Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Fabulous Fabio Fognini head a clay-court line-up at the Rio Open presented by Claro hdtv. It’s the debut of a 500-point tournament where exotic scenery and new facilities look to be the tennis crown jewel of South America.
But why not go all the way? The ATP could look at Brazil to add a fifth Grand Slam venue.
Tennis has grown tremendously in the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal era. It’s no longer a mid-summer sport propped up by Europeans and Americans. The past two decades have seen the rise of the Australian Open and the proliferation of worldwide TV tennis.
Latin America has an underrated tennis heritage; the weather and enthusiasm of sports fans make this an ideal sports scene. It would be a great opportunity to extend the momentum and excitement of a new tennis year following the Australian Open. This fifth Grand Slam would further satisfy the appetites of tennis fans who do not want to hibernate for nearly four months until the French Open is played.
This is a modest proposal of why and when tennis needs a fifth Grand Slam opportunity.
Tennis Tradition and Grand Slam Counts
For tennis purists who abhor the idea of breaking history’s annual four-Slam pattern, consider that great changes have occurred since the Open era began (1968). At that time, three of the four Slam venues were played on grass (Roland Garros has always been clay).
Many fans will worry that a fifth Slam will inflate player Slam counts. True, but the numbers of titles and counts vary from one generation to the next with as many differences as tennis’ changing court surfaces and progressive technology. Numbers and titles are an imperfect measuring stick at best and manipulative as a rule.
In the 1970s and 1980s, stars like Bjorn Borg often did not take the trip down to Australia. He appeared there once. In counting his major titles, tennis fans often acknowledge this. Slam counts from different eras always require different calculations.
This fifth Slam proposal is not about protecting Grand Slam counts anyway. If Australian teenage sensation Nick Kyrgios eventually wins 19 Grand Slam titles because of a five-Slam season, so what? There will still be Federer fans saying, Well, back in Federer’s day he won with only four Slams per year. And that’s OK. Tennis fans are educated with the radical differences in eras and conditions. They can evaluate and have very passionate conversations and debates along the way.
Furthermore, Pete Sampras, Federer and Nadal have recently raised the bar on Slam count totals. An upcoming period of parity could cause tennis interest to wane amongst general sports fans if there are not future dominators challenging old records. Brazil would provide a new challenge to new kinds of records.
Clay is the Thing
South America’s tennis tradition was molded from clay courts. While the French Open will keep clay courts in Europe, it’s imperative to have clay-court tennis represented in other parts of the world. Central and South America need the added stability of a Grand Slam title. Otherwise, many tournaments will continue to turn to hard courts, which is what Acapulco, Mexico has done this year.
A second clay Slam would provide symmetry to the Slams: two types of hard courts, two clay courts and grass at Wimbledon.
Furthermore, clay court tennis needs to be emphasized with young players to hone more versatile games. Players should be all-surface champions and not simply build a career on hard courts. Clay-court tennis is a different kind of tennis with its patience and point development from the baseline.
Traditionally, clay-court players have been labeled as specialists, rather than esteemed as equals in the tennis world. Clay court stars of the past like Argentina's Guillermo Vilas, Austria's Thomas Muster and Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten became revered for their prowess on clay, but at times they were maligned for not winning elsewhere.
It's a hard reputation to shake, even for an all-surface champion like Nadal who is often typecast or discredited as only a clay-court champion. More stars on clay would ensure more tennis diversity and acceptance for players wishing to make their mark at the top of the tennis world.
Clay-court ability should not receive second-class citizenship to the expanding world of hard courts, and the expansion of its most important tournaments can help balance its credibility and acclaim.
Muster had to constantly explain that tennis was not intended for hard courts, telling the Los Angeles Times, "When I hear all the (negative) talk about clay courts—where did tennis start? On grass and on clay. Hard court is the invention of American promoters. Don't blame Europeans that we play on clay."
One important point with this proposal is that this is not a scheme to give Nadal more clay-court and Grand Slam titles. The best time to start this proposal is the day he retires.
Only one French Open title in the last nine years was not won by Nadal. Tennis could use a “reset” for the next generation of players to make their mark on clay.
The worst time to have enacted a second clay Slam would have been with the advent of Nadal's peak, around 2008. A fifth Slam then would have created a great schism in the careers of this current generation of stars, including Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
By waiting for the Federer-Nadal generation to retire, they would not be able to collectively benefit or lose with this change. Of course there will inevitably be some Nadal fans retroactively counting up at least half a dozen Brazilian Grand Slam titles, but that's also part of the cross-generational comparisons.
Hold the Brazil Slam in Mid-March
The ideal time to implement Brazil as a fifth Slam would be in mid-March. The Australian Open ends as February begins, and players could finish other New World tournaments on hard courts, while also transitioning to clay.
Move Indian Wells to the third week in February for a final hard-court Masters 1000 tournament.
By late February, tune-up matches in places like Chile, Argentina and Mexico could allow players to get their clay feet and begin the Brazilian Open for mid-late March.
This would fill the gap between the Australian and French Open, and it would be a nice path to the European clay-court season. It would keep tennis more relevant and interesting for the casual sports fan; more fans would likely tune in before the French-Wimbledon duo from late May to early July.
There would be tournament casualties along the way, but most of this would trim away the excess baggage the ATP has scheduled. The Masters 1000 tournament in Miami could be eliminated; it’s a venue that does not attract as much attention or participation anyway.
It would ensure that the WTF in London does not become the fifth Grand Slam. Tennis is best served outdoors in nice weather. Interest wanes considerably by November, and the players need time before the New Year.
Best of all, it would be necessary to kill the bloated Davis Cup. End this debacle for good. It would free up player time and commitments in February and April. There would be more flexibility in autumn for Asian tournaments.
Testing the Brazilian Sports Scene
The 2014 World Cup is coming soon to Brazil. The soccer fans are passionate, and this will be a chance for the rest of the world to see what kind of sports scene this can be to host a global event.
The Summer Olympics of 2016 will be held in Rio de Janeiro. This is another proving ground for diverse athletes from around the world. Brazil can put an exclamation mark on their festive and sporting spotlight. They can prove worthy of becoming the destination for the fifth tennis Grand Slam venue.
Of course if it all fails, we can kill this proposal with an Internet virus and turn our attention to autumn hard-court tennis in Beijing or Shanghai. But this would likely kill off South America's Grand Slam possibilities.
Tennis must continue to progress and expand. A fifth Grand Slam venue in Brazil could be a boon for the next generation of tennis.