I allow myself to briefly occupy the mythical Commissioner of Tennis Chair that John McEnroe publicly campaigns for now and again. Johnny Mac campaigned long and hard to be the U.S. Davis Cup captain only to quit after one year, but when should reality ever hurt speculation and offering advice? Here are my 5 (best?) ideas on how to spread the great sport of tennis.
1. Increase Web Content and Web Access to Tennis – This sport is as close to truly global as one can imagine unless penguins suddenly start serving and volleying. Tennis’ fans are divided by oceans and time zones, but the love of the game is present. Live and recorded web content can help fans keep up with the sport. Web access to the Sampras-Federer and Nadal-Gasquet exhibitions could be the start of something big. Web content could also include magazine type programs that give a condensed digest of the happenings in the sport. Such programming does exist but making it state of the art and accessible would give tennis a leg up in the new media.
2. Take Advantage of HD TV and the Wii – Watching tennis live is an incredible experience that TV does a poor job of capturing. Side courts and practice courts give fans access to the amazing things WTA and ATP players can do with the ball. Watching the Jelena Jankovic – Serena Williams Australian Open match on a large HD TV flat screen was really impressive because the spin and pace of the ball was much easier to appreciate.
Similarly, articles have been written about how detailed video games dealing with (U.S.) football have left the NFL with a set of informed viewers who at young ages know the difference between a nickel and dime defense. Kids love playing tennis on the Wii (I am still stuck with an emulator of the 8 bit Nintendo). These young gamers can learn why a slice makes for a good approach shot or how to hit an effective return of serve if the games are realistic enough. Such knowledge can only help create knowledgeable fans. Tennis is more enjoyable if you know what you are watching.
3. Get Andy Roddick and Roger Federer to San Quentin – Tennis Magazine did an article about tennis at San Quentin. Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black”, went to San Quentin to perform for the prisoners. Roddick and Federer were the men in black at last year’s U.S. Open quarterfinal. Get them to San Quentin to play an exhibition and put on a clinic for the prisoners. The positive media from this would be insane. It also might happen to be the right thing to do.
4. Find Some Way to Incorporate Head-to-Head Matches into the Final Leg of the Season – The various stakes matches Jimmy Connors contested in the 1970’s helped tennis grow. A prize fight atmosphere with ranking points on the line is different from an ordinary tournament. Watching guys play 5 matches in 1 week to win an International Series event means that even smaller venues can lead to burnout and injuries over an 11 month schedule. Having top 50 players commit to 2-3 head-to-head match events before the season begins with ranking points attached would be a way to put big name contests in front of the public while also cutting down on the number of matches a player logs during the season. This could be fun and would be easy to market if ranking points were at stake. A fan could buy a ticket to a day at a certain venue knowing that the day had 3 matches with intriguing pairings. Each day would have a set number of good matches and players would play only 2 or 3 matches in an entire week. This would not be the failed round robin system that tennis tried in 2007. Rather, it would look a lot like boxing in that matches would be discrete events and the winner would be rewarded with ranking points for that performance.
5. Have Ranking Preferred Surfaces Centered Around the Grand Slams – World #4 Nikolay Davydenko winning a clay court event 2 weeks before Wimbledon should not happen.* The U.S. Open Series has attempted to link money to U.S. hard court events in order to woo elite players to smaller North American hard court events. It is a nice idea, but until a major ranking point disparity is associated with these events elite European players will stay home until Masters Series Canada.
Here is my concept Jan 1 – early March outdoor hard courts are the preferred surface moving Indian Wells and Miami to earlier dates. The Australian Open would still occupy the unique spot of basically opening the year, but at least 1/2 of the tour would not run to South America to play on red clay right after the events end in Oz. 2nd week of March – 1st week of June red clay courts are the preferred surface with the South American clay court season being moved closer to the French Open. From the 2nd week of June through the 2nd week of July grass courts are the preferred surface. This even gives a nice bit of protection to the Hall of Fame Classic in Newport, RI. From the 3rd week of July through the second week of September outdoor hard courts are again the preferred surface. After the U.S. Open ends, the tours would have no preferred surface. This would also be a time in which a series of head-to-head matches could replace some smaller events.
A preferred surface event would have at least 200% of the ranking points of any event played on a different surface during the same week. If a player chooses to play in a non-surfaced preferred event he or she can win money and some ranking points, but his or her seeding should be impacted at the Grand Slam event due to not maxing out ranking point opportunities. By giving 50% of the points to clay court events in July while also radically enhancing the profile of the red clay court circuit in South America, I think clay court and non-clay court specialists alike could have cause for celebration. Non-preferred events could be a hybrid between regular tour events and satellite events.
* Davydenko did win fewer points than Nadal or Federer last week, but what in the heck is a top 5 player who reached the Wimbledon round of 16 in 2007 doing playing on clay when tennis only has a 5 week grass court season? Davydenko received 175 ranking points as compared to Nadal and Federer each picking up 225 points for winning on grass. Getting 77% of the same boost as winning a tournament on grass during the grass court season is foolish decision making on the part of the ATP. The tours need to point toward certain events. The more the Masters Series and International Series events present a coherent narrative leading into the French Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open the better. Of course the WTA and ATP will say it is not their job to promote ITF events, but this gets into the problems of tennis’ alphabet soup where different bodies row the boat in different directions and the sport goes nowhere. Realistically, tennis does need to have circuits that feed into Grand Slam events. Davis Cup and Federation Cup on the other hand …
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