ATP hopes to spice up doubles with golden tie-break
By Neil Harman, London Times
A bid to stop the men’s game becoming too singles-minded
ANDY RODDICK has a home-grown word for it: overtime. With overtime, doubles lives; without it, a sentimental tennis element that has fast become an expensively irrelevant sideshow has little chance of survival in a world governed by television executives, protectionist tournament directors and singles-minded schedules.
This weekend, the eight singles players who have qualified for the Masters Cup will be joined in Shanghai by eight doubles teams, many of whom feared that this might be the last time they would be afforded such a privilege anywhere other than the four grand-slam championships and the middle Saturday of Davis Cup ties. The belief was that the ATP, the men’s governing body, cast in the role of Big Bad Wolf, wanted to devour them whole.
Things had begun to look that way, with disruptive scoring changes and entry system squeezes, dressed up as spurious “enhancements”, brought in on the back of ill-judged surveys that appeared to show that the only way to get singles players to play doubles (the heart of the whole matter) was to reduce the length of sets and, by the start of 2008, controversially use “singles only” rankings as the sole means of qualifying to play doubles at ATP events.
The doubles players declared open warfare, 45 of them took out an anti-trust lawsuit against their employers and waited for the response. In the midst of this, Etienne de Villiers, who had not been party to the original plans, became ATP chairman and has spent the first period of his term of office seeking a resolution to the impasse. He believes that he has found it.
Determined to “improve doubles, make it more attractive to our fans as well as a more successful product”, De Villiers has offered a four-pronged plan to secure its place as a vibrant element of tennis, the most visible of which is the introduction of a “match tie-break” should a third set be required to complete a match — the first to ten points with a difference of two. Roddick, exactly the kind of star-quality player that tournament directors want to see play more doubles, was enthused when told of the plans in Paris last week. Hence overtime.
Rather than short sets that had produced such ghastly scorelines as 5-3, 5-2, the ATP insists on a return to two tie-break sets with no advantage scoring, the match tie-break and a rigidly enforced 25-second break between points. “This gives tournaments a more predictable match length, which should allow more show-court scheduling,” De Villiers said. “Also, singles players may be persuaded to play this format due to it being less demanding. We are also doing something more acceptable for traditionalists.”
Explicitly, the ATP will drop the “2008 singles only” entry condition — calling it a “major concession”. The reason? “We want more marquee singles players to play doubles and the player field to be more democratic and egalitarian,” the chairman said. “We will not be bound by quotas, but we would like a 50-50 (singles and doubles players) field by the end of 2006 and the proportion of singles players (playing doubles) to continue to grow during 2007. We reserve the right to tinker or change at the end of ’07, but this will be based on feedback from tournaments, players, fan reaction, media, research and statistics.”
De Villiers wants to see the appointment of a “doubles tsar” at the ATP and the creation of a doubles promotion fund financed by doubles players sacrificing 5 per cent of their prize-money over the next two years
. The rationale is that the three parties (the ATP, tournaments and the players) “must be committed to promotion and marketing of doubles”. As a final gesture, any player who has invested in the players’ pension fund for four years by the end of 2007 and is prevented playing doubles as a result of the proposed changes will be eligible for full pension benefits.
The chairman describes his proposals as “open, transparent and rigorous”. He has spent the past three weeks in negotiation with leading doubles spokesmen, notably Mark Knowles and Mahesh Bhupathi, as well as polling views from as many singles players as possible.
He submitted his ideas to the four grand-slam tournament chairmen on Friday and has received a supportive response. He believes that there are enough grounds for the 45 doubles players to drop their lawsuit because its central basis, the exclusion of doubles players on ranking grounds, no longer exists. “But I have not let any prospective lawsuit affect what I think is right for the tour,” he said.
When he added that the ATP will, in future, proceed with any changes to the scoring or ranking systems on “what the data tells us, not what we would like the data to tell us”, it is a sideswipe at those who dragged the sport into this mess in the first place.