Tennis Biases, Part 2 or 3 (Slams vs. The Others

I’ve written in this blog about tennis biases stemming from the need for access and about my personal bias for Monica Seles. Now let’s dive into the biases tennis journalists and fans have for either the Grand Slams or the non-major tour events.

TV commentators who parachute in for the Slams and attend few if any other events talk like the majors are the be-all and end-all of tennis. The commentators for Masters Series events sometimes opine that it’s harder to win one of those than a Slam. (More on that below.) It’s human nature to think that what you attend as a fan or cover as a journalist is important, and what you don’t see is less important.

Journalists or fans who attend smaller tournaments will typically say that those tournaments don’t get enough love, or aren’t awarded enough ranking points. They see players busting their behinds in places like Umag or Buenos Aires. It would be hard for anyone who covers those events to say they don’t matter after seeing the effort exerted. To the supporters of the tour events, a player who does well at Slams but often flames out early in smaller tournaments (think Garbine Muguruza) has a weak link on her tennis resume.

It seems the most rabid fans and commentators, such as those who are on tennis Twitter a lot or do tennis podcasts, tend to stick up for the smaller events. That’s logical. They follow the tours very closely, so to suggest that the small events aren’t essential would be saying they’re spending their time on something unimportant. And of course, it makes sense that the more intensely you follow something, the more important it is to you.

There is, perhaps, a bit of vague snobbery in this as well. If you’re the type who attends Winston-Salem or a Cuba-Uruguay Davis Cup match (brag alert: I’ve done both), it’s easy to look down on the fan who attends only the occasional U.S. Open night session. Not a perfect analogy, but if you’ve seen the Rolling Stones in a since-demolished football stadium, you’re a fan. But if you saw them at the Warner Theater when they were still great, you’re in a superior category of fandom. (I made the former, but sadly not the latter.)

Thank goodness for the denizens who talk up the small tournaments, because casual fans and parachuting Slam journalists won’t. Sticking up for minor events goes hand-in-hand with pointing out the exploits of up-and-coming or second-tier players. One of the nice things about the explosion of media options in recent years is that we have a plethora of sources for non-Grand Slammy tennis stuff. We can hear Ben Rothenberg and Courtney Nguyen touting Daria Kasatkina months before she reached the Indian Wells final, and Jeff Sackmann and Carl Bialik discussing the clay-court efficiency of Elise Mertens. Though with less exposure, today’s in-the-weeds podcasters and bloggers carry on part of the legacy of Bud Collins, who was best-known for his Wimbledon broadcasts but reveled in highlighting lesser-known players and tournaments.

Nevertheless, I admit I have to fight a personal bias toward the Slams that’s derived from a few different things. The first one is age. I became a tennis fanatic in an era long before the Internet or even cable sports networks. Most of the tennis on TV was Wimbledon, the U.S. and French Opens, and occasional recorded events like the old WCT matches. And even those were only on weekends.

When Bjorn Borg played his annual (1976-81) Wimbledon semifinal on a Friday, I had to find the sports minute on an all-news radio station and hope it would have the result. (My other go-to was the old Washington Post sports score line, which had an occasionally updated recording of results that might or might not include Wimbledon.) If you were a tennis fan in the 1970s, the Slams (except the Australian, which had fallen on hard times) were what you knew, and the winner of the most recent U.S. Open or Wimbledon was generally regarded as the world’s best player, even if the rankings said otherwise.

Another reason for my bias stems from a personal belief that we all need priorities. A work-related anecdote: At one publication, my editor, who was otherwise excellent, emphasized the importance of everything. It was essential to do big projects. Investigative stuff. But it was also important to break news. And write features. And do the little briefs. So at one point I asked what’s the priority. And the answer was “All of it.”

I found that to be an unsatisfactory response. Can you even have a lot of priorities? The pri- and pre- prefixes mean first or before. Primacy. Primero in Spanish. You can’t say everything is a priority. Something has to be most important.

To me, it makes sense for a player to unabashedly say the Slams are by far the most important events, the ones where he or she wants to peak. You can’t play your best every week, and planning to do that would be a fool’s game. That doesn’t mean you don’t try all the time. It means your schedule and your approach to training are constructed around trying to play your best at the majors. I think most of the very best players of the past 30 years have viewed it basically that way. However, I believe that the current crop of great players, including the Big 4 men, take the Masters Series events more seriously than previous generations took the second tier of tournaments. That’s a credit to the professionalism of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, et al.

I’ve heard the arguments that Masters 1000s are the toughest to win because you face higher-ranked players earlier in the tournament and don’t have a day off between matches. There are some Masters series when the winner faced a murderer’s row of opponents and one could make that case. But not usually. If Federer and others skip Cincinnati to be ready for the U.S. Open, how can Cincy be as tough to win as a major? Pete Sampras was candid about experimenting in tournaments, even Masters equivalents, to hone his game before a Slam. He was still trying to win, but he was working on his game so that it would be better a couple of weeks later.

The Masters 1000 format (which previously had other names), didn’t exist before 1990. That makes those tournaments a little less useful for historical comparisons and GOAT-ish debates. So when the TV screen has the number of Masters events Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have won, remember that there’s no comparable number for Borg or Lendl, never mind Laver or Budge.

There’s a great anecdote in John Feinstein’s book Hard Courts about how Andres Gomez admitted not using his full arsenal when he played Thomas Muster in Rome (then called the Peugeot Italian Open) in 1990. Gomez said he was saving a few wrinkles for Roland Garros, where he beat Muster a few weeks later. That might be an extreme example. Again, it’s not to say Gomez, or other players, weren’t trying at Rome. It’s just that they wanted to peak at Roland Garros.

Let’s also take into account fan exposure and media attention. For the men, the Slam winners receive twice as many ranking points as Masters winners get. But does the U.S. Open get twice the TV viewers or media attention of Toronto or Cincinnati or Shanghai? Of course not. It gets many times more. Attendance for the 2017 U.S. Open was 691,143. Cincinnati, for example, typically brings in close to 200,000. I couldn’t find the relevant TV numbers, but surely the difference in TV viewers between a Masters and Slam is even greater. And if there’s a good way to measure media coverage overall, the comparison between say, the U.S. Open and any Masters would be ludicrous.

I’m not suggesting that the Slam winners receive more ranking points than they do now. If you give too many points for the Slams you undermine the other events. I would suggest, however, that players don’t get enough points for reaching the middle/late rounds of Slams. Quarters and semis of Slams should be worth more than they are now. I would venture that most players would rather reach the semis of Wimbledon (720 points) than win Shanghai (1,000).

After writing all this, it dawns on me that I need former Czech player Karel Novacek to more precisely express how I feel. Novacek beat Stefan Edberg in 1993 at the U.S. Open, which Edberg was trying to win for the third consecutive year. In his imperfect but charming English, Novacek summed it up:  “…[t]oday I beat Stefan Edberg two times champion here, defending champion, and in this tournament U.S. Open, one of the biggest ones in the world, that is really what counts and I think that is — that is when nobody can say like that he tried or maybe he didn’t sleep well, or whatever they say, the people, after these big stars losing the matches in the small tournaments, so that is what I am really happy about that I was able to beat him at the U.S. Open.”