An astute fan could be forgiven for wondering why slumping Rafael Nadal is beating up on his peers on the red clay at the ATP 500 in Hamburg, Germany, what with Wimbledon in the rearview mirror and the two major U.S. Open hard-court tuneups fast approaching down the pike.
There are two good answers to that, one of which ought to be the subject of greater controversy.
Let's take the tame one first. Nadal needs to build confidence, and you build confidence by playing -- and winning -- matches.
Never mind that Nadal has been saying that he needs more matches shortly after he lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January, and here we are almost in August. The reality is that the surest way for Nadal to feel like the king of the hill is for him to march to the top on red dirt. And now that there's a brief Euroclay epilogue after Wimbledon, why not?
Now for the dodgy reason:
Nadal, who's ranked No. 10 and is top-seeded in Hamburg despite being a late wild-card entry, also needs ranking points. He needs them badly if he hopes to be among the top eight seeds at the major hard-court events. If he can slip into the top eight, he will avoid a meeting with a Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic before the quarterfinals.
That also helps explain why Nadal asked for the wild card into Hamburg after he was unexpectedly knocked out of Wimbledon in the second round by Dustin Brown.
Nothing wrong with that. In fact, Nadal would have been crazy to pass up the chance to play Hamburg, what with 500 ATP ranking points on offer and No. 21 Tommy Robredo the next highest-ranked player on the entry list. Should Nadal win, he will leapfrog over No. 9 Marin Cilic and No. 8 Milos Raonic and find safe haven.
And that's where things get bogus. Why, with so weak a field, is the winner in Hamburg cashing in 500 ATP points?
Part of the answer surely is that as a result of that nasty struggle to demote Hamburg (which was once a Masters 1000 event on the spring Euroclay circuit) -- a negotiation and court battle that nearly destroyed the ATP -- the tournament promoters were granted 500 status. That, despite the fact that their new identity as a post-Wimbledon clay event might make it difficult to recruit 500-worthy talent.
Here are some comparisons: Rotterdam, the first 500 of the year, featured a field that included top-seeded Andy Murray, No. 4 Stan Wawrinka, No. 3 Berdych and No. 2 Raonic. Dubai, also a 500, had Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Berdych. Barcelona, another 500, had Kei Nishikori, Nadal, David Ferrer, Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Perhaps the next weakest 500 -- after Hamburg -- was Rio. The top two seeds there were Nadal (pre-slump; he was ranked No. 3) and perpetual top-tenner Ferrer, respectively, after which the drop-off was significant to No. 18 Robredo.
Some of these 500s even make some ATP 250s look like Wimbledon.
This year, Halle was promoted to a 500 and it attracted an outstanding field. But even as a 250 in 2014, it featured Nadal, Federer, Nishikori, Raonic and Monfils. This year, Doha, a 250, had Djokovic, Nadal, Berdych and Ferrer.
Certainly surface and proximity to major events feature heavily in the players' scheduling decisions. But in a day and age so obsessed with statistics and data, shouldn't that be reflected in how many ranking points tournaments dole out?
The ATP's three-tier, silver (250), gold (500) and platinum (1000) system was a terrific, seemingly clear idea. But it's turning out to be unreliable and riddled with conflicts, at least at the two bottom levels.
Neither Nadal nor any other active player deserves to be pilloried for this. The players just operate within the system and try to use it to their advantage. After a solid start the system is beginning to look silly. Perhaps it's time to do something about it.