Apologies to the ATP World Tour Finals and WTA Championships, but tennis does not have a true year-end playoff. If it did, those two events would be when the stakes are at their highest, the spotlight at its brightest, and the television ratings at their strongest. Don't let the ubiquitous advertisements for the 2012 World Tour Finals fool you: The four Grand Slam tournaments are the closest thing tennis has to a playoff.
It could be worse: Tennis could be like golf, which recently created and has heavily promoted its playoff, the FedEx Cup, despite having four iconic major tournaments of its own. The competition has been a tough sell to serious golf fans for a multitude of reasons, and I've yet to meet a casual golf fan who's taken a serious interest in it.
It could be like auto racing, whose Chase for the Cup has been well-received by drivers, except that NASCAR's most prominent race, the Daytona 500, isn't a part of it. Of course, the famous season-opener plays a large role in determining who qualifies for the Chase, but it's sort of like saying Wimbledon is a feeder tournament into the ATP season-ender in London. Something just isn't right about it.
It could be like hockey or men's college basketball, two sports whose playoffs are widely praised. I'll be the first to admit that the theater of their postseasons is tough to beat. But I also think their regular seasons are significantly compromised because of it. The NHL admits more than half of its league into the Stanley Cup playoffs; the NCAA selects 68 men's basketball teams -- a large number by any measure -- to be part of the tournament. The NHL and NCAA men's hoops regular seasons aren't meaningless, but success in them is all but forgotten when knockout time begins.
Tennis, by contrast, spreads the wealth with its quartet of Slams, each managing to inspire a playofflike atmosphere. And with the sport's harebrained 10-plus-month-long schedule, that's a good thing. I'm not sure anything in a single season is worth that long a wait. It's worked out well, with these four powerful attractions generating widespread interest in the game during the winter and summer months. Yes, some finality would be nice, but the exquisitely crafted fabric of tennis is too beautiful to tear.
Here's another benefit of tennis' playoff-less structure: There's no true regular season. Now, you can view the Umags, the San Joses, the Acapulcos and Shanghais as part of a regular season, if you like, but these tournaments aren't created equal in terms of ranking points, prize money, surface and draw size, to name a few factors. Although they exist as part of one calendar, each tournament in a sense lives in a vacuum, standing on its own, which adds to its overall value.
When Juan Monaco won last week's U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston -- a decidedly minor event among all ATP tournaments -- his exuberant celebration was both joyful and telling. I doubt you'll see many similar reactions when a Major League Baseball team wins one of its staggering 162 regular-season games this summer. To me, a long, drawn-out calendar like that of MLB (and the NHL and NBA) is more of a slog than what tennis offers. There's one champion crowned in the major team sports in the U.S.; there are multiple champions crowned every week in tennis.
To me, tennis manages to strike a fine balance with its calendar, which contains elements of a "regular season" and "playoff" without some of their negatives. There is always room for improvement, and tennis' schedule is oft-maligned for good reason -- primarily because there's no time to breathe. But having just watched March Madness, and currently enjoying the NHL playoffs while avoiding the MLB regular season, I realized that tennis might not have it so bad after all.