Thursday, October 06, 2011

Potential Player Strike and Scheduling Issues

Apologies for not posting much recently, a lack of motivation at this time of the season, along with some other things going on in the outside world have been of higher priority.

Adam Helfant CEO of the ATP is stepping down, the best things that can be said about him, were that he wasn’t Etienne de Villiers (Mr. Disney) the former supremo and unlike Mr. Disney he was prepared to work in the background. No matter who the CEO of the ATP is, there have been problems with the schedule and implantation of changes to benefit the sport, unlike the Round Robin tournaments which were pushed through quickly that only Ion Tiriac and de Villiers were in favour of.

Andy Murray
Andy Murray has been complaining about the schedule in the press and there’ll be a player meeting in Shanghai about possible strike action. This has been an ongoing problem with the length of season and complaints about the schedule, however little has been achieved in regards to this particular problem.

Formation of the ATP
In theory the ATP means (Association of Tennis Professionals) but the reality is that it’s more favour of the tournament directors. Initially the group was formed as a partnership between tournament directors and players with ex-IMG Mark Miles as the head. It established the 9 Masters Series events the lower level below the Slams as their major events, but as time went on the partnership waned to such a degree that they are conflicting against each other. As the next quote will show this is not a new problem . On March 10, 1999 former world No. 1 Thomas Muster told the German newspaper Die Welt: “I look at the ATP not so much as a representative of players but as a firm that in marketing even works against the players. I don’t like the way tennis is dominated by Americans. The problem is that tennis is governed by the Americans and financed by the Europeans. Changes must come quickly, and the future of our sport is at stake”. Muster highlighted the problems of the ATP as it stood then and little has changed.

There is a player meeting in Shanghai, will be interesting to see what comes out of it, something or a whole lot of nothing. Roger Federer who has always been smart with his scheduling won’t be present, rightly or wrongly he is seen as an influential figure within the game. One thing that needs to happen eventually is that the players have their own union, so they can negotiate without feeling compromised within the existing structure. An example of this when a player comes back from a drug ban, that player shouldn’t get wildcards into tournaments, but they were overruled by the ATP who were once again in favour of the tournament directors.

Potential for Players Union
Currently there is a distinct lack of player representation collectively, individually it would be too costly to negotiate, therefore a union is needed lead by a respected member and negotiator to fight for and push through their interests. There are problems with this naturally in an individual sport as the needs for the top players are different for the guys who are battling through on the Challengers and Futures. Accounting for these diverse interests a Player union is a better alternative to the current situation with the ATP.

Murray said “"We just want things to change, really small things. Two or three weeks during the year, a few less tournaments each year, which I don't think is unreasonable.". The intent of the statement isn’t necessarily bad or whiny even, but Murray is a top player who has greater flexibility when it comes to scheduling than say players like Dustin Brown, Yuri Schukin etc etc. He has the 4 Slams, only 8 of the TMS events are compulsory since Monte Carlo got downgraded, plus 5 !SG events, plus a couple of tune ups for the Slams. The top 50 is very much the promised land, 50-100 is a mix of ATP events and challengers, so there is room for flexibility albeit on a smaller scale.

Challenger Issues
Outside of the top 100 is where the other side to fewer tournaments hits the hardest.
A factor that tends to be overlooked is how relatively speaking the prizemoney for Challengers and Futures hasn’t increased proportionally over a significant period of time. Yes, there has been an increase in ranking points, but the prizemoney for Challengers should also be increased. These players due to economic necessity for the most part have to play more tournaments to get the experience, gain or defend ranking points dependant on the situation, therefore earn more money, if there were less tournaments then they’re impacted negatively.

This is the perfect situation for a well organised union to talk to their members with diverse interests. The top players want to play fewer tournaments and have a longer off season, for those complaining about exhibitions, all they are glorified training sessions. The benefits of a longer off season are that the body has more time to rest and recover from a hard season of travelling, playing events and with the increase of slow hardcourts the surface which produces the most amount of stress on the joints doesn’t help either. With a longer off season, then the players can have more time to build their speed endurance base which is essential for tennis these days, as the game has become more physical. The average age of the top 100 is higher due to the physical factor along with surface homogenisation, it takes longer to breakthrough than before, this isn’t surprising as modern tennis dictates this. It would be up to the union rep to present a case to the lower ranked guys that even though there are less events, that they would benefit in the long run physically and mentally. The competitive aspect of tennis is very tough and the week in, week out nature, contributes to mental fatigue as well and unlike golf, tennis is a physical sport and out of the other main global sports it does have the shortest off season.

It doesn’t matter that players have been getting injured before, but since it’s the top players the cash cows who make money for the tournaments then it gets highlighted, instead of simmering in the background. Whether people like these players or not, the top players do generate extra ticket sales, advertising and more revenue for the tournament, so the tournament directors aren’t happy if these guys are withdrawing from events, as for the fans they are not usually the first people considered, as it is usually the corporate and the sponsors that are taken care of first, before the average fan is considered. Fans have only one thing in common in that they like tennis, what one fan might complain and sigh none of the stars are so they won’t watch, while others will take the opportunity and appreciate the tennis is on offer and not just cause of the name.

Davis Cup and TMS issues
When the TMS events went to best of 3 sets finals instead of 5 sets this was done to appease the top guys who wanted more money for playing for best of 5 and also giving them 1st round byes, so they would commit to all of the events. The ATP threatened to ban these players from the next TMS event if they withdrew citing injury, this was never going to happen so it was done as an inducement. Indian Wells and Miami are well attended events but they should be reduced to 64 players instead of 96, no need for any event outside of the Slams to go longer than a week.

Davis Cup is another problem that needs to be addressed, it’s a wonderful competition but the players are never happy. They wanted the Davis Cup schedule as it is currently, Ricci Bitti agreed to it, now some of the guys are whining when they got the dates they wanted. Ranking points for playing Davis Cup ties is fundamentally wrong, but it’s something that isn’t going away any point soon. Maybe having 14 teams in the World Group instead of 16, where the finalists have a bye in the 1st round, then quarter finalists and 1st round losers would play off for the 12 spots in the World Group. The ITF make a lot of money from Davis Cup, the game has been around a lot longer than the players, no one is bigger than the sport, though we all have evolve with the times, but a biannual Davis Cup isn’t the answer.

As it stands currently the Australian Open is a clear example of who has prepared well in the off-season and this should be rewarded, but in reality the lead up for a Slam is too short and in an ideal world there would be a TMS before it, though that would involve a large restructuring of the tennis calendar. The Australian Open has to be in January, best time for the event, which spent many years resurrecting its reputation. Wimbledon would move back a week or so and give the players an extra week to adjust to the grass, but Wimbledon is generally all about its own interests and not necessarily for the game, even more so than the other Slams. Tennis is a global sport and this needs to be reflected in the calendar.

ATP Organisation

It’s unlikely that there’ll be significant changes at any point soon. For something like this to be discussed, this would mean disparate groups such as the ATP, ITF, tournament directors would have to come together and make compromises for the better of the sport, if there are enough forward thinking individuals within the respective organisations to do that. Except that this would never happen. Therein lies the problem there is less than zero leadership within the leaders of the tennis community and a convention of blind people have more vision than the ATP.

Tennis has previously had player strikes it happened at Wimbledon 1973 when 79 players of the ATP boycotted the event due to Niki Pilic being banned for not playing a Davis Cup tie. It’s an industrial dispute which needs to be sorted, it’s disappointing it’s taken this to highlight the problem. There has always been a hierarchy in society and tennis is no different in this regard. If the top cash cows aren't playing, then the product suffers, for this reason alone, not for the good of the players, fans or the game that significant changes would be made.


Rosieee said...

A very well written & informative piece! You have some really good ideas on the matter! I now understand why it took you so long to write! ;-)

Hewitt=Legend said...

Great article mate, should be interesting to see what comes out of this players meeting.

Martine said...

Very nice read as always!

fast_clay said...

written with complete clarity... top job

rhinooooo said...

Great read. Too much sense.

cobalt60 said...

Excellent article! Another change could be not forcing players to play so many mandatory events. Then if the tournament loses money and closes so goes the economics. It would be really nice for players to not be forced into playing so many tournies this way. Maybe there would be less big names at smaller tournies but tennis is fun to watch as long as the top 100 or so are playing imo. At least maybe for those smaller tournies.

michelle said...

As always, a most informative and interesting read. Looking forward to the follow up after the players' meeting :P

Denys said...

Interesting take on a difficult situation, sadly I don't see much tangible change in the near future, which is disappointing.