I watched the World Tennis Championships in Rotterdam the day before yesterday in absolute frustration. Let me say up front, Andy Muray deserved his victory and was clearly the superior player. But my frustration had different reasons. And yes, as usual they were manifold.
Firstly, it was an untidy tennis match with both the players playing well below par and littering the game with errors. I always get frustrated with a game that has no rhythm.
Secondly, the near fawning of the British media over Andy was nauseating. Forgive me, but I was under the impression that sports commentators are supposed to be “relatively” unbiased.
Yet the whole of this week, in EVERY single match, all they spoke about is Andy. I agree he is British and we need to speak about him, but surely we need to focus on the players actually PLAYING!
And surely they should not berate other players. This is a classic one I heard after Rafa’s win over Monfils in the SF, “well his knees have got to give way some day…although he can easily win 10 more French Opens…but you know (with a big smile) maybe this is the year Rafa will pick up an injury..” (Followed by hahahahaha)
Who speaks like this? Not only is it irresponsible, it’s completely unethical. Of course it's your job to dissect every player, but this kind of commentary can be best described as a pointless discussion between two juveniles over a few pints in the local pub.
Which brings me to Nadal and his injury. I read lots of stuff yesterday about how he used his injury as an excuse.
Well I am no expert but I could clearly see him suffer a lot of pain in that match. We all know he is professional enough to not feign nor exaggerate his injuries. He was clearly under the weather yesterday, but he still fought.
I have seen him taking quite a few nasty beatings, but I have yet to see a gutless performance from him. He could have easily taken the preferred route of retiring from the match but he didn’t do so out of respect for Andy.
And his presser and website all said the same thing. “Andy was better and he beat me, I don’t want to make any excuses about my condition. I don’t want to steal his thunder.” And yet I am sure more backlash will follow him.
And apart from all these issues, something much bigger was bothering me this whole week, but I couldn’t place my finger on it. And then it hit me. I “YouTube-ed” Rafa’s post-match interview after his semi-final loss in the US Open last year.
There he was, saying, “if you have to be in top positions you would have to play a lot of tournaments, I am only playing the ones I HAVE to play. It’s the tennis calendar which needs to adjust…”
So what the hell was he doing playing in Rotterdam in the first place? And that’s not all. He is also playing in Dubai in a week along with Roger Federer.
How do you persuade top players to play in Dubai and Rotterdam? Let’s look at some of the other options.
Preparation for a grand slam: Clearly not. This may hold true for an event like Queens, but not in this case.
Points: The tournaments (both Rotterdam and Dubai) are for 500 points (which are awarded to the winner), and Nadal and Federer are quite comfortably ahead (at the moment). This explanation thus seems somewhat inadequate.
Fondness: Nadal said in his Rotterdam presser that he wants to give his fans a treat and make up for his dismal performance in the last year’s tournament.
Ask Federer and he has always said he loves playing in Dubai. Although, this is not a concrete explanation, I CAN believe it (more or less).
Keeping up the momentum: The US Masters series is more than a month away. I agree match practice and momentum are important, especially for a player like Rafa. But didn’t he just win a gruelling major less than a week ago? He surely didn’t need to be back on the courts (and that, too a faster one) within a week. But hey what do we know.
Breather in the tennis calendar: Yes, it is a breather all right, but isn’t Nadal always complaining about the jam-packed calendar? Isn’t he the first one to talk about how devastating it is for the players to be fit and a 100% in such hard courts tournaments? And yet he played.
Improving the game: Well that’s the only explanation that I CAN believe. And this explains Rafa’s entering the singles as well as doubles events. To improve his game and particularly the net play.
Yet one can’t overlook the fact that he knew the faster courts of Rotterdam are likely to do more damage than good for his “not properly rested” body.
So what are they really playing for? I am forced to look for my answer in the only obvious other place. Appearance Fees.
A web search describes it as an extra sum of money a player makes for showing up at a tournament. I have no problems with players getting paid what they deserve. Tiger Woods get around 3 million dollas just to show up in a tournament, so why not our game's elite?
My issue is somewhat different.
Motivation. Since it's somewhat unclear as so what these players are actually playing for, it's difficult to understand how they motivate themselves for such tournaments.
I am not insinuating that they lose on purpose but are they still 100 percent motivated and charged to deliver their best? I want to say YES. But the truth is, I don’t know.
So how will these players, particularly Rafael Nadal find a balance? If he keeps playing such events, he will surely be brunt out at the US Open much like the last year.
So am I actually drawing a conclusion that there is a motivating factor so huge in Rafa’s decision to play in these mini-tournaments that he is willing to overlook the fact that he might exhaust himself?
When he clearly knows how important it is to stay fresh for a full 11 months of the tour?
And now he is injured. He has nobody to blame but himself.
Call it my naivete, but I would still like to believe that players of such calibre are actually playing the tournaments purely for their love of the sport. Don’t get me wrong.
I m not suggesting that our beloved players are cold, calculating, money spinning machines. Surely they love what they do, and it helps that it pays millions.
But my point is that as economics becomes more relevant in contemporary tennis, things are getting more nebulous. More so is the skewed distribution of money in tennis.
It's one of the more popular sports in the world and yet the top players are making millions just to show up, their performance notwithstanding, while many of those ranked 150-200 are struggling to make money.
But we cannot deny the fact that many smaller tournaments will never find the resources to attract the top players.
I'm pretty sure that tennis would benefit a lot more if Nadal and Federer were to play in less developed cities. It is more than likely to get more people interested in the sport. I hate it when sport marries big time money even though I understand that in today’s world even if God wanted to come down to planet earth, he would want to be marketable.
Lastly, I want to say that I didn’t write this article to accuse anybody of reckless money making, but merely as an attempt to be objective.
Maybe these tournaments are just a healthy mix of good match practice with loads of cash. But something tells me it’s not that straightforward.
I don’t know what conclusions to draw. Maybe there are none to begin with. Does all this money talk take away something from the game?
I don’t know myself. And how does all this money talk make me feel about my heroes. Well right now, uncomfortable. Does it lower them in my eyes a little bit? I'm yet to make up my mind about that.