Home » Articles, World Features » Strike it Rich
andy murray, tennis, japan open, trophy

Murray conquers Nadal for Japan win

ATP faces collision course with top male players

Simon Cambers @scambers73

The world’s top players will strut their stuff in Shanghai this week in the penultimate Masters 1000 event of 2011. For some it is the chance to get themselves on track for the season-ending Barclays World Tour Finals in London, for others it is a chance to gain valuable ranking points and prize money as the end of the year approaches.

It had also been expected to be the first opportunity for the top players to discuss the burning issues in the sport, that came to a head at the US Open last month and even caused some to utter the S-word if they don’t get their way.

But as of writing, an official player meeting has not been called and, with Roger Federer sitting out the event and Novak Djokovic absent through injury, there would seem to be little point in having one. The only way things will get done is if players are united so it may just be Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal having a quiet chat about it.

It was interesting to see Murray back-tracking pretty quickly on the likelihood of a strike (that’s the S-word, in case you were wondering). In the heat of the moment at the US Open and in the days shortly after, Murray had not ruled out a strike as an option if the players were not listened to and their gripes addressed. But none of them wants to strike and with so much prize money on offer and ranking points to play for, the idea always seemed unlikely. The players have too much to lose.

In New York, amid all the upheaval caused by yet another Monday men’s final, the top men, led by Nadal and Murray and with Djokovic and Andy Roddick in tow, made their feelings pretty clear about what they saw as the farcical nature of that tournament.

And they were absolutely right. Playing the first round of a grand-slam event over three days is unnecessary and unbalances the draw. Playing the two men’s semi-finals on Saturday and the final the following day is totally illogical and good only for television.

In some ways, having four straight Monday finals, all because of bad weather, has spared tournament organisers the horror of one-sided finals in which one player was exhausted. If it wasn’t for that, maybe it would not even have lasted this long.

The US Open brought things to a head and now Nadal, Murray and Co. are calling for more changes: fewer mandatory tournaments, a shorter season, more built-in weeks off, a change to the ranking system and perhaps most interesting of all, a greater share of the revenue made at the four grand-slam events.

There has been talk of creating a true players’ union and having a commissioner in charge of tennis, but to me, those two things are so problematic that they seem a long way off. Trying to agree who would be the commissioner could take years and how would it even work when tennis is governed by a series of separate bodies?

One insider told me recently that for the players to stand a chance of getting anything done, they should focus on one or two key issues, rather than trying to rip it up and start again with a clean slate. OK, so let’s start with the one thing that should be relatively easy to fix: the US Open.

US OPEN ISSUES

There is absolutely no (decent) reason that the first round should be spread over three days. The French Open tried that when they instigated a Sunday start a few years ago but the top players, creatures of habit that they are, hated playing Sunday-Wednesday or Monday-Thursday.

Grand slams are as much about rhythm, for players, as they are about playing great tennis and anything artificial is never going to sit well. Television loves spreading out its stars but that is hardly for the good of the players. This year, Murray began on the Wednesday, leaving him the prospect of seven matches in 12 days, compared with 14 for Federer, who began on Monday. Is that fair?

Murray and all the players know that television has done a lot for tennis. Without its influence, the prize money would be a fraction of its current level and outside of the grand slams, the players would be virtual unknowns. They owe it a lot.

But for CBS, the host broadcaster in the US, to insist on a Saturday-Sunday finals weekend, as it has been doing in its latest proposed three-year deal, is simply unworkable.

“The game has just become so physical and so demanding,” Murray said. “You look at the way a lot of the guys move. If you play a long five set match, be it four and a half, five hours, on Saturday ¬– to recover and play good tennis the next day is very difficult.

“If the final turned out to be an absolute dead match because someone’s so tired, I think it would show a lot of flaws and it would be time to say: look, this is meant to be one of the biggest matches in tennis and it’s messed up because of schedule.”

A Saturday-Sunday finals weekend is also horribly exposed to the weather. With no roof, all it takes is a few hours of rain at the wrong time on the Saturday and you’re immediately looking at a Monday final. There is no room for manoeuvre.

The US Open prides itself as being “at the forefront of technology” and yet when the French Open gets its roof in 2015, Flushing Meadows will be the only roofless grand-slam venue. It is a situation that will surely be addressed sooner rather than later, even if it might involve knocking the Arthur Ashe Stadium down and starting again because of structural problems and the fact that the water table in the New York area is already too high.

As Federer, who has been suspiciously quiet throughout much of this, put it: “I think playing the first round over the first three days and the Super Saturday is just not feasible. In all the other grand slams you do not really have that competitive advantage over another player and I don’t think should be the case here.

“It shouldn’t happen any more. And I don’t think TV should dictate to have the finals on Sunday and the semis on Saturday and not have the true champion hold the trophy up.”

CALENDAR ISSUES

“We want fewer mandatory events, a two-year ranking system and obviously shortening the season,” Murray said at the US Open. “It’s just about trying to find ways of prolonging guys’ careers where there isn’t so much pressure in every single event that we play in.”

Players have been trying to shorten the season since before Nadal and Murray were born. Finding that happy medium between getting the top players competing against each other regularly and keeping them playing for longer is not easy. The competing interests, from the tournament directors to ruling bodies, to television and to the players mean that finding an agreement is always going to be difficult.

We have been here before. When the ATP Tour began in 1990, it was established as an equal partnership between the players and tournaments, the players having got together and voiced their discontent with their lack of say in how the previous circuits were run and the length of the calendar.

There is no doubt that the tennis season, stretching from the start of January to mid-November for the very top players, is brutal, physically and mentally. The sport is more physical than ever and the top men are now playing 80-plus matches each year, which is bound to take its toll sooner rather than later.

The Davis Cup is a bone of contention for the top players, too. With the exception of Djokovic, the rest of the top four have regularly skipped matches because it didn’t fit in with their plans. This is a great shame for what remains a great competition and it will be interesting to see if they can figure out a better way to fit it into the calendar.

But – and it’s a big but – the real problem is that all of this only truly affects the very top players. The domination of the big four – Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray – in the past couple of years has been such that they have made the semi-finals or finals in the majority of the tournaments they have played. They are involved for the whole of each week. No wonder they want a rest.

But for everyone outside of the top four, and especially outside of the top 10, you would be hard pushed to get agreement from them to shorten the calendar. The pickings on offer for them are relatively few and far between so the more opportunities they have to earn money and points, the better. Anyone outside the top 50 would play as many events as they can – even when you’re playing each week, it is not that taxing if you’re only getting to the second or third round.

As another insider suggested, Murray would even struggle to get agreement within his own household. His brother, Jamie, is a top doubles player but needs to play as much as possible to get into the top 20, where players really begin to make a good living. Doubles is not as taxing on the body as singles so the doubles players are happy to play a lot more anyway.

So the top players are in some ways victims of their own success; the better they are, the more they are obliged to play. The top 30 must play a minimum of 18 events: the four grand slams, eight of nine Masters 1000s, four “500s” and two “250s”.

Now that’s a lot, obviously and Murray has talked of the annoyance of a “zero-pointer” (a penalty for not playing a mandatory event) if you are chasing the No 1 ranking. But there are also a couple of built-in protections that are not too well known but which explain, for example, why Federer is able to pull out of Shanghai again this year without financial penalty (including no penalty in terms of his share of the overall bonus pool).

If you have played more than 600 matches on the ATP Tour, you can drop one Masters 1000 event. If you are in your 12th full year or more on tour, you can drop another. And if you fulfil both those criteria and are also 31, then you don’t have any commitments at all.

The outgoing ATP chief Adam Helfant was widely praised for managing to shorten the calendar a little. In 2011, two weeks have been shaved off the season and in 2012, three have gone, which will mean the World Tour Finals ending on Nov 11, giving the players seven weeks off between then and the start of the following year.

That is a clear improvement but it is interesting that Murray feels the men should be given the chance to follow the example of the women, who have just 11 mandatory events, including the grand slams and who play their season-ending finals in the last week of October.

“You can still keep the tournaments that come after it,” Murray said this week in Tokyo. “But if you wanted to, you could finish your season after that and have extra time off.

“It’s not like the players want to cut tournaments. It’s just there are a lot of mandatory events now. I only have pretty much two or three tournaments the whole year where I decide I want to go and play that tournament. The rest of the year we’re told where to go and play and that’s something that maybe we should have a little bit more say in.”

Murray told me that he feels reducing mandatory tournaments would only result in most top players competing in one or two fewer events each year. Tournament directors, especially if there were still events after the season-ending Finals, live in fear of this because they will not be able to sell tickets with the guarantee that at least one or two of the top men will be there. If that happens, prize money will fall.

And what about exhibition events? I guarantee that the very top players will go off in November and December, sometimes flying long distances to play in enormously lucrative exhibition matches. If, as Murray suggests, they allow tournaments to be played after the ATP World Tour Finals, then surely they have to prevent the top players from playing in exhibitions while the season is still going on?

After Djokovic beat Nadal in the final of Indian Wells in March, the two men flew directly to Bogota to play an exhibition for which they reportedly were paid $2 million apiece, before returning to play in a second Masters 1000 event in Miami. That’s all fine – few people begrudge them the money – but if they do that, then surely they give up their right to moan about playing too much tennis. They can’t have it both ways.

REVENUE SHARING AT GRAND SLAMS

It is an issue which American sports fans will be familiar with; sportsmen and women trying to get a “fairer” share of the revenue created by their sport. For the biggest capitalist nation on earth, America has a strangely democratic, even socialist set-up when it comes to their sports – think of the draft system and the salary caps. Now admittedly, the caps are sky-high but there is a certain democratic thread running through it, with strong players’ unions and a collective bargaining agreement designed to protect its stars and give them a fair share of the pie.

In the NBA the players get a whopping 57 per cent of “all basketball-related revenue”. It’s just under the 50 per cent mark in the NFL and just above 50 per cent in the NHL. At the US Open, the players received around 13 per cent of the revenue created by the tournament. The players feel they are being short-changed and as Nadal said: “We are a big part of the show”.

Now at a time when the world economy is in such a serious situation and people are struggling to find work and pay the bills, there is a tendency to look at the gripes of the top tennis players and think of them as a bunch of over-paid moaners. At the time of writing, the world’s top four had earned more than $22.5 million in prize-money alone in 2011. That’s a staggering figure so to hear them go on about not having enough is a bit rich.

When they are making an awful lot more money for tournaments and the sport and when they look at what is happening in other sports, you can see their gripes. But tennis is not basketball, American football or ice hockey – a tennis tournament rarely lives off a rich owner who can just splash out hundreds of thousands on appearance money. Indeed, many of the lower-level tournaments are struggling financially.

“A few people might be scared that it looks bad or it looks like the players are being greedy, but we aren’t,” Murray said. “For us, if we get injured and aren’t going to play any tournaments, our ranking drops, and we don’t get paid.

“(At the US Open), the tournament keeps 87 per cent of the money so we’re not being greedy. They’re making so much more money than the players are. I just think that that needs to change a little bit.”

Murray then talked about having a players’ union, which is a whole different kettle of fish. Where would the ATP fit in if a players’ union was created? It would be closer to revolution. I doubt whether any of them want that.

If you enjoyed this, then check out Rich Hook’s take on the NFL and Premier League in “Held to Ransom”

3 Responses to “Strike it Rich”

  1. Charles Perrin October 10, 2011

    This is an issue that will rumble on for a while yet, even if there are viable solutions to the problem such as shortening the calendar which you touch upon.

    I just want to take you up on the point about having a players’ union. Don’t the ATP already have a players’ council with Federer who is the President? And how are they handling the situation, if at all?

    Reply
  2. That’s true – Federer and Nadal are on the players’ council. But the players and the ATP share ownership of the ATP Tour – the reason they give for trying to set up a players’ union is to get a greater say in how the grand slams (run by the ITF) are done, including revenue sharing. They might then have more say in when Davis Cup is played, too.

    Reply
  3. Michael Dewar October 11, 2011

    I don’t think Andy Murray can be accused of greed; he stuck with original sponsors long after they couldn’t compete with much bigger offers he turned down.
    i think Murray might wish that the spoils of the majors are distributed amongst the lower players rather than into the pockets of the organisers. !3% is a poor return for the stars of the show.

    Reply

Leave a Reply


Refresh