By Jon Levey
From the October 2002 issue of TENNIS Magazine.
Unless a few good men start to dominate, the ATP tour will turn into a faceless fizzle.
Mac era returns to U.S. Open '02. By Ron Angle.
Communism doesn't work. Not socially, not economically, and certainly not in the case of men's professional tennis. But going into the 2002 U.S. Open, eight different players had divvied up the last nine Grand Slam titles. The bottomless talent pool that is the ATP has caught the dreaded "P" virus, better known as parity. Even with 32 seeds at the Slams, top players continue to drop like flies. Only two of the first 16 seeds at this year's Wimbledon reached the quarterfinals. Although competitive matches and upsets occurring throughout a tournament is a purist's dream, it ultimately damages the sport.
What we need is a ruling class, a group of young, exciting players who consistently compete against each other in the later rounds at the majors.
While world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt would like to put an end to the current parity and rule the tour as a monarch, ideally the mantle should be passed around between a select handful who on any given week can usurp the throne. Rivalries would begin to develop, personalities would be discovered, and casual fans would look forward to the second Sunday of a Slam instead of flipping the channel because they've never heard of the players.
Remember the McEnroe, Connors, Borg era? Or the Sampras, Agassi, Courier regime? We need Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, Roger Federer, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Gustavo Kuerten to join Hewitt and focus on winning the big ones. The young Turks have been knocking at the door of dominance but can't find a way in.
Now, it's a nice story when career journeymen like Thomas Johansson and Albert Costa defy expectations and rise up to win a major. But rarely, if ever, do they attract new viewers. Golf hasn't become hugely popular because some no-name stunned the world by winning the Masters. Fans watch for one reason-Tiger Woods. People want to see what record he'll shatter next. And in the infrequent instance Tiger doesn't win, they want to see who's David enough to slay Goliath.
This dynamic has been working on the women's tour, where Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters have won the last nine Slams. Love 'em or hate 'em, these girls at least inspire passion from the fans. I'm not saying that the ATP's "new balls" don't want to win the majors. They've collected a few, just not with any consistency. Perhaps it's because they're already fabulously wealthy or maybe they're more Yevgeny Kafelnikov than Pete Sampras, not focused on any particular event. You just don't get the feeling that, other than Hewitt, this generation is desperate to stockpile Slam trophies.
The ATP holds some responsibility for the lack of a ruling class. By penalizing players for missing any of its nine Masters Series events, many of which come right before the Slams, the tour compels its potential stars to compete in more tournaments than they can mentally and physically handle. Federer had a great clay-court season this year, but it left him drained at Roland Garros, where he went out in the first round. Same story for Kuerten during past summer hardcourt seasons-he's done well at the warm-ups and then run out of gas at the U.S. Open. The ATP doesn't operate the Slams, so naturally they promote their own events instead. The problem is, sports fans aren't going to be interested in what happens in Cincinnati if they're not even watching Wimbledon.
The young players need to take matters into their own hands. Take a page from the book of Williams or Sampras. Organize your schedule to peak at the Slams. Perhaps even skip an event or two so you can save your best stuff. After all, your legacy, and your endorsement dollars, are made at the majors.
Until these players are ready to assume the role of authority over the rest of the field, predicting the Slams will be anyone's guess, and tennis will continue to be back-page news.
I HATE the ATP.