Confusing athletic skill with intellect is dangerous. On the one hand, professional tennis players are nearly unanimous in their belief that the season is too long. Then again, who wouldn't like a shorter work schedule? On the other hand, when something close at hand is threatened, knee-jerk responses come to these fast-handed men and women quite easily.
Pity the efforts of ATP CEO Etienne de Villiers and WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott. Each has taken steps to streamline their respective calendars. De Villiers recently announced plans to eliminate clay-court tournaments in Monte Carlo and Hamburg from the slate of Tennis Masters Series events. Scott last month unveiled more details of the WTA's RoadMap 2010, a new structure that might be more nip-and-tuck than face-lift but is at least an attempt to bring order to a tennis year all-too-filled with withdrawals and shallow player fields.
So why are some of the most prominent players up in arms?
It almost seemed that within seconds of de Villiers declaring that Monte Carlo and Hamburg would be downsized in stature that players began whining. If these remarks had come from the rank-and-file, the ATP leadership could probably have said nothing. After all, four years ago, when veteran Wayne Ferreira attempted to form a counter union to the ATP, the chuckling was almost audible in the knowledge that this effort would be ineffectual. But no, those most annoyed at de Villiers were Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. And when those at the top talk, people listen.
But why should they? Federer, Nadal and all the other clay-court players have known for years that calendar reform was in the works. In fact, it was the players' complaints about the tour schedule that compelled de Villiers to try and take action.
"The problems in tennis revolve around young players who don't know the implications," said Cliff Drysdale, who long before starting his TV career was the ATP's first president. "Tennis may not be fighting for its survival, but certainly it's trying to be more relevant."
No doubt this requires some tough decisions, driven only partially by a tournament's historic significance or even local track record. Consider, for example, the matter of geography. As Scott has discussed the RoadMap over the last two years, it's become clear that save for such periods as the summer U.S. Open Series, North America is no longer the geographic power center it was in tennis' boom years of the '70s. While it would require a White Paper to explain the 20-year erosion of North American tennis events, suffice to say that tennis' existence as a global sport invariably causes geographic shifts.
And when rising economies such as China come knocking -- offering the bigger purses and long-term economic goodies the players themselves value -- leaders like de Villiers and Scott invariably follow the money trail. Hold an event even in a market as big as Los Angeles and you're lucky if the final is a sellout. Hold one in Beijing and the stands are packed from day one (and please turn your eye at that nation's miserable human rights record). Federer might now be crying about historic Monte Carlo, but he hasn't seemed to despondent about being paid significant appearance fees to play in such desolate spots as Dubai and Doha. Surely he's aware that the ascent of these tournaments has come at the expense of other cities with far longer tennis histories.
Equally oblivious is Serena Williams, saying how upset she is that events on her home continent are shriveling.
"To grow the sport more in the United States, the tour should focus on tournaments in the United States," Williams recently told Reuters. "I think they're changing the schedule to cater to Europe and I don't like it. I don't like it at all."
Naturally, she fails to note her own culpability, overlooking the numerous times she's pulled out of North American tournaments, as well as the six-year boycott she and her sister Venus have launched at the major event in Indian Wells, Calif.
The sad reality is that women and men schedule themselves as they please. Following their epic final in Rome last year, it was virtually conceded that neither Federer nor Nadal would play the next week's event in Hamburg. Americans such as James Blake and Andy Roddick haven't played in Monte Carlo since 2003. Andre Agassi also skipped that event frequently, and even on his beloved hard courts withdraw from his share of Masters Series events.
"Tennis may not be fighting for its survival, but certainly it's trying to be more relevant."
-- Cliff Drysdale
It's a confusing state, this relationship between players and tour, tournaments and scheduling. The ATP and WTA were originally formed in the early '70s as unions, looking out for the needs of the players. Top 10 players held leadership positions, their playing stature commanding respect inside the locker room. Drysdale, Arthur Ashe and John Newcombe were the ATP's first three presidents.
"Those were the days of wars and changes," said Drysdale.
But as early as the late '70s, such stars Jimmy Connors (who never even joined the ATP) and Bjorn Borg shunned personal engagement in the leadership of the sport. And so, when the ATP reorganized the tour starting in 1990, the abdication of player responsibility was virtually complete. Tournament directors -- including the likes of Charlie Pasarell, a former ATP member -- were in charge, and so long as the prize money kept pouring in, the players were happy. But by turning over the leadership to others, players will invariably find themselves at the mercy of events. Drysdale's generation saw it differently. "We knew it was up to us to take destiny in our hands," he said.
Today's players keep their heads in the sand, only emerging when something they personally value is endangered. Bless their tennis skills, but Federer, Nadal and Williams are hardly likely to take the steps to truly lead their colleagues. As nuanced as players are at seeing the court, it's a shame that so many today aren't willing to take the time to grasp how this sport fits into a broader cultural and economic picture.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.