The Las Vegas Fiasco

The Las Vegas Fiasco

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.

The above article was taken from Steve’s BLOG, posted Wednesday, March 7, 2007