MATCH POINT: When will sport realise that sometimes less is more?

MIKE DICKSON: Tennis, just like football and Formula One, is becoming damaged by its bloated schedule… when will sport realise that sometimes less is more?

  • Tennis’ congested schedule of global tours is starting to take its toll on the sport
  • Sport’s chiefs must learn to protect their athletes with fewer events every year 
  • Carlos Alcaraz is still the French Open favourite despite his shock defeat in Italy

Simplicity tends to be best when it comes to the most successful formats in sport. Football leagues are the most obvious case in point, capturing fans and dominating the landscape. 

Formula One, with its set number of races taking place at weekends, is another. A counterexample would be the incongruous jumble of English domestic cricket’s fixture list, causing ongoing damage to a great sport. 

The tennis calendar, far from perfect but with quite a lot to commend it, is somewhere in the middle. It has a strong start in Australia and then a decent narrative through the year as it moves through the Grand Slams, with its global tours and 12-month ranking system. 

There are some saggy periods — it finishes too late and the lack of a blockbuster mixed team event for men and women is a big miss. But it is not the worst. Which brings us to the current debate about these proliferating, expanded 12 to 13-day tournaments, brought to you by the ATP and WTA. 

We are into the fourth of them this year with the Italian Open in Rome, and by 2025 there are scheduled to be seven in all. Probably the kindest thing you could say about the two in Europe so far, coming after Madrid, is that the jury is very much out. 

Tennis’ congested schedule is beginning to take its toll on the sport and on players such as 20-year-old superstar Carlos Alcaraz (pictured), who is gearing up for the French Open next week

Global sports such as football are pushing their athletes to the limit with jam-packed calendars

There has been no shortage of problems relating to the structure of these 96-draw tournaments and opinion seems to be leaning against. Indeed, if you listened to 2022 Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur, there is not much division among the female players. Declaring herself ‘not a fan’ of the new format, she estimated that 90 per cent of the players were unhappy with it and added: ‘This doesn’t help at all.’ 

In Madrid, an unscientific poll came up with a slightly less that one-sided verdict, with Andy Murray among the sceptics. That was before he hotfooted it to Aix-en-Provence, where he gatecrashed and beat a strong Challenger field after being left with an awkward amount of time on his hands following an early exit in Spain. 

One of the issues with Madrid and Rome is that neither the Caja Magica nor the Foro Italico are well-equipped to cope with the influx of more than 250 singles and doubles players, once the qualifying is taken into account. 

The transport systems have creaked, players have been forced out to an array of off-site practice venues, dining facilities have been over-run, and some scheduling has been baffling. There are also knock-on factors, such as how other tournaments around them are affected. It is not just players (never an easy group to please) who are nonplussed by these calendar innovations designed to enhance the tours and act more in competition with the Slams. 

A senior figure in the tournament business reported widespread puzzlement among administrators about the quasi-fortnight events. Among the factors pointed out is that they deprive middle weekends of finals matches that would otherwise be there. What might have attracted owners (Miami and Indian Wells came before) is the extra ticket revenue in a sport whose business model tends to be over-reliant on getting people through the gate. 

Last year’s Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur insisted that she was ‘not a fan’ of tennis’ new format

Someone clearly thinks they can make some extra money somewhere, and it is true there are also some extra playing opportunities for a certain bracket of player. However, there is a price for that in that crowds are spread more thinly, and it is a terrible look for tennis when you see the gaps in the stands on some courts, captured by the live coverage. 

In terms of scheduling, the desire to add sessions has led to anomalies which see tournaments spluttering into life as they try to build momentum, like an old diesel going up a mild gradient. Just one example was in Miami, where the women’s first round began at 11am on the first Tuesday. 

Cam Norrie, who had one of the 32 first-round byes, did not hit his first ball in the men’s event until 9pm on the Saturday. If you are asking if this all passes the test of making the sport easier to follow for anyone other than the most devoted fan then the answer is no. It works against the building of the narrative. 

Tennis is a conservative sport that struggles to keep up with the times, so when something new comes along, there is an instinct to wish it well. It is just that on many occasions the wider consequences of these moves seem to get overlooked.

Tennis stars such as Daniil Medvedev will go straight from the Italy Open into the French Open

Alcaraz upset won’t move French needle 

As every general election expert knows, people can lie to pollsters but they rarely lie to their bookmaker. So it was notable that the many punters who bet on tennis were fairly unmoved by the surprise defeat of Carlos Alcaraz in Rome by Hungarian Fabian Marozsan. 

The French Open odds hardly shifted, despite the huge upset at the Foro Italico. You suspect people are right not to read too much into it. As the young Spaniard said afterwards: ‘It’s going to be really helpful to have days at home practising and getting ready for Roland Garros.’ 

Someone like Alcaraz will never relish losing, but his team may well see a few upsides to it. He already has plenty of clay wins behind him, and his exit from Rome avoids the possibility of Novak Djokovic beating him at a venue where the Serb has an excellent record. 

French Open odds hardly shifted despite Alcaraz’s shocking defeat against Fabian Marozsan

It gives Alcaraz a chance to prepare in peace and quiet, and slightly reduces the hype — even if the locker room will have noticed the way Marozsan attacked him and gave the Spaniard a taste of his own medicine with the dropshot. 

Of course the outcome of Roland Garros will be affected by what version of Rafael Nadal turns up there, if any. At the time of writing, the mood music around him is more upbeat — mostly based on snatched videos of him training back in Mallorca. 

Even if he’s fit, it is asking a huge amount of Nadal to win in Paris without any prior matches, but you still cannot find anything better than 9-2 on the 14-time champion. 

With Nadal not facing a top 32 player until the third round, his aura in Paris may well get him through to the second week, and then anything is possible. The smart money should nevertheless be on Djokovic.

Punters would be unwise to bet against tennis’ Serbian ace Novak Djokovic at the French Open

Postcard from a life on tour

To downtown Benidorm, where an overnight stop was required before interviewing Emma Raducanu’s former coach Andrew Richardson. Through Alicante’s impressive airport, and then a short trip up the Costa Blanca. 

Benidorm is an odd place to be alone and sober, and it would not be hard to satirise — as many have done over the years — this holiday hotspot, beloved of boozy Brits. 

My snapshot was one of generally good humoured behaviour, with revellers having an enjoyable time and parking their troubles. I drank some filthy white wine and talked football with a few friendly, bare-chested Nottingham Forest supporters. 

An abiding memory will be of the middle-aged couple riding around the pavement on a tandem-built mobility scooter with a loudhailer, cheerfully egging on the 24-hour party people in the Banana bar.

Source: Read Full Article