January 7, 2009

The New & Improved ATP?

The New Year is ushering in a new set of rules and guidelines governing the men's tennis circuit and creating a new brand -- the ATP World Tour. And while some of the changes may seem largely cosmetic, the organization hopes the new structure will make tennis more accessible and fan-friendly.

It's not the first time the ATP has changed its format, but it is the widest overhaul in almost twenty years. A few years back the organization instituted the ATP "Race" system, where players didn't carry over their ranking points from the previous year, starting with a fresh slate and racking up points as the year progressed. By the end of the year, the top eight players would qualify for the Tennis Masters Cup.

I suppose it all works out in the end, but I always was skeptical of a system that could provide a pretty inaccurate picture of the playing field -- after last year's Australian Open, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga claimed the #2 spot but was ranked a comparably low twentieth in the world.

This year's changes are a little more comprehensive

It starts by dividing sixty-three ATP tournaments into four tiers: Grand Slams, ATP World Tour Masters 1000s, ATP World Tour 500s, and ATP World Tour 250s. The numbers represent the points awarded to the champion of each event -- Grand Slam title-winners earn 2000 points.

Players also have certain duties to fulfill -- the top thirty as of 2008's rankings must play in all four Grand Slams as well as eight of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments. They score additional points for their best results at four of the "500" events and two of the other events during the year, either "250"s or Challenger tournaments.

There is a pretty substantial incentive for players to meet these requirements and do well. A $6 million bonus will be divided among the top twelve at the end of the year. The season also features a 20% increase in compensation as well as a profit-sharing program that rewards players as the sport itself succeeds.

The prize for coming out on top? The best players will compete in the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London in November for the championship trophy.

Of course there are other features to the new format: a new logo, greater promotion, an $800 million investment in improving facilities and building new stadiums. All that hopes to increase the profile of the sport and attract more of us to the game -- to play and to watch.

As with any big restructuring, the current outline does raise some questions. How exactly is the point system make tennis more fan-friendly? And I'm not sure why it's only the top thirty players who have to compete in specific number or quality of tournaments. Will #31 -- currently Paul-Henri Mathieu -- be at an advantage or disadvantage because he's not required to play every Major? What happens if one of the top guys misses a Slam due to injury or sickness? Does that automatically disqualify him from the year-end championships? And, maybe most importantly, will the changes guarantee that the very best players make it to the end?

(Some issues are addressed in a FAQ section on the ATP's new website, but I still wonder.)

I'm sure it will take some time to get used to the format and to iron out kinks in the system -- or at least for us, as fans, to be sure the system works as it should. No one wants a virtual unknown to take a spot in London away from the top tier by plugging away at low-profile tournaments while Roger and Rafa battle for a bigger crown. But then again, maybe it offers the opportunity for some of these upstarts to compete with the Big Boys on a grander stage.

I guess it all remains to be seen.

Until then, serve well and play hard!

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