Fifty years after the greatest tennis revolution, in the most revolutionary year in modern history, half century since the beginning of the Open Era, Grand Slam tournaments will launch a massive evolution. Competitive balance will be newly considered as a value, also because tv viewers play a primary role in tennis future.
Last year, at Wimbledon, many eyebrows raised as seven players retired at the first round collecting from 260 to 2900 pounds for every minute on court. And Tursunov added controversy by legitimately surfing in the grey area of the protected ranking norms to gain more than 300,000 pounds by going on court clearly unfit to compete but ready enough to collect the first-round prize money.
Until this year, in fact, Grand Slam events hadn't guaranteed the prize money for first-round loser to players who announced to retire before the match started. It's the same old story. In 2015 Us Open, twelve players refused to turn down 39,500 dollars and came on court without finishing their debur match, like Vitalia Diatchenko, whose left foot injury made her debut match against Serena Williams last 37 points.
How serious is this problem? In 2016, a research re-published on the Tennis Abstract blog noted that first round matches make up half of the clashes in a tournament, but 73% of the retirements in the year following the most recent boost to first-round prize money. Janko Tipsarevic, who famously retired after 17 minutes at Wimbledon last year, remarked how players used to survive in second-tier events can make ends meet in their season thanks to Grand Slam first-round prize-money. The Serb, like Roger Federer, favoured the new policy that ATP started to implement from 2016 and the Australian Open will start to follow from 2018.
“Any Main Draw singles player who is unfit to play and who withdraws on-site after 12:00 noon on Thursday before the start of the Main Draw will now receive 50% of the First Round Prize Money in 2018” the Grand Slam Board announced. “The replacement Lucky Loser will receive the remaining 50% plus any additional prize money earned thereafter”.
In 2014, John Isner had suggested something similar in Australia after Polona Hercog, playing with a pre-existing shoulder injury, remained on court for six points against Alize Cornet, enough to collect $30,000. “In a situation like that, maybe a rule could be put into place so that the person who pulls out gets compensated,” Isner said of Hercog. “I don’t know, 75 percent of the first-round prize money, maybe 80, maybe even 100 percent of it. I think at this point a lucky loser is just happy to get in”.
The “50-50” rule will reduce the economic incentive to play knowing to be unfit and, at the same time, will give enough enough motivations to players who desire, like Nadal at the ATP Finals, to prove their conditions on court and try to give their best anyway.
At the recent Next Gen Finals in Milan, tennis rediscovered a shot clock fascination. Wayne McEwen, a longtime chair umpire from Australia and referee at the Australian Open, said that a first experiment, at a men’s tournament in Sydney in the early 1980s, was extremely short-lived. “I remember I did three or four matches with it,” McEwen said to the New York Times. “I was only a line umpire then, and it caused so many problems that they got rid of it.”
“You have to use your judgment with common sense, because if there’s a huge point with half a minute of people cheering, you cannot say it’s 20 seconds” said in 2011 Stefan Fransson, the then rules and regulations officer for the ITF.
At the same time, “the rule in lawn tennis which is honoured more in the breach is rule 2B, which deals with continuous play. (…) This proviso was included because stamina plays a piominent part, and sometimes one player sets out to run his opponent about, thereby wearing him down. The tired one will sometimes deliberately waste time to recover his breath and his strength He is wilfully depriving his opponent of the advantage hhas achieved, and the opponent, naturally, will start to worry when he sees what is going on. (However) the trouble is that very few umpires have the courage to enforce it, especially when an outstanding player is the culprit”. The fact that this piece has been written on the Sydney Morning Herald in 1931 testifies that there's nothing new under the sun.
A complication with instituting a shot clock is the potential for disruptions. “To me it’s really, really difficult in tennis,” Fransson said to the New York Times in 2011. “In basketball or whatever, it’s a different story. There is no disturbance from outside that is going to interrupt”. Shorter times between matches, as the decision to stricly limit the warm-up to 5 minutes, and between points means greater business for tennis bidding for an increased tv appeal and to reach younger generations of fans.
Progress, as the French philosopher Rousseau affirmed, could mean come back to a golden age in the past. It seems the ITF policy as well. In 2019, in fact, Grand Slam tournaments will intend to revert to 16 seeds.
Wimbledon organizers were the first to move to 32 seeds in 2001 to erase a boycott threat from several of the game's leading clay-court players like Alex Corretja and Juan Carlos Ferrero, “two of the most vociferous critics of Wimbledon's tradition in giving seeding priority to players with the most impressive grass-court records” as the Telegraph reported. In the last major tournament with the old-style draw, Serena Williams, No. 2 in Paris, drew No.24 Schett and was promptly ousted, while ninth-seeded Elena Dementieva opened against and defeated Céline Beigbeder, who received a wild card into the tournament and was ranked 373rd in the world. Reverting to 16 seeds will mean major upsets in the opening rounds? History and numbers suggest that it's not the case.
According to a detailed study by Jeff Sackman, “from 1989 to 2000, men’s seeds were upset 263 times in the first two rounds of slams. Only 51 of those losses were to players in the top 32. In other words, more than 80% of those upsets would have occurred even with a 32-seed format”.
In women's singles events, top four seeds reached the third round 176 times in 190 attempts in the twelve years before the switch, and in 178 of 191 attempts in the 12 years after the change. Looking at the complete scenario, Sackman noted that “from 1989-2000, women’s seeds reached the third round 77.6% of the time, the fourth round 63.5% of the time, and the quarterfinals 40.8% of the time. From 2002-13, with lower-ranked early-round opponents, the corresponding numbers were 78.2%, 60.1%, and 37.1%”.
So, the real difference is the switch in the balance of power for players now seeded in the 17-32 group. Players in this range reached the third round a bit more than once in every three tries, with a 16 seeds draw, but from 2001 to 2013 players seeded outside the top 16 won the opening two rounds 53% of the time in men's singles and 49% of the time in women's singles.
"Sixteen seeds isn't a magic number," said Merv Heller, president of the United States Tennis Association. "There are still going to be great matches the first week. I compare this to Beethoven's Fifth. You want to start out with a bang, but you want to finish with a grand finale”. Reverting to 16 seeds would guarantee a grand finale while increasing the chances to start out with a bang. The whole tennis system, needing to salvage its appeal after the Fab Four dominance and Serena Williams's era, needs competitiveness as its most valuable option.