After yesterday’s low-quality match between Roger Federer and David Ferrer, followed by a lackluster display of tennis between Juan Martin del Potro and a half-dead Janko Tipsarevic, we discuss the ATP World Tour Finals and ways to solve its shortcomings in a Changeover Chat, a quick back and forth between the writing staff at The Changeover.
Juan José: The World Tour Finals have been a flop so far. We haven’t had a single compelling match. Murray-Djokovic looked like one, but really wasn’t.
Lindsay: I’m still not recovered from the horrific two three-setters from Wednesday.
Juan José: What’s killing me is how perfect the execution of the event is these days. The scheduling of matches is perfect. In terms of pure logistics and the way the World Tour Finals look, I think they’re as close to perfection as you can get. But the product has sucked badly. Half the guys are burned out. The quality has been poor, to say the least. I think part of the problem might be that the format is wrong. I know why we have round robin – to guarantee three matches from the top players. But wouldn’t a 16-player NCAA-style thing be much more fun? No random draw: just straight seeding. 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15. No draw conspiracies.
Amy: I have to say, I hate the idea of having 16 players, because half the fun is watching who can qualify for the top 8.
Lindsay: I like the ATP Race to 8. But the actual race itself hasn’t been compelling at all the past few years.
Juan José: The race only starts in earnest after the US Open ends – i.e, when tennis dies in the minds of most people, so how is that fun? Also, how was this year’s race fun? Everybody backed into it.
Amy: Technically, it begins at the beginning of the year. It heats up at the end of the US Open, but it rewards year-long success. If I were a player like Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro, or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, I’d be making that a goal for the year. For example, del Potro had a great comeback year in 2011, but wasn’t able to qualify for the World Tour Finals. It was a big deal for him to get back in that mix this year after such a long road back from injury.
Juan José: But nobody challenged that group of players you mention! They stayed the course and made it. Like everybody knew they would.
Lindsay: I remember when Mardy Fish made it last year, he talked over and over about how much it meant. Same for Tipsarevic, which is why he’s still playing. And I remember when Roddick qualified for the 8th year in a row how special that was. It’s a nice reward for players who aren’t in Grand Slam contention due to the Big Four, but have still had stellar wins.
Juan José: Wouldn’t it be more fun if you had someone who really caught fire at the end of the year go? Say like … Janowicz?
Lindsay: But how is that fair to reward sporadic success? It has to be based on full year, otherwise it’s not fair. I have talked about the fun of wildcards for the WTFs before, but when I think seriously about it, it’s not appropriate.
Amy: I’m with Lindsay. I don’t like the idea of wildcards for year-end championships. Sure, you might be able to have a hot player in the tournament, but do they really deserve it? Qualifying for the World Tour Finals is a big honor, especially for the borderline qualifiers.
Juan José: I didn’t mean rewarding people with wildcards. But by expanding the field to 16 players, you might get someone in at the very end who is actually playing well. It also gives guys outside the top 10 something to fight for.
Lindsay: There are so many points given out at the event. I wouldn’t mind having wildcards or a bigger field if it were an exo-type Pro Bowl thing.
Juan José: The main issue is the date of the event. It has to happen two weeks after the US Open, or bust. Right now it’s essentially meaningless. It’s this thing we’re supposed to care about, but so many people clearly don’t.
Amy: It was a poor decision giving them no rest between Paris and the World Tour Finals. It obviously affected the results in Paris. And the World Tour Finals qualifiers who made the trip to Paris, though they lost early, are probably tired now too. If there had been a week between the two events, I don’t think it would’ve been quite so bad.
Juan José: That was an awful call, I agree.
Lindsay: But the players lobbied for it so much. If I recall correctly, they wanted a shorter tennis season, and kept saying, “We’re here, right by the tournament, then we have a week off for no reason?” At least I know Roddick said that a lot.
Juan José: The sad truth is, tennis more or less dies after the US Open.
Amy: For true diehards, the tennis season never ends!
Lindsay: The right thing to do would be to have a smaller event the week before. Having it be a Masters 1000 is too much. Have a 250 or 500 or something, and then only players still qualifying can play.
Amy: That makes sense.
Juan José: To me, the solution to everything would be to ditch the idea of a calendar season. Do what other sports like soccer or the NBA do and have a season spread across two years. That way you can “start” the season about two months after the US Open, with smaller tournaments. I’m not advocating for a two-year ranking, but I want a tennis season that starts at the end of November and ends in September of the following year.
Lindsay: I think it makes sense to move Paris to February like they’re talking about.
Juan José: It’s a no-brainer. Still, Paris is a very small part of the problem. The main issue is still the part of the season in which the WTF takes place right now. It’s after this second, slightly higher-end European indoor season, when guys already went to Europe to play indoors earlier in the year. There should be only one European indoor season; not two.
Lindsay: I completely agree with that. And with all the American indoor tournaments leaving (sad!) it could theoretically make room for a more concentrated/important European indoor season in February.
Juan José: The World Tour Finals is a glorified epilogue. The tennis season from January to early September is like a great novel. But after the novel is over, there are 30 pages of bibliography, ads and assorted filler before the actual epilogue. How does that make any sense?
Amy: If you put it the year-end championships in September, would it really be that much more exciting? I don’t think so.
Juan José: Of course it would! Because you could promote it during the US Open! And there’s actual drama IN the US Open for who qualifies or not, since you can get so many points at a Slam.
Amy: I disagree. I think the US Open crowd would tune out because the US Open just happened. After the summer stretch, particularly this year with Wimbledon, the Olympics, the American hard court season, and the US Open, even the most diehard tennis fans need a break. To squeeze in the year-end championships would be questionable. And it would have the same problems as it does now: burnout and fatigue from the players.
Juan José: Remember, I’m proposing a WTF two weeks AFTER the US Open, not immediately after. Two weeks fixes everything. But going back to the format, it’s essentially a glorified showcase. I mean … it’s played in a format that has no correlation to any tournament throughout the year! And it’s confusing!
Lindsay: It’s a Pro Bowl with ranking points. And you’re exactly right Juan José, the round-robin calculations suck. Let’s make this sport harder to understand, please.
Juan José: Ferrer might miss out on the semis even if he beats Tipsarevic in straight sets – all that needs to happen for that is for DelPo to beat Federer. If DelPo does come through … he would be in the semis and not the player who actually beat him, even though they both won the same number of matches. I hate round robin, honestly. There’s a reason it got scrapped mid-year when they tried it out in smaller tournaments. It’s confusing, and tennis is already confusing enough for fans.
Amy: I like round robin because players have more than one chance to earn a spot in the semis if they have a bad match-up. If you did it by draw, and Federer eliminated Ferrer in the first round, would that be better?
Lindsay: I like round robin too. But there has to be a way to simplify the scenarios so that we don’t need Nate Silver to understand them.
Amy: The way it is now, you get to see a lot of different match-ups. Even if one or two of them are duds, some of the rivalries are compelling. Last year, people were pumped about a Federer-Nadal round robin match, because it’s tennis’s biggest rivalry among casual fans.
Juan José: It was a great match, wasn’t it?
Amy: It wasn’t a bad match. It fell into that category of a match where one player (Federer) was in god-mode. That doesn’t make it a bad match; it makes it a less interesting match, yeah, but not necessarily bad.
Juan José: I’m sure half the audience didn’t think it was all that compelling (Nadal fans).
Amy: I’m sure you’re right. And the other half thought it was the best match they ever saw.
Lindsay: Federer doesn’t even remember the match.
Juan José: Thanks for making my point, Lindsay! To me, what irritates me the most, is that this WTF is such a wasted opportunity.
Amy: Realistically, though, the year-end championship even at its best won’t be a Slam. So what’s the aim?
Juan José: It has to be something AS BIG as a Slam. Not A Slam.
Lindsay: It doesn’t have to be as big as a Slam. But it should be at least as big as an Indian Wells/Miami. And this is just not.
Amy: I think the World Tour Finals can teach us one thing. You can’t really force or predict good tennis. You can bring together all the top players, and still get all boring matches. You can bring together players who are ranked outside the top 100 and have insanely great matches. Sure, this year we might end up with all duds. But changing the format wouldn’t necessarily guarantee greatness either. The WTA Championships format isn’t that different, and the scheduling is arguably worse. But you saw one of the best matches of the year, WTA or ATP, in Kerber vs. Azarenka.
Juan José: You can’t predict great tennis, but you can help your cause with little things like good scheduling. For example, the WTA Championships essentially sabotaged their own semifinals with their incomprehensible scheduling during their round robin matches.
Amy: Agreed. If you keep this round robin format, there will be some classics. If you change it to another, there might be some other classics. But tennis is unpredictable. So I guess my conclusion is that I’m okay with the current format, but a week of rest between Paris and the World Tour Finals is necessary.
Juan José: I’ll just state here that I hate the place in the calendar, I’m not a fan of the format, but at the very least they could help themselves with a week of rest before the tournament starts. The way things went this year, taking the empty week between Paris and the WTFs essentially affected both tournaments in a negative way. Paris was saved by Jerzy Janowicz – what will save these WTFs?
Lindsay: I think the biggest problem with these World Tour Finals is the feeling of inevitability and the feeling like we’ve seen this same tournament for the past two years. The ATP is one long streak of deja-vu.
Amy: Because the same players qualified?
Lindsay: Yup. And this just feels like lower-quality versions of matches we’ve seen all year, over and over. The consistency of the ATP is almost killing the World Tour Finals for me. But I am aware that it’s a personal problem for me, and that others feel differently. And I will say that if Delpo or Murray win it (or anyone else not Djoko-Fed, but they seem the likeliest) it’s a fun story.
Amy: You’re always going to have the arguments of whether consistency is fun to watch or if unpredictability is better. We’ve seen that dichotomy on the ATP and WTA Tours in recent years. I like both in moderate doses. For example, I enjoyed the fact that I could pick Djokovic confidently as the inevitable winner of the 2012 Australian Open, but I also enjoyed the fact that I couldn’t pick a winner on the women’s side. It’s kind of fun to have both. But all that said, if you’re a fan of unpredictable results, you probably won’t like the World Tour Finals the way it is now.
Juan José: I’m not a fan of complete chaos. I do want some semblance of consistent excellence.
Amy: From Paris, I think we can see that people hunger for a fresh player to break that dominance.
Lindsay: Agreed Amy. And I might add that last year Jo used his run to the Paris finals as a springboard for a run to the finals of the WTF. It really was a fun two weeks, and at least for me it added a kick that was needed at the end of the season. Gosh I wish Jo had some spark left this year. He does not.
Amy: If a player like Berdych or del Potro were to win the World Tour Finals this year, and use it to launch an amazing 2013, that would be exciting.
Juan José: But that’s the thing. Other than Federer, who has ever used a WTF win to launch a good year?
Amy: Well, who’s won the World Tour Finals for six of the last nine years?
Juan José: Right. The only exceptions are Nalbandián, Davydenko and Djokovic. All of whom failed to build upon WTF success. If you ask me, Davis Cup is a better launching pad for players whose initials aren’t RF.
Lindsay: So what’s the final verdict? Is there one? Are we ALL just without spark these days, or am I just feeling like that because I’m off sugar and not handling it very well?
Amy: In the end, the World Tour Finals are what you make of them. If you’re expecting the best tennis of the year just because you have the best players, you will probably be disappointed.
Lindsay: That should be their new slogan. “ATP WORLD TOUR FINALS: They are what you make of them.”
Juan José: ATP WORLD TOUR FINALS: Do NOT Expect Greatness – the guys are tired.