Friday Five: Sizing up the Tour Finals

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Andy Murray is looking for a strong finish to his big year at the World Tour Finals. (Kerim Okten/Landov)

LONDON — Five thoughts on the ATP World Tour Finals as we await Sunday’s semifinals and Monday’s final:

1. World Tour Finals’ place in the game:’s Steve Tignor had a good read analyzing the importance of the ATP’s season finale. My feeling is that year-end championships — whether for the men or the women — are only as important as the players consider them. That means the value of the tournament can vary year by year, player by player.

For instance, I suspect the tournament is quite important this year for Roger Federer and Andy Murray, who are both looking to put a stamp on stellar seasons, and less so for Novak Djokovic, who has clinched the year-ending No. 1 ranking. Also noteworthy is that the event’s significance is undermined by comments from the likes of Janko Tipsarevic, who seems to have prided himself on the work he did to qualify for the tournament rather than the work he’s done at the tournament. Tipsarevic, who has been struggling with what sounds like a cold, sarcastically bragged about making it past the one-hour mark in his 6-0, 6-4 loss to Juan Martin del Potro, saying afterward that he’s playing his worst tennis here but that he’s trying (more on him below). I’m not sure that placates the fans who shelled out a lot of money to watch an 80-minute beatdown.

And that’s the issue with the World Tour Finals. The players’ varying intensity levels — some matches have the feel of an exhibition — detract from the competitive element of the tournament. For some, it’s a few matches before they finally hit their offseason. For others, it’s a serious endeavor that can tee them up for 2013. And for another few, it’s an “Oh, it’d be great if I won this, but I’m not going to be heartbroken if I don’t” kind of tournament. Those different perspectives make it difficult to really pinpoint how much the tournament matters.

2. The format: The round-robin concept is great for marketing purposes but bad for sporting purposes. It’s nice to be able to guarantee fans three shots to see Federer or Murray, but it also takes the sting and urgency out of losses. Many times this week I caught myself watching a first- or second-round match in pool play thinking, “OK, but if X Player loses, does it really matter? They’ll get a second bite at the apple.” This is a foreign concept in a do-or-die sport like tennis, and when you take that element out of the match, you lose the drama.

So should the year-end championships — for both the men and women — move to a knockout format? From a competitive standpoint, I’d say yes. I’m just not convinced that dead rubbers and losses that don’t necessarily mean much are the way to sell this sport. I want the top eight men and women to be fighting tooth and nail in every match, as opposed to them knowing that regardless of the outcome they will have another match and another opportunity for points and cash. The system facilitates a very cynical outlook that undervalues results and performances.

3. The World Tour Finals will remain in London: On the one hand, it’s understandable that the ATP would reach a two-year extension that keeps the WTFs in London through 2015. Why in the world would you move the tournament from a  major metropolitan city that continues to sell out the 17,000-seat O2 Arena and is willing to treat the top eight players like royalty? I get that. But pardon my altruistic nature that would love to see the ATP use this event to broaden the sport’s appeal to underserved markets such as Latin America or even Africa. The World Tour Finals in South Africa? That would be pretty cool. The ATP may decide to go that route after its London stint is up, but with Federer’s shelf life dwindling — I’m being a realist here — the opportunity to move the Tour Finals to another country in 2014 was an opportunity missed.

4. Djokovic and Murray move on: I’m a bit disappointed that Group A — the Group of Death — ended up being the Group of Mildly Rabid But Harmless Puppies. Djokovic and Murray both advanced to the semifinals after straight-set victories in the final round of pool play, a result that has tournament officials breathing a sigh of relief. Between the two of them, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga managed to get only a set off Djokovic and Murray.

5. Tipsarevic’ struggles: As noted earlier, the No. 8 qualifier has put in two desultory performances. Along with the lopsided loss to Del Potro, Tipsarevic also fell to Federer 6-3, 6-1. (He is scheduled to face David Ferrer on Saturday in his third round-robin match.) To be fair, the Serb came into the tournament under the weather, noticeably congested, and he said the illness has cut into his practice time, which in return has affected his play.

“Well, it’s not rocket science,” he said after his loss to Del Potro. “You can see from the side that I’m not playing good. I feel sorry that I don’t play my best tennis here in London, which probably the best event of the year. But I fight hard to be in a position to come to this event.”

Tipsarevic added: “I’m playing horrible. I’m playing the worst tennis that I’ve played in a long time. But I’m on the court, behaving good, not throwing my racket, giving my best.”

No doubt Tipsarevic played a heavier schedule than he would have liked to qualify for the World Tour Finals, a laudable accomplishment. But once you’re here, if you know you can’t compete, it’s time to step aside and let an alternate take your spot. Anything less is a disservice to fans.

  • Published On Nov 09, 2012

    Seriously, Courtney...why do you still have this job? I truly am not a hateful person although this message may seem like so. I simply could not resist to write to you.


    Time and again you've made the worse of comments and criticized others for the smallest of things. You've been making the worse of judgements so far with your opinions. This section used to be so much better with Jon. All I see is you being a sour-puss and joining the bandwagon in bagging Murray on your articles.


    Now Tipsarevic? He's stated that he's not feeling well but he's willing to give it his best. He expects not much of himself thus chooses to behave and on another article you say, the least he should do is create some entertainment for the crowd? With what? Not behaving and breaking rackets? I have a baby now, but when he grows up I would not want him to emulate what pros do when they get ticked off. Not cool.


    Every player wants to have a distinction behind them. To the Big 4, its the grand slam. For the rest, its the distinction of being able to participate in the WTF. Tipsy has been working hard ALL year (From January to November) to reach this prestigious tournament reserved for the best. You think he would be willing to give it up cause he wants the next guy below him to take his spot? Plus I don't see Gasquet making much of a damage against the top 7 players in the tournament to be honest.


    Tipsy was honest and sincere with his comments and people like you are bagging on him. He could have easily not claimed he was ill and claim that he's doing he's best. He gives us a little insight on his situation and guess what? People like you tell him to GTFO.  The media have complained of players giving cookie-cutter answers to questions. WEll, guess why? Its people like you encouraging that sorta of behavior where honesty and sincerity gets pummeled to the floor.


    Courtney, based on your loose comments, you surely have not played a sport at a competitive level. If you did, you would know the blood, sweat and tears involved and would be easier to relate to what these players go through instead of writing Gangnam Style on every photo which merely resembles it.


    The prestige and importance of the World Tour Finals is not diminished by Tipsarevic's comments. A tournament that features only the top eight players in the world cannot be undermined just because of a sour-graping sore loser. 


    Also, the round-robin format makes sense since there are only eight players. If it were a knock-out tournament like every other, then it would be over fast. And where would be the fun in that?


    Staying in London is a great idea. The players obviously love being there and the tournament management has done a great job raising the tournament's profile. Besides, why fix what's not broken?


    You're disappointed that Djokovic and Murray both moved on the way they did? Seriously? Get over it. 


    Yeah, maybe Tipsarevic should've stepped aside. But the fact that he was able to take a set off the in-form David Ferrer is proof that he made the right choice in continuing to play. Not a whole lot of players get the chance to play in the World Tour Finals. Why would anyone squander the opportunity to do so just because he would probably lose?


    The World Tour Finals year-end world championship's place in the game:

    (a) its honor roll of past champions is more impressive than some Grand Slams since 1970;

    (b) it is the ultimate contest between the season's cream of the crop;

    (c) it is the pinnacle of indoor tennis, which has been a significant portion of the tennis calendar;

    (d) extraordinary numbers of fans around the world watch this one-court tennis event;

    (e) the greatest players consider it an important and prestigious championship;

    (f) its rich 42-year history is tied to the inception of the open era.


    Only the cream of the ATP tour has won this prestigious season finale (see link): it includes almost all the greatest names in tennis history since 1970, including Roger Federer, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi, Guillermo Vilas, Ilie Nastase and Novak Djokovic. The only two all-time greats who failed to win the year-end championship are Nadal (reached one final and two semifinals) and John Newcombe (though Newk won the rival 1974 WCT Finals, as well as reached two Masters Grand Prix semifinals). 36 of 42 past WTF champions have been ranked No. 1 in their careers (the remaining 6 have been ranked No. 2 or No. 3 at some point in their careers).


    No Grand Slam since 1970 -- not even Wimbledon -- boasts such pedigree. Every Grand Slam has unheralded champions and one-slam wonders (e.g., Mark Edmondson, Roscoe Tanner, Vitas Gerulaitis, Brian Teacher, Petr Korda, Thomas Johansson, Andres Gimeno, Adriano Panatta, Yannick Noah, Michael Chang, Andres Gomez, Thomas Muster, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Gaston Gaudio, Pat Cash, Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek, Goran Ivanisevic, Manuel Orantes, Andy Roddick, Juan Martín del Potro, Andy Murray).


    The drama of the World Tour Finals is that only the cream of the ATP Tour is allowed to participate in the WTF. As Boris Becker noted: "Once you're here, you should expect to face a potential Grand Slam winner or finalist from the first match; there are no warm-up games. You have to play your very best from the start to survive." Not so for the Grand Slams: e.g., Rafa Nadal won the 2010 French Open by beating No. 655 Gianni Mina (FRA), No. 44 Horacio Zeballos, No. 33 Lleyton Hewitt, No. 29 Thomaz Bellucci, No. 21 Nicolas Almagro, No. 27 Jurgen Melzer and No. 7 Robin Soderling. This would never happen in the World Tour Finals.


    Golf has thrived on basically what is a large group round robin format over four days (though group size is cut by about half after two days) – so the winners often get second, third or even fourth bites at the apple instead of being knocked out by poor play on Day 1.. The WTF format is similar to World Cup soccer – with both a round robin and knockout format. My solution is to expand the event to the top 12 or top 16 players: have four groups (3 or 4) in the robin stage followed by three final rounds (quarterfinal, semifinal and final). We have to accept that people who actually pay money to buy tickets primarily want to see the stars play. That’s what most tennis fans want, arguably. The minority adrenaline junkies who don't pay obscene amounts for tickets want their knockouts. 


    The ATP World Tour Finals is the ultimate indoor contest. Currently there are 15 indoor events in the 65-event ATP calendar (23%). There used to be many more indoor events: in 1995, there were 24 indoor events; in 1984, 24 indoor events; in 1978, 36 indoor events. Indoor titles make up a big percentage of titles won by great players such as John McEnroe (52 indoor titles of 77 total titles), Jimmy Connors (52 of 109), and Ivan Lendl (42 of 94), Boris Becker (30 of 49), Bjorn Borg (23 of 64), Sampras (23 of 64), Federer (20 of 76), Stefan Edberg (18), Rod Laver (14 of 41 in open era only). And let's not forget that lawn tennis evolved from indoor forms of tennis played centuries ago.


    The World Tour Finals has huge fan interest. Last year over 70 million TV viewers in 184 countries watched the 2011 WTF (in 1972, a reported 21 million Americans watched the WCT Finals on TV -- on a night with basketball and hockey playoff games -- between two aging Australians Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall). Yesterday 17,642 paid spectators watched a 'meaningless’ dead rubber between David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic.


    In each of the past four years, over 250,000 spectators paid for tickets to watch the 15 men’s singles matches as well as men’s doubles matches of the World Tour Finals. That's close to the 262,500 capacity for 15 matches in this one-court event (the O2 Arena’s 17,500 capacity makes it the second largest tennis stadium in the world). In comparison, the entire complex of three stadiums (including Arthur Ashe Stadium’s 23,200) and numerous outer courts of the USTA National Tennis Center attracted only 710,000 to watch the men’s AND women’s singles, doubles and mixed doubles matches of the 2012 US Open. As well, the 2012 Indian Wells event (tennis stadium 16,100 capacity) attracted only 370,000 “visitors”, making it the best-attended combined ATP-WTA combined event outside the four Grand Slam tournaments. Considering that Indian Wells and Miami are unnecessarily long two-week tournaments — each with 91 men’s singles matches and 91 women’s singles matches, as well as men’s and women’s doubles events — it is reasonable to conclude that the WTF trumps the men’s portion of Indian Wells and Miami in terms of paid spectators, if not also worldwide TV audience.

    Michael9 1 Like

    What matters is the greatest players consider the World Tour Finals to be important and prestigious. From a player's point of view, this is why the World Tour Finals is prestigious: whoever wins the title can truly call himself the world champion because he has beaten the best players of that season.


    - In 1974, after playing 104 matches that season, Bjorn Borg flew to Australia for the Masters year-end championship held December 10 to 15 at Melbourne, but Borg did not bother to stay for the 1975 Australian Open at Kooyong, Melbourne which started one week later on December 21 (most Masters year-end championships between 1970 to 1990 were held in early to mid December). Borg won the Masters at his peak in 1979 and 1980, and was runner up in 1975 and 1977.


    - Ivan Lendl proudly includes his five year-end championships (Masters Grand Prix championship) as one of his career highlighlights: “Ranked as the world’s top player 1985-87 and 1989; Held World #1 ranking for a total of 270 weeks; Captured 8 Grand Slam titles; Won 5 year-end Masters Championships; Competed in a total of 19 Grand Slam singles final; Career prize money: $21.2m.”


    - Federer has made several references to the year-end championships as equivalent to a grand slam. In 2005, Roger Federer flew to Shanghai to play the year-end championships (then known as Tennis Masters Cup) despite still recovering from torn ankle ligaments that forced him to withdraw from three consecutive events (Madrid Masters, Basel and Paris Masters): "I came here not knowing if I can play, and I went through all the therapy just to really show the people also how much this event really means to me. Sort of arrived basically on one leg. Now that I can play, it's fantastic. I thought I was the worst injured of all. Now that I can play, for me, it means very much to me. It also should show a message how much and how important this tournament means to tennis. For me, this is equaling like a Grand Slam."


    - Mike Bryan, who along with identical twin Bryan forms the world's number-one ranked doubles partnership, hailed the atmosphere generated as unequalled by any other venue. "I think this is our favorite tournament of the year... This is a pretty special atmosphere. There's nothing like it. Indoors, when you have the intros, you're walking in with smoke, lights, music -- you have goose bumps. We feel like rock stars. It's the best showcase for doubles of all time. We're trying to make the most of it."


    - Boris Becker: "(The World Tour Finals) used to be called the Masters, and the player who wins on Sunday can call himself the master of tennis. He has beaten everybody in one week and for that moment he will be called the master of tennis."


    (Who cares what the insignificant Tipsarevic said in reaction to being humiliated and looking like a patsy at the WTF? A Grand Slam allows players like Tipsraevic a chance to shine for three to four matches. However, the WTF is the survival of the fittest, where fodder like Tipsarevic are immediately thrown into the deep end and there is no place to hide.)


    Djokovic put more effort and focus into winning his WTF matches than he appeared to put into his matches at the Olympic semifinal (24 games, 152 points) and for the bronze medal (22 games, 133 points). From the effort they put into their matches, it's obvious this World Tour Finals is very important to Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Ferrer, Del Potro. Even to Berdych and Tsonga, even though they couldn’t execute.


    The World Tour Finals is the fourth evolution of the season-ending championship which began in 1970 as the year-end showpiece event between the best players on the Grand Prix Tennis Circuit (precursor of the ATP World Tour). Steve Tignor is biased by the version played at New York's Madison Square Garden in the 1980s. But Boris Becker, who actually played in those MSG Masters championships, observed: "I would compare the O2 to Madison Square Gardens in the eighties when it was the mecca for indoor sports... I'd say the same today about the O2. It's perfectly set up to host the year-end finals. When upwards of 15,000 spectators are in, it's the place to be. Tennis is an entertainment sport and the O2 provides a stage for true warriors to fight each other. Everything down to the lighting makes the atmosphere very powerful."


    It does not matter that the World Tour Finals year-end world championship is not a Grand Slam. What matters more is how prestigious and important this tournament is considered. For most of tennis history certain grand slams were not considered the most important tennis events of the season by the top players and analysts of those eras (e.g., the Australian Open before 1988). On the other hand, the 1971 and 1972 WCT Finals (a form of year-end championship) were considered among the four greatest events of both years.


    Bottom line, Men's Tennis has a winning championship in the World Tour Finals. European tennis writers are more enthusiastic about this “prestigious season-ending tournament” -- just count the number of times the word "prestigious" is tied to the World Tour Finals in European news articles (BBC, London Times, etc.). The biggest party poopers on the WTF are a few American tennis writers such as Steve Tignor -- when American TV executives read Tignor's questionable comments, surely they are persuaded not to carry this prestigious event on their TV programming. No wonder some comments blasted Tignor’s comments as “irresponsible”.


    Tipsarevic playing has pissed me off more with each match.  This is a player who relished the opportunity to play WTF last year after Murray withdrew during the event.  Well, guess what?  There are two guys who would be more than happy to take that slot Tipsy is clogging up.  Almagro has never played WTF while Gasquet played once, five years ago.  None of the three have a chance of beating Ferrer so it's not about that.


    Hmm. If Tispy were to have resigned his spot, I've read that we would have gotten Reechard in his place . . .  who I think would have been even more fangless and likely to fizzle. This points to the same problem you identify in describing the Mildly Rabid But Harmless Puppies - too big a gap between the top guys and the rest of the pack. Even so, if  they had just thrown the puppies into Federer's group instead . . .