Tuesday, November 15, 2011

THE DECLINE OF THE MASTERS

Nope, I'm not writing a column about golf's version of Wimbledon - I'm talking about the year-end championships that used to have all the cachet of a major, and had the one thing that the modern incarnation does not - interest outside of tennis.

The year-end championships of tennis have gone through so many iterations over the years, it's hard, even for the most ardent fan, to keep track of what it has been and become over the years. So imagine the difficulty of getting space "above the fold" in major sports media today, which is the surest measure of the popularity of the game outside the game.

The ATP World Tour Finals, one of the most idiotically named championships in the history of tennis, is the current version of what used to be known as "The Masters", and until 1990, it was magically more than just a tennis tournament - it was an event that the sports world followed almost as closely as the crowned jewels of the game (the four majors). And in a rare moment of agreement with John McEnroe, I think the move away from Madison Square Garden was the beginning of the end for the luster that once accompanied the event.

Of course, in his native-New Yorker narcissism, he thinks the answer is to move it back to the Garden, and while I think he's on the right track (and wouldn't necessarily disagree with such a move), I think the event is missing something that the other majors have in abundance - an identity. And it is by finding its identity that I think this once great sporting event can return to the pantheon of great sporting events, where it belongs.

In 1970, two years following the advent of open tennis, Grand Prix tennis had been initiated with the help of Jack Kramer, as an answer to the disparate hodge-podge of semi-professional circuits controlled by anyone with enough money to cobble together what passed as a tour. It competed with the WCT championships held in Dallas, which was based on results from the WCT tour, a tour run by Lamar Hunt as an answer to the open invitation to Grand Prix tennis which was controlled by the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF - the ancestor of the modern ITF).

The first year-end championships were held in Tokyo, which happened to be the highest bidder, and in their never ending, insatiable appetite for a bigger payday, the event moved six times in six years, to tennis hotbeds such as Paris, Barcelona, Boston, Melbourne and Houston - where it promptly had a problem.

Nobody outside of tennis particularly cared about the event because the rules for qualification, the format of the tournament itself, and the players that participated, were about as reliable as predictions of the weather. In the end, the perceived value of the tournament, outside of tennis, suffered badly, and so too did the event.

Then in 1977, somebody came up with a brilliant idea - bring the mountain to Moses. For the first time in a string of 13 glorious years, the Masters was played at Madison Square Garden - then the mecca of sports entertainment - and with it came all the cachet the tournament could hope for. Sure, along the way there were questions about the format, the rules of qualification, and of course the quality of the tennis. As a matter of fact, very often the tournament was played in the year after the year for which qualification was determined - so late it was in the tennis calendar. And complaints about injuries and fatigue were seen as just a subterfuge for players to tank some matches in favor of bigger fish to fry.

Nevertheless it was an event that people outside of tennis covered with almost as much gusto as the majors. And why wouldn't they - initially the popularity of Connors, Borg and Vilas, would give way to the triumvirate of Connors, Borg and McEnroe, and then Connors, McEnroe and Lendl. In all three cases, the differences in personalities and the personal conflicts between some or all the heads of the tennis families provided the base, spine and glitter to make it a great event. But as the top players got old, retired, or lost their personal animus towards one another, the event petered. And as playing at Madison Square Garden had less and less of a cachet, the brilliant minds at the newly anointed emperors of tennis (the ATP tour) decided to chase the money and move the event in 1990 to, where else...Frankfurt.

Huh?

That's right, given that the game's dominant players were becoming predominantly European, and given the money they offered to host the tournament, Germany became the new mecca of tennis. First it was Frankfurt from 1990 to 1995, then that other internationally known metropolis, Hanover, hosted the event for a stretch from 1995 to 1999. And as you might expect, despite the star power of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and everyone else, the tournament slowly lost its identify, and as a result (in my opinion) its luster outside of tennis.

Along the way, it just so happened that when the ITF was frozen out of control of everything but the majors and Davis Cup, they decided (quite rightly) there was a gaping hole that they could fill, and promptly initiated a competing year-end championship called the Grand Slam Cup. And because one thing the ITF is very good at is hiding behind its tradition, they at least had the good sense to keep it in Munich for nine years from 1990 to 1999 as well (although they couldn't resist locating the tournament in Germany - where the money obviously was at the time). The other thing they're good at is hiding in front of prize money, but this time, they smartened up and put up an astronomical $3M payday to the winner of the Grand Slam Cup if they also happened to win a slam that same year. At the time, this was an astronomical sum of money - more than any of the majors, and way more than the ATP Tour World Championships.

As the ATP's year end championships slowly but surely caught up with the prize money of the Grand Slam Cup (money problems caused them to reduce their prize money to make it closer to the ATP's season finale), the latter suffered, and had to change when the event was held, as well as include a women's championship for two years 1998 and 1999 (both not surprisingly won by Venus Williams and Serena Williams respectively), in an effort to remain relevant. It didn't, and eventually was subsumed by the Tennis Masters Cup in 2000 - itself an homage to both year-end championships. They all figured half of a big pot of money is better than all of a small one, so they did the only sensible thing and merged.

But once the Masters moved from MSG, and the Grand Slam Cup lost its purely capitalist appeal, what was left was an event that served as nothing more than a book-end to the ATP tour's nine flagship events, and an anti-climactic denouement to the year's major quadrilogy. This interested nobody beyond the game. Within the game, it can be argued that the importance of the tournament was not only maintained, but improved. After all, points started to count towards ranking and the money was hard to ignore. But something was missing...an identity.

So here's my solution.

If this tournament is really all about (dare I say it) the money, then don't be ashamed of it - embrace it! Put the prize money at $10M for the winner if he is both a grand slam champion and finishes the year ranked #1 - you could clip off $2M for each of the two conditional compensations, and simply call the winner, if it happens to be someone like Nikolay Davydenko (instead of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic), the $6 million dollar man...I'm only half joking, by the way.

Also, they should put it at the same venue and leave it there for at least 10 years (in fact if they had a brain, would build a venue that they could keep it there forever). That way, the event and the venue would both benefit from the cachet of the other, and would help to perpetuate the other's viability. This business of chasing the money by changing the location every time someone shows up with a bigger check is the very reason that the women are now furtively begging to join the men at the O2. Although the venue is new, it has sufficient razamatazz to be an event in and of itself. The problem is that, at the moment, it's carrying the tennis. They should each do their own share of the heavy lifting and that's where the last component would come in.

Put the points to the champion on par with winning a major and make the final a 5-set match. Then the money and the points won't seem to have been capriciously handed out to someone who got hot for 8 sets. Making the final a 5-set match, and putting major-level points on the table would be the final piece to the puzzle making this tournament everything it should be both inside and outside of tennis.

So, $10M to the winner, major-level points, a consistent venue and a 5-set final. Now who could ignore that?
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