Masters Cup 2005 – trolling for controversy

We don’t have a player like Terrell Owens in tennis – maybe that’s why tennis isn’t so popular in the United States – so the tennis media has to settle for whatever controversy it can find. In the women’s year-end tournament, controversy came in the form of missing players. Three out of the four slam winners did not bother to play and the one slam winner who did turn up, Kim Clijsters, was too tired to perform well.

In Shanghai, the site of the men’s year-end tournament, the Masters Cup, there are two sources of controversy.

The first source of contention is the playing surface. Gerfloor – it sounds like we should be talking about a dog show – is a sticky fast surface. Rafael Nadal and Guilermo Coria are very unhappy, their best surface is clay. “I don’t see myself on this surface winning the match. It’s too difficult,” Coria said after losing to Ivan Ljubicic. He is right, the floor is too fast for a year-end championship. If you invite the top players in the world, don’t install a surface that favors a small percentage, use a surface which is a compromise between grass and clay: a medium speed hard court.

The second problem is the shrinking supply of top players. Nadal and Agassi are gone, Marat Safin has not recovered from knee surgery, Andy Roddick injured his back in Paris, and Lleyton Hewitt is waiting for his wife to give birth to their first child.

Agassi blamed the injuries on the state of the game today. “The ball’s faster. Guys are stronger. The movement is much more violent now,” he said. Are players getting injured because the season is too long? “Maybe,” Agassi said. Most people have a more definite opinion on the matter. Some think that the season is too long, not unreasonable considering that it consists of four different seasons on four different continents with a five week offseason. Some think that player greed is the problem.

China is not asking for their money back but they do think they bought a lemon.

An ATP player’s ranking is calculated from results in fourteen tournaments: the four majors, the nine Masters Series events and the best results in five other tournaments. Since each major and two of the Masters events are two weeks long, this adds up to twenty-four weeks of play each year. The ATP is not forcing anyone to play thirty tournaments, as Nikolay Davydenko did this year. Players enter a lot of tournaments, and play in a lot of lucrative exhibitions, to make a lot of money. You can read Peter Bodo’s Tennis World, for this point of view.

The problem with blaming the players is that tennis looks like a watered down, disorganized mess when players skip tournaments. Can you imagine fans going to NASCAR races if the top drivers were often missing? Look at the F1 racing circuit. Sponsors would be very mad if a driver decided to skip the Spanish, Austrian and Monaco Grand Prix to take an inseason vacation. Companies whose names are plastered all over the drivers’ uniforms, and cars, would ask for their money back.

China is not asking for their money back but they do think they bought a lemon. “We feel like we bought a Mercedes-Benz only to find 60 percent of the auto parts are no longer the original ones we paid for,” said Wang Liqun, the deput director of the organising committee. He didn’t choose that make of car by accident. Mercedes Benz is one of the main sponsors of the ATP tour.

The organizers are also very unhappy with Agassi because he announced his withdrawal at a press conference instead of telling organizers first. “I don’t appreciate what Agassi is doing. He made the announcement without telling anyone,” Liqun said. Liqun’s boss, Qin Weichang, took a more diplomatic approach with his followup comment: “We commend Andre Agassi at the age of 35 of being competitive and still carrying on with this kind of professional career.”

American tennis players are not used to dealing with Chinese government diplomacy. This is not the same as pulling out of the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven. China has made a big commitment to this tournament, it will be held in Shanghai for three years, and players need to adjust to the expectations of the organizers.

It could be much worse. There is a theory that intellectuals in the Soviet Republic were such good literary critics because they had to be expert at decoding statements from the communist government. If they said or wrote something unacceptable, they could end up in Siberia. There is an apocryphal story about Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and literary scholar, that demonstrates the dilemma. In one of Stalin’s periodic purges of intellectuals, Bakhtin was sentenced to internal exile in Kazakhstan for six years. One night in the freezing winter weather, he realized that he had no firewood so he had to choose between using his latest manuscript as fuel for the fire or freezing in the cold.

To be fair, the organizers have also blamed the ATP. They called on them to shorten the season so that there is a chance of having a full field at next year’s tournament. Maybe China can do what no one else has been able to do – move the ATP to action.