I have a problem with the names of tennis’ season-ending championships. It's not that I don’t think “WTA Championships” accurately conveys the importance of the event or that the former “Tennis Masters Cup” sounds so much cooler than today’s “ATP World Tour Finals.” And I’m not even talking about the much-maligned “WTA Tournament of Champions,” which somehow takes place after the season-ending championships. It’s something deeper that I take issue with.
It’s that I don’t think the two season-ending championships should end the season at all. They should be the season-beginning championships, even if the name needs some work.
This year’s WTA Championships in Istanbul wasn’t the flash point for this idea, but it didn’t dispel any concerns I had about the event’s position on the calendar, either. When Victoria Azarenka, who had played all of two matches since the US Open, cited burnout in one of her postmatch pressers, it was the latest in a long line of player complaints about the season’s interminable length. It even prompted the Tennis Channel’s commentators to say, in a preview of Azarenka’s next match, that one of her keys to success would be overcoming a “lack of motivation.” That looks bad for the world No. 2, of course, but the sport comes off even worse. Simply put, it’s an embarrassment -- in what other sport can you think of that being cited during a championship event (and in complete seriousness)? But we see and hear this every year in tennis.
And it’s not just today’s pros. Lindsay Davenport, no stranger to season-ending championships when she played, remarked on air that she used to put a calendar in her locker at the event to “count down the days.” Even if some players treat the season-ending championships like a fifth Grand Slam, the fact that other players find them as exciting as two-a-days really hurts the event’s credibility.
I believe that credibility can be restored, and the tours’ signature tournaments can flourish, if they are held at the beginning of the season rather than at the end. Azarenka’s and Davenport’s comments are hardly the only reasons.
The biggest reason, which ties in to what these two women said, is that the season-ending championships take place after a practically nonstop, 10-plus-month calendar. The players are fatigued -- and so are most fans. Yes, diehards would tune in to watch Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer trade groundstrokes on ice at the North Pole on Christmas Day, but the great majority of sports fans could not care less about these final showdowns. I’d be willing to wager that plenty of “non-casual” tennis fans have had their fill by September as well.
It’s tough to feel sorry for the millionaire players, I get that. But the quality of the season-ending championships can be compromised when some of the entrants are coming off of point-seeking binges in the weeks that lead into Istanbul and London. There is no break in between the final WTA and ATP tournaments and the season-ending championships, and it’s not uncommon to see players overexert themselves in an effort to qualify.
This would not be a problem, of course, if the WTA Championships and ATP World Tour Finals followed a proper offseason -- or at least tennis’ truncated version of one. The points race would then be for an exclusive tournament held at the beginning of the following season, a few weeks before the Australian Open, with all players rested, ready and motivated. If that reminds you of the lucrative exhibition tournaments many top players enter in early January (Abu Dhabi, Kooyong), that’s by design. With the round-robin format inherent in the current season-ending championships, players would get their guaranteed matches before Oz, against top competition, and be paid a princely sum to do so. It could effectively replace these exos, which in many ways detract from what the tours try to accomplish: promoting their own tournaments.
But most important of all, this change would give tennis a true kickoff experience that it presently lacks. For a sport that doesn’t have a real “opening day,” this is the perfect way to make fans aware of the new year, segue into the Australian Open and showcase the best talents at a premier, stand-alone event -- one that should combine both tours, just like the majors.
Another change for the better: The 24 round-robin matches should be spread out over six days (each day featuring two men’s matches and two women’s), with only the group winners advancing to a Sunday final. In an eight-player tournament, semifinals unnecessarily penalize the group winners, who sometimes win two more matches than their opponent. A player who finishes round-robin play at 3-0 deserves more than someone who ended it 1-2.
Last but certainly not least: This change can actually be accomplished, which is no small task in tennis. Since the season-ending championships take place at the end of a season, there’s no chain reaction set off if you moved the two events to the top of the calendar instead of the bottom. Doing so would also give the Fed Cup and Davis Cup finals more of a spotlight; currently these capstone events are played in the receding shadows of the season-ending championships.
And yes, I realize that in order to not cannibalize the tournaments currently held in the first week of January, the WTA Championships and ATP World Tour Finals would be played in late December. That’s not ideal at all, and hopefully those tournaments could be moved ahead a week to accommodate. There is one good thing about that December slot, however: They could still technically be called the year-end championships, even if they begin a new season.