It's the same every year. When the circuit sparks again after the U.S. Open and Davis Cup, I vow to take a more positive view of the fall circuit. Then, within weeks, as the criticisms begin to appear, the body count (in terms of injury) begins to grow, I realize how danged hard it is to get all jacked up about the fall circuit. I backslide to criticizing the ATP calendar.
I officially hit that point Tuesday, when I learned that Andy Roddick had injured his left knee seriously enough to pull out of the Shanghai Masters 1000 event during his second-round match with Stan Wawrinka. And guess what? There's still another Masters 1000 to come, the big Paris Indoor event in November.
It seems like madness to me, and we've been through the laundry list of complaints about the length of the tennis year ad nauseam. So I'm going to try to stay positive here and focus on the upside of having a muscular fall circuit leading to the ATP Tour championships.
1. It's a vehicle for keeping the rankings gap between players relatively tight. Look at what Novak Djokovic, who spends a lot of time spinning his wheels, accomplished by winning the ATP Tour championships at the end of 2008. It enabled him to stay with the big dogs -- status and rankings wise. More importantly, those players who are sufficiently healthy and focused during the fall can recapture any lost luster by doing well when most of the best players are in sleep mode.
2. It gives on-the-cusp players the opportunity to gain valuable match experience. It seems that someone -- a Gilles Simon, Fernando Gonzalez or Nikolay Davydenko -- always goes on a run during the fall, and that positions him to be a contender, or at least an intriguing and unpredictable factor for the upcoming year. Players who pop onto the radar in the fall help enrich the game's narrative. Let's say Marin Cilic wins the last of the Masters 1000 events, in Paris -- that guarantees he'll get a lot of attention when the tour begins in Australia in January.
3. It services the international audience, which is no insignificant contribution when you consider that one of tennis's greatest strengths is the game's global appeal. There's a fundamental problem with tennis being a world game, and it's got to do with geography, climate and time zones. Duh!
But seriously, if you whack the fall Asian circuit off the calendar, you ignore a growing market. And if you pull the plug before the European fall events, you basically eliminate a fairly healthy, traditional circuit. No matter how you cut it, eliminating a large portion of the fall circuit in order to create an adequate offseason represents a shocking degree of downsizing, and in a way that doesn't make economic sense. You're only supposed to eliminate elements of your business that represent a net loss, not healthy components of your success.
4. Indoor tennis is a legitimate branch of the game. It wasn't all that long ago that carpetmeister John McEnroe was calling for a fifth Grand Slam -- one that would be held indoors. Fans of the indoor game love that it offers ideal, lab-like conditions, and the relatively fast surfaces are a welcome change in an era in which surfaces have been significantly slowed down across the entire spectrum (grass to clay).
Tennis grew by leaps and bounds in the 1970s, when indoor events were in abundance. But without fall events in Europe, the indoor game would just about cease to exist, and that would diminish the broad scope of the game and eliminate one of the most effective ways that it's presented and marketed.
5. It keeps money flowing into the pockets of the players. Ever notice how all the complaints about the length of the year come from top players? There's a reason for that, beyond the fact that they play more matches and thus get more beat up than the day-to-day spear carriers.
Top players are well enough compensated to feel they can, or should, turn down work opportunities. It's not the same for rank-and-file pros, yet those journeymen and aspiring champions need the top players' participation to sell the game to tournament promoters and sponsors. Basically, the top players take a bullet for the tour (or are expected to) in the fall, and it's hard to see how that can change.
Well, so much for the upside. And as valid as some of those reasons sound, or really are, it's still true that the tennis year is too lengthy. As always, the good is the enemy of the perfect.