The recent Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas was a week to remember for former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who played the game with renewed vigor to win his first tournament since Queen’s Club last summer. The former world No. 1 displayed his old point playing prowess and unwavering intensity.
Unfortunately, the revitalized Hewitt was not the biggest story of the week. His triumph was overshadowed in many ways by the failure of the round robin system to function effectively. Here is what happened. Defending champion James Blake—the man who had ousted Hewitt in the 2006 championship match--- had lost his opening round robin clash to the Russian Evgeny Korolev. He then needed to beat Argentina’s Juan Martin del Petro decisively to stand a chance of surviving the round robin cut and reaching the quarterfinals. Tournament officials projected that Blake could afford to lose no more than five or six games against del Petro, or else he would be out of the tournament.
Blake was well on his way to recording the required clear cut victory. He led 6-1, 3-1. But del Petro was having respiratory problems. He retired at that point. Blake was initially told by ATP Tour officials that he was out of the tournament, but then ATP Chairman and President Etienne de Villiers stepped in. He ruled that Blake should advance, basing his judgment on the fact that Blake was so close to winning, understandably wanting to end an awkward situation with fairness and justice. That was late Thursday evening.
On Friday morning, however, Blake was informed by ATP Tour officials that he was, in fact, eliminated from the event. De Villiers had inadvertently overstepped his authority and made an incorrect ruling. An incomplete match is not allowed to count for a player who retires before the end of a match. Had Del Petro remained on court, gone through the motions and played three more games, Blake would have moved on. But he was strangely penalized by the rules. Therefore, tour officials had acted to stand by procedure and reinstate Korolev as the winner of that round robin group. The matter was finally settled. De Villiers apologized for his role on adding the confusion. Korolev made it to the semifinals and lost to Jurgen Melzer, who then bowed to Hewitt in the final.
The game was dealt a heavy blow by how this all unfolded. It was not professional. The round robin may have been a noble experiment, but the players will never have any faith in that format again. At the year-end Tennis Masters Cup (formerly known at the ATP World Championships and The Masters) the top eight players all fight it out in a round robin format featuring two groups of four players, with the top two men from each group advancing to the semifinals.
By and large, that has worked out reasonably well despite sporadic problems with player injuries and "dead rubbers" where players have no incentive to go full out in their final round robin showdowns. In one remarkable case--- a few years before the advent of a point penalty system--- Arthur Ashe faced Ilie Nastase in Stockholm. In that 1975 clash--- the opening round robin contest for both players---Ashe led 4-1,15-40 in the final set. Nastase kept stalling and calling out, " Are you ready Mr. Ashe?" The normally imperturbable Ashe ran out of patience. He walked off the court, carrying out what he later called a "citizens arrest". Tournament officials met and decided to award Ashe the victory, recognizing that the umpire had not properly clamped down on Nastase. Ironically, Nastase recouped to win his next two matches and won the tournament over Bjorn Borg.
In the case of the Tennis Masters Cup, the round robin is worthwhile. It guarantees some sparkling matchups among the top players. The players and public can follow the proceedings relatively easily. I hope it stays that way for that significant event. But round robin is not going to last as an alternative to single elimination play for the rest of the year in tournaments. The Las Vegas incident demonstrated that there are inherent flaws in the format. Leading players--- most notably world No. 1 Roger Federer--- have never been in favor of the experiment. And now there will be a rising tide of players speaking out against round robin competition.
The hope here is that this experiment will be quickly discarded. The ATP wanted to give the round robin a chance at scattered events across the season, but it is time for the authorities to revisit the issue and go back to tradition. The game benefits by the high drama of a player knowing there are no second chances. Once he loses a match in a tournament, he is gone. It is as simple as that.
article was taken from Steve's BLOG, posted
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Why Davis Cup Must
The opening round of the 2007 Davis Cup this past weekend was intriguing across the board. Andy Roddick and the Bryan brothers led the U.S. past the Czech Republic and the imposing Tomas Berdych on clay, which was no mean feat. Russia held back Chile. Germany toppled Croatia. France and Sweden advanced. It was fun to follow it all on the Davis Cup web site as the results unfolded.
But there was one major clash between nations that did not live up to expectations, and did not even come close to what many anticipated. That, of course, was the battle between Spain and Switzerland. When those two countries were drawn to play each other, everyone relished the thought of a Sunday afternoon collision featuring the game’s two best players. What could possibly surpass Roger Federer facing Rafael Nadal in the opening round of the Davis Cup?
It was not to be. Federer chose not to represent his nation and Nadal was injured and did not compete. Spain stopped Switzerland 3-2. And now the critics will blame Federer for not making the journey to Palexpo, Switzerland. They will say he should have been there for his country. They will contend that he owed it to Switzerland to give them the benefit of his talent and big match temperament. They will claim that it is up to every leading player to make himself available any time his nation calls.
I will not join the critics. Federer had every right to not play Davis Cup. Why? Because the scheduling of the event is ludicrous. How can you ask the world No. 1 to be ready to perform at peak level less than two weeks after capturing the season’s first Grand Slam event in Melbourne? Federer has a serious chance this year at the height of his powers to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the Grand Slam. The key to his 2006 campaign--- when he made it to all four major finals and won three of the premier prizes--- was pacing himself superbly.
In 2006, he played 17 tournaments and won 12 of them. He played 97 matches, which is an awful lot of tennis in one year. But whenever he sensed he might be overtaxing himself, he wisely stepped aside. After losing a marathon five set final to Nadal at the Italian Open that lasted over five hours, he did not fulfill his commitment to the next Masters Series event in Hamburg. He had no other choice. Later in the year--- after winning back to back tournaments indoors in Madrid and Basel--- he pulled out of the Paris Masters Series tournament to avoid playing three weeks in a row.
I am sure his thinking was much the same this time around with Davis Cup. He has a demanding year ahead of him and needs to make certain to be fresh and fit for all of the Grand Slam events. To play Davis Cup so soon after Australia would have been foolish. Like all top players, Federer has to pick and choose his commitments very carefully. He made the best possible decision when he elected not to represent Switzerland this time around. Had there been an extra week or two to recover from the campaign "Down Under", Federer might well have been there for his nation.
In the 1990’s, when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were at and near the top of the rankings, there were times when they played Davis Cup. But in other cases, they chose not to do it. I felt then--- and still do--- that they were fully justified not to play. They were looking after themselves. Federer is doing the same thing now. This is, after all, an individual sport. The players enjoy the team spirit that develops when they join forces in Davis Cup competition, but the year is too crowded for them to do everything that is asked of them. That is an impossible task.
So don’t blame Roger Federer; blame the schedule. It is time for the powers that be to rethink the whole concept of Davis Cup. The tradition of home and away ties has tremendous appeal, but to spread four World Group rounds out over the course of a year is not a good game plan. The time has come once and for all to play the Davis Cup at one site every year over a two to three week period. The public would have a much easier time following it. The players would get much more excited about performing. Everyone would benefit.
If the Davis Cup was held at one location every year, the television exposure worldwide would inevitably rise dramatically. Roger Federer and all other leading players should not be put in the position of choosing between their nation and themselves. That doesn’t make any sense. The International Tennis Federation should address this paramount issue and find a way to make Davis Cup as important as it could be. They should find out whether or not the top nations would be open to a true Davis Cup season rather than spreading out the dates across winter, spring, summer and fall. Otherwise, it will not ever fully capture the imagination of the sports public, or the game’s greatest players.
In the meantime, don’t criticize Roger Federer. He did what he needed to do and protected himself for the rest of 2007. He was demonstrating once more what a remarkable professional he is.