the four majors dominate the season for both players and spectators, the year-end championships have receded to a position of near-irrelevance at the exhausting end of a peripatetic calendar.  Injuries and mental fatigue have undermined not only the quality of the matches but the level of participation, causing recurrent retirements, substitutions, and listless efforts.  Reminiscent of exhibitions are the copious amounts of money and points available for anyone who can collect a round-robin victory—or merely appear on the court.  Despite nullifying external disturbances, indoor arenas too often produce conditions somewhere between sterile and surreal, as in the case of the O2 Arena’s eerie blue lighting.  With only eight singles players and two singles matches each day, the rhythm of the year-end championships can feel anywhere from plodding to glacial—but never suspenseful.

Counterpoint:  Few rebuttals can undermine the arguments above persuasively, so we provide seven suggestions for the improvement of these tournaments.  First, combine them into a single event of about a week that would show several singles matches each day (some WTA and some ATP).  Second, move the events to a site far from any of the Slam venues and preferably in Asia.  The WTA’s Istanbul location seems fair enough, but situating the year-end championships in the same city as Wimbledon strikes us as a recipe for redundancy.  Notwithstanding the Australian Open’s ambitious subtitle “the Grand Slam of Asia and the Pacific,” Asia inarguably lacks a major.  As noted above, its tournaments would increase in overall significance by their strategic arrangement escalating towards a “quasi-major” that would combine the best of both Tours.  Third, drop the free money and rankings points that provide incentives for injured but greedy players to stagger through three losses purposelessly.  Fourth, abolish the ATP rule that mandates inclusion of every Slam singles and doubles champion.  Fifth, turn the eighth spots into wildcard berths for players who may have struggled with too many injuries to include the requisite points but would add drama to the proceedings and deserve the wildcards by outstanding performances when healthy.  As even the most casual fans know, rankings do not provide a conclusive guide to a player’s title-winning potential.  Sixth, hold the event near the time of the women’s year-end championships, reducing the over-saturation problem of the nearly endless season.  Seventh, return to the best-of-five format in the men’s semifinals and final.  If this event truly represents a World Series of Tennis just half a step below the majors in meaning, it deserves a scoring system more appropriate for that role, not the same system as Metz and Bucharest.

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We return shortly with a preview of the draw in Tokyo, the last WTA Premier Five tournament of the season.

 

 

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