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Thursday, November 15, 2007
What to make of the year-end championships?

By Joel Drucker
Special to ESPN.com

The Tennis Masters Cup is usually contested in a haze. Are the season-end championships more of a Super Bowl or an all-star game? Might it be best to add more fun and games -- everything from a fast serve showcase to a pro-am or other fan-friendly aspects? After all, with the Grand Slams over, what more significant results can players generate?

The WTA event in Madrid, Spain, that just concluded, for example, did little to prove anything that hadn't already been revealed in 2007 (save for the fact that finalist Maria Sharapova played her best tennis of a lackluster year). Though certainly there were moments of fine tennis, most notably in the epic final won by Justine Henin, there was little at stake that will make or break the résumé of any of the participants. It matters scarcely a whit, for example, that future Hall of Famer Venus Williams has only played this event twice, her best effort a meager pair of trips to the semis.

On the men's side, there has been but one year in the past 30 when the outcome of the Masters truly determined the year's best player. It happened in 2000, when Gustavo Kuerten ousted Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi to conclusively stake a claim as the world's best.

This year is right in sync. No matter what happens this week in Shanghai, China, nothing can shake the ruling trinity of 2007: Roger Federer with his three Grand Slam titles, Rafael Nadal with his third straight French Open, Novak Djokovic ascending into the elite.

But ex-pro Todd Martin, who played in the Cup once (1999), believes it's still quite a serious event.

"It's closer to a Super Bowl than an all-star game," Martin said. "An all-star game is about yucking it up, and you don't really do that in tennis, not when you're just one of eight in an individual sport. Look at it this way: You're the CEO of your own company and you've had a great year and then you get to be on the board of a prestige firm like Berkshire Hathaway [the holding company whose CEO is billionaire Warren Buffett]. You've hit a pinnacle, but there's even more you can do."

Perhaps in some ways, what occurs this week is less about clarifying 2007 and more a matter of jockeying for 2008. A year ago, James Blake reached the final in Shanghai, soaring to a career-high ranking of No. 4 in the world. That same week, Andy Roddick held match points against Federer, an effort that greatly boosted his confidence in 2007. Looking back even further, Federer's run to win this event in 2003 -- the year Roddick was the world's best -- gave sign that he was on his way up the mountain. Similar warning signals were given by John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl at early stages in their careers.

"Guys have busted their hump all year and earned the right to play off for one more crown," Martin said. "For guys ranked five through eight, it's very important, as the opportunity to rise is big, as there's a tie to year-end incentives with endorsements, as well as where you will get seeded in the months ahead."

Because the field is so small and inherently deep, there's definitely a sense of urgency in the air when it comes to the actual matches. It's not a tournament where you can work your way into form. For this reason, said Martin, "This is one case where the round-robin format is quite workable. Guys know they'll play at least three matches, and they also know it's the one tournament where [it's] possible to lose and still win the event." Indeed, 14 times over the last 21 years the eventual winner took a loss earlier in the tournament -- and if Federer hopes to win this year, he'll need to overcome an opening loss to Fernando Gonzalez.

Still, it's a shame there can't be at least a few all-star-game-like elements added to the mix. For example, there was a time several years ago when the ATP and WTA spoke with one another about staging their respective year-end events at the same time and place. Like the Grand Slams and such venues as Key Biscayne and Indian Wells, the value for fans and viewers alike could be spectacular. But recent actions and a slew of disparate marketing and business objectives have made this increasingly unlikely. Next year the WTA Tour starts a three-year stint in Qatar, followed by three more years in Turkey. Having been played in Shanghai since 2005, ATP will start playing its year-end tournament in London starting in 2009.

"Some of the top-tier events the tours are combining are great ideas," said former pro and Tennis Channel commentator Leif Shiras. "But these year-end events can each stand on their own legs. They're great showcases and representative of each of the individual tours."

Meanwhile, this week's competition in Shanghai will continue. It may not necessarily add significant luster to any player's résumé, but there are certainly ways it can provide a few incremental gains -- and along the way thrill viewers with a week of spectacular matchups and skill, as evidenced by Gonzalez's impressive win over Federer.

Martin's belief is that the Tennis Masters Cup is best thought of as "as a video game when you enter the bonus screen. You can't die, you can't lose your ship, but you can get tons and tons of points. It's very special."

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.