The tennis off-season is long gone. With Christmas negotiated (or not for Arabic, Israeli, Japanese and other readers) the mayhem of matches, draws, ranking and points is back underway and the Australian Open is almost upon us.
So before the complete descent into irregular sleep patterns (for most of us), the punching or the air of the exasperated flinging of the remote into the sofa at another defeat for your favourite, here are some suggestions on things to watch for in a wider sense – or in last two cases, at least, treat with caution as you would gifts from strangers.
MAKING THE ATP FUNCTION
Chris Kermode has plenty to wrestle with when it comes to his new job as the Head of the ATP.
The very structure of the organisation makes the job a challenge in itself. While the representation between players and tournaments is even, the system doesn’t always provide the neat “checks and balances” that are part of the theory. Stop me if that sounds uncannily like an American civics lesson, but the results, in terms of governance, sometimes seem the same.
The impression from the outside is that the tournament representatives are much more effective in voting in a bloc and getting their way, compared to the players.
It may just be it’s harder to get Eric Butorac and Kevin Anderson to mesh their best interests compared to Tournament Directors.
They mostly have the same motivations. They want top players wherever possible to maximise their events and ideally a surface slow enough to ensure whoever pays to see the stars gets a decent bang for their buck.
These things are easier to unite on than the players trying to get more cash from total revenue or some events quickened up, something Robin Haase, among others, is backing.
With the Grand Slams also upping the proportion of revenue that goes into the player’s pockets, Kermode is surely going to be under pressure to try and get the tournament representatives to occasionally swallow the unpalatable in one form or another. But just saying “do it for the good of the game” cuts little ice with the bean counters.
MORE THAN JUST FOUR?
If an ATP 250 event arrives near you without one of the four elite names, does it really make a sound? If you are reading this blog, then the answer is yes, but in the wider world, the answer is less clear cut.
With one of the Slam monopolisers looking forward to more parenthood off the back of declining results, another with dodgy knees, a third fresh from back surgery and the other hiring Boris Becker as coach, the men”s branch sport is surely facing problems if it’s relying on Fedal MCMXXV as selling points for fans, existing and new.
So it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, the ATP will push forward in marketing campaigns. Jerzy Janowicz (left) is one player who has caught the eye of many on my Twitter timeline. Tall, visible, with a game of power and drop shots, plus excitable meltdowns, he should be at least one obvious target as a player who can appeal to a wider audience.
Now marketing is the bleakest of black arts to this cynic, but if the ATP doesn’t embrace trying to get a better profile for some of it’s newer players. then I am not sure anyone else will. Sooner, rather than later, they will have to because while it’s easy for regular watchers to be snobbish, everyone started as a new fan at some point.
CHALLENGER TOUR HEALTH
The early signs for 2014 were good, with more tournaments scheduled for the opening quarter of the year in 2013, but those have been hit by the sudden cancellation of February events scheduled for Istanbul and Trabzon in Turkey.
This has left a schedule horribly empty European players who can’t afford to hang around in Australia, or who didn’t make it there in the first place. They have three weeks between from now to the end of March where they can play in Europe (plus, if you are pushing it, a trip to Kazakhstan), which isn’t economically sustainable.
There are some signs overall that the ATP is paying attention to it’s second tier, with it’s own live streaming of Challenger events being promoted and running well in Sao Paulo, plus more coverage of the Tour finals, although they need some help in prestige.
NUMBER (AND LETTER) CRUNCHING
How do we really get to understand tennis better? It may, or may not be, listening to commentators. We can read and exchange opinions on Twitter, some of which probably carry more merit than others. Don’t worry, this blog falls way down that list.
But tennis and numbers and analytics don’t seem remotely friends. Plenty of other bloggers, such as Mind The Racket and Jeff Sackmann (that’s two n’s) on Tennis Abstract are already leading the way in suggesting ways statistics can become more meaningful and we can explore the patterns of what wins matches. If you want something done, do it yourself.
ON THE DOWNSIDE…PSEUDO CONTROVERSIES
These are easy to spot. A pseudo controversy is when people complain about something that is already pre-destined thanks to a formula.
The perfect example is when Grand Slam seedings. Injured players, or out of form players, or players who are skilled on specific surfaces might often not get the place it’s perceived they “deserve.” Then a debate suddenly breaks out as to why player X cannot be an exception.
Well (deep breath)…perhaps it’s because everyone’s signed up to a 12-month ranking system for as long as they remember and its usage to determine seedings is part of the permanently uneasy truce between the ATP and ITF, you berk.
There is also the case of the ITF World Champion, Novak Djokovic, also decided on a formula.
So, if you really want it your way, you can have a transparent system based on crunching of numbers that is open. Or a bunch of mysterious (and likely middle aged, white males) deciding things in smoke filled rooms.
Pseudo-controversies are the stuff off which everyday journalism too often feeds. Grunting is another one of these recurring issues. The idea that female athletes might divert away from being pretty and demure to release noise due to physical exertion is apparently too much for some.
If you want to know the best way to deal with pseudo-controversy is to ignore it until it goes away and someone starts talking about something of significance.
THE CRUSHING WEIGHT OF THE NARRATIVE
We all know the beat of the tennis narrative works as a subconscious in all our perceptions and it is at the core of the written media. The main plots are well defined. Can Murray win a slam? Can Murray win Wimbledon? Who needs to do what to be defined as the GOAT?
Sometimes these narratives are answered. Everyone writes about how exciting that is for five minutes and then they old questions are replaced with demands of new goals and achievements.
But the narrative has the most tremendous drawbacks in not allowing people to escape their pre-determined destinies. Without alternative expression, via Twitter in this case, how would we know just what a jovial guy Tomas Berdych actually is?
Gilles Simon explored the subject in an interview for French Tennis Magazine, saying:
“We need, or want, to make storylines. In this case, there is the story of a genius of the racket, Federer, against a not gifted nag, Nadal. Roger, he must be class, don’t sweat. Nadal, at the contrary , must represent all the values of relentless work.
And they magnify the stories in the same way for French players. Richard, for example, the press said when he was nine years old that he was Mozart. So when Mozart loses matches, you must explain why. So they will say that he has no physical, no mental strenght. One could also say that Richard has an undeniable talent that allowed him to get in the top ten players in the world. But it’s not enough since he is Mozart.”
This blog is partly guilty of constructing narratives, of players savouring their sole appearance at a Grand Slam and so on, so add mea culpa. But it seems simply impossible for players to be judged in isolation, rather than through the weight of a set of arbitrary expectations based on history, nationality and rate of development – in other words things players can’t always control.
Does player X always choke in the later stages of Grand Slams? Maybe he does, or maybe he just has small technical flaws in his game that the elite players are particularly good at exploiting. I can’t tell. But the narrative will only ever tell us one thing – the simpler one.