I sent this to Wertheim's mailbag just now. I hope he uses it.
Mr. Wertheim: The following is an open letter to ATP president Etienne de Villiers. I sincerely hope you publish it, and allow it to be a reminder that maybe a sport can be about more than just picking up extra money. Some fans love this sport for everything it is and has been, and personally, what it can continue to be.
Mr. de Villiers,
Hi, my name is Dominic Matheny. I am a big fan of tennis. I am the reason behind your proposed changes for the future of tennis. So, rather than allowing your changes to go without response from your fan base, I would personally like to take the duty of responding. However, I can only speak from my own personal tennis experience, so allow me to start with my start as a tennis fan.
In the summer of 2004, I was about to start my senior year, being only a fan of American football and no other sport. By chance, I happened to turn to tennis, having heard of only the really famous, Hall of Fame bound players. It must have been a Thursday, because it was the latter stages Wimbledon semifinal between American legend Lindsay Davenport and this young girl named Maria Sharapova. Sharapova was a Russian girl who followed her dreams and came to America to learn to play tennis. I was fascinated, and despite my Americanism, began to cheer for the young girl. To get to the final of Wimbledon at 17 would be huge. Honestly, it was the only tennis tournament I had heard of. I watched her win and watched a very small part of the next day’s session, literally learning the rules of the game as I went. They can’t let a ball hit the net on a serve? That was interesting. Oh, they don’t use that outer alley? I wonder why. During the men’s section, I started cheering for this fun guy with a ponytail named Roger Federer. I made it a point to watch him in the final when it came.
And so my love affair with tennis began, as I went from watching my new favorites Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer win Wimbledon, the only tournament I had ever heard of, to knowing things like “Florent Serra won the Adelaide. I wonder if that will carry over to the Australian Open.” I know the last 7 French Open champions off the top of my head, so much to talk about them. This is no small feat considering that I didn’t even see a clay court until coverage of Monte Carlo in 2005.
I went without major setbacks as a tennis fan through Cincinnati of 2006, enjoying a tennis life that included things like checking between high school classes just in time to see Roger Federer fall to Marat Safin in the Australian Open on an online scoreboard. Then came the famed 2007 initiatives, a step in your continued effort to make tennis more entertaining, and draw new fans, making tennis appealing to all.
To be honest, Etienne, these initiatives frighten me, and worst of all, they seem to be inconsistent with other things you do and say. You claim to want to allow the fans to see their favorite players more, and at the same time, you claim to value the players’ health. These seem inconsistent with some of your solutions, which are, in themselves, detrimental to the future of tennis.
There are three things that, more than others, bother me about your proposed initiatives, and things you have said in interviews. First, I have a problem with your proposed elimination of the Master Series. For a man so interested in the fans being able to see more of their players, eliminating events with high-class tennis featuring most of the top 50 seems like a contradiction. How can you feature top players more often when they are not playing required events. It should serve as a reminder that the #1 player in the world is currently holding only three optionals toward his ranking. The Masters Series allows for the top players to gain very efficient practice for the events they lead to.
Secondly, I worry about the fact, that in interviews, I have seen you mention the possibility of singles using the same match tiebreak system as doubles. As a matter of fact, I was against the implementation of such a system in doubles, and still don’t happen to like it. People earn a living off of playing doubles, just like singles. That should be respected, not dissected because fans don’t like it as much. It is not the case, I should say, that ticketholders leave after singles finals if a doubles final is to follow. All this comes from a person who is not a fan of doubles, mind you. To do this in singles, would be even more egregious an error. Could you imagine, a match like the aforementioned Federer-Safin match with the scoreline 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 10-6 (match tiebreak)? That is the appeal of tennis! If people split sets, they have to play another one. It would not be an issue if they had finished the match in straight sets. Do not use the tiebreak to help gather fans with short attention spans, because honestly, if they’re shown a match like the Safin-Federer match, and they can’t take a 9-7 fifth set because it is too long, that should speak to the fact that maybe tennis is not the right sport for them, not the other way around. You have used soccer as am example many times to explain your ideas, and to this I say that many Americans find soccer boring, but I respect all those soccer officials who do not change the game to suit only those who think the sport is inherently boring, myself included.
Finally, somehow more troubling is the suggestion of round robin formats at tournaments, with the reasoning being that it allows people such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to get more matches in, allowing the fans to see their favorite players more. First, I would like to make the point that the ATP should be responsible for promoting players better, rather than trying to force through the players fans already know. Perhaps instead of giving more Federer or Nadal because people know them, you might try introducing them to the wonderful workings of Richard Gasquet or Novak Djokovic, or even Andreas Seppi. Market your players, Etienne. Do not forget that more than two players participate in this sport. Imagine what this round robin format could do to them. I can see it now: Boris Pashanski gets the win of his life, beating Roger Federer in a tournament with a four person round robin group, only to lose his second two matches while Federer exorcises his demons and wins the group easily. Could you honestly say “Congratulations, Boris, on your biggest win yet. Maybe next time, it will count for something.”? I hope you answer “no” to that question when you read this. Are you looking for an example closer to home? During your tenure, Martin Vassallo Arguello, a qualifier from Argentina, moved from qualifying to the round of 16 in the French Open. A round robin would almost certainly have eliminated him, with him being guaranteed to meet at least one highly ranked player. Maybe you are of the opinion that people would rather see the top 16 getting through events more often, but let me tell you unequivocally, that is not the case. Tennis fans, like any fans, love the underdog, and even more so than in other sports, watch for and love the moments when a 44th ranked player from Argentina goes on a run, and wins a major, defeating his opponent, who cramped from the nerves and let him in. These dreams are the things that allowing lucky winners can accomplish.
I am writing this letter to you, Etienne, because I believe you to be a rational man who can think these things through. I hope you take my letter seriously and weigh heavily in your head and heart the direction that tennis should or should not be moving in. I know you want to be the man who revolutionizes tennis. Please, Mr. de Villiers, just try not to be the man who murders my favorite sport. Everything I have mentioned is true. I swear by it. If you do not believe it from me, ask Mr. Gaudio. He can tell you about something other than Roger and Rafael.