Compared to the last two years, this year’s edition of the Championships has been relatively tame — favorites advancing, good weather, and relatively little controversy. This sets up a number of enticing matches for Manic Monday and beyond, but here are the questions we’re asking after this week’s play.
1. Will a clear favorite emerge for the Ladies’ title?
Some might have started this week lamenting the absence of the WTA’s two biggest stars — Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. But their absence has allowed the considerable talent of the WTA field to shine. The week started with two former champions (Venus Williams and Petra Kvitova) in the draw, as well as other Slam winners, including Victoria Azarenka, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Ostapenko, Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza, in contention. As of Manic Monday, all of these players, except for Kvitova, are still in the hunt, which makes for a number of exciting matches in the coming rounds.
2. What will it take to get multiple ladies matches scheduled on Centre Court?
I understand that the ticket holders want to see Murray, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, and that the All England Club also wants to highlight British players. But it’s simply shocking that five-time champion Venus Williams will be playing her first match on Centre on Monday. And it’s not even that she isn’t a contender — after all, she reached the Australian Open final in January. And, given the sheer number of former Slam winners in the ladies’ draw, there were plenty of other players who could have used the spotlight.
The issue here is one of exposure — the fewer WTA matches make it onto the top courts, the less exposure female players get — both to the audience of sports fans, and also for purposes of driving their other income, such as endorsements. Given that the WTA other recent woes with its TV coverage for regular tour events, this disparity exacerbates a problem that has to be resolved.
3. Retirements. Sigh.
This week has had its share of workplace type problems. The fact that two matches scheduled on Centre Court ended with player retirements on Day 2 served as a megaphone for those who have been lamenting the increase in player retirements, especially in ATP matches. There are two issues here — the right of a player whose health may be compromised to try to play, and the need to present a predictable product for live and television spectators. The first is pretty simple — of course an athlete has the right to try to play, and many probably feel that it’s worth a shot, in case they manage to pull together a quality run. It can happen — even as recently as last year’s US Open, an injured Novak Djokovic made it to the final, thanks, in part, to other player retirements.
The second issue is a harder one. Tennis has a predictability problem — matches can be of uncertain length (especially in best of 5), aside from the first round matches, you can’t predict with certainty who will be in each match, and weather can wreak havoc on a tennis tournament. It’s possible that throwing some money at this problem will help — and the Slams have plenty to spare. Here, paying the withdrawing player the losing player’s prize money regardless if they play, and then allowing a lucky loser to take the spot is an attractive solution, at least for the first and maybe second round. But, it’s hard to imagine that happening in the second week, and seems unfair to players who have played their way through the draw. Of course, as a tournament progresses, it becomes less likely that a player — whether injured or not — would not complete a match unless it was absolutely impossible, so the concern about filling in spots in the later rounds may not be significant.
One thing to note — part of this stems from the pay disparity between top players and the rest of the field, especially in this age of Big Four dominance on the ATP tour. Not only are the very top players winning all of the trophies, but they are also winning a disproportionate share of the prize money, leaving less for the lower ranked players to win in order to sustain an expensive career. I think the ATP’s initiatives towards increasing prize money at the lower tier tournaments and in the early rounds will help to alleviate this tension, but it is a problem that still needs to be addressed.
It’s ok not to like your job sometimes.
5. Novak. Andre. Hmm.
Novak Djokovic has looked a lot better than he has at any time in the last 12 months, through the first week. But he has not really faced the type of opposition that will push him enough to see where his game really is, and may not see that kind of opponent for at least one more round.
I’m still not sure what to make of this partnership. I enjoy Andre Agassi’s positive outlook, and encouraging words about his new charge. But I worry this may devolve into more self-help than strategy. I miss Boris and the hug guy.
I’d have no problem with a system that allows players who have earned their way into the draw to get paid. As you note, for most players that big chunk of first round loser money represents a big part of their yearly earnings and is a primary motivation for staying in the top hundred. It’s good for tennis for these players to make that money to help their careers going forward.
I still think tennis needs to consider why there are so many injuries and what can be done about that. The very best solution, after all, is to have 256 singles players show up healthy. That’s never going to happen, obviously, but the number of longterm, chronic injuries facing players – in both draws but especially among men it seems – is still a problem for the longterm health of the game. Paying players who withdraw from the tournament might have the added effect of encouraging players to actually take as much time off as they need to recover fully and reduce their chance of reinjury. But I continue to think the best ways of reducing injuries are the abolition of the fifth set, final set tiebreaks and the abolition of hard court tennis (in light of Mattek-Sands’s terrible injury, and the generally slippery conditions at Wimbledon, a lot of people might think my belief that grass and clay courts are healthier than hard courts is absurd – but most of those falls occur because of how little players play on grass and their uncertainty about footing, which is solved by playing more on grass. And hard courts are still, in my mind, the major cause of the kind of endless march of injury and re-injury.)
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