Tuesday, March 30th, 2004
Losing interest ...
Signing off ...
Tuning out ...
Call it what you will.
That's what the average tennis fan does during the time period between the end of Australian Open and the start of French Open.
Since Roger Federer and Justine Henin-Hardenne confirmed their status at the top of the rankings by winning the title in the land down under in January, most tennis fans are taking a vacation from being "tennis fans."
Those of us who enjoy following the grind of the tour from tournament to tournament, who have a vested interest in proper and detailed knowledge of the happenings in and around the professional circuit, or who have personal acquaintances who take part of this weekly grind, will still tune in and check the results and spend serious time on the Internet reading the commentaries.
However, tennis' popularity depends on the average tennis fan's interest. Or shall we call it "the average sports' fan's interest?"
What does this so-called "dull season offer the average sports fan? Unfortunately, very little to nothing!
The Australian Open ends in January, followed by a series of tournaments in which names that are unrecognizable to casual fans become the winners as top players choose to play a light schedule to get ready for the Slam season.
In terms of geography, these tournaments are scattered all over the globe. Some are indoors, some are outdoors, some are on clay, some on hard. This stretch of the season has no identity, no excitement, and nothing to offer -- unless you happen to be a resident of those cities that host the tournament.
In the meantime, can you blame the average sports fan for signing off from the tennis world? Not really! Surely, that person can't get excited about Nicole Pratt winning the Hyderabad, India tournament or Fabiola Zuluaga winning the Bogota tournament. Do most tennis fans even know that Federer won three tournaments and Roddick won the Siebel Open in San Jose during this time? Highly unlikely.
So there we have it: a period of almost four months where the average sports fan loses interest in tennis, followed by five months where there are three Grand Slam tournaments. Who is to say that those average sports fans will not lose interest in tennis forever and stay away, even when the Slams are here?
Year after year, the tournament calendar fails to address this particular concern. Either the powers that be are not aware of this issue, or even worse -- they choose to ignore it, claiming that the boat need not be rocked. However, this boat has been sinking fast for a long time.
So am I going to sit here and offer criticism for many paragraphs and moan? No, I choose to offer some solutions. Some may be possible or not practical. At least it is a start. And a "start" is not even on the table right now regarding this problem.
One possible solution: move the Australian Open to the end of February, or beginning March. This will allow the players to escape the scorching heat in January. In all fairness, this idea has been thrown on the table already. But it has been done only for the heat reason.
How about doing it in order to allow the calendar to have a series of build-up tournaments leading to the first Slam of the year? Let's face it: the Australian open is getting the short end of the stick in this sense.
All the other Slams have a "preview season" leading up to them. The French Open has the European clay court season with three Masters Series tournaments on the men's side. Wimbledon, although extremely short, has two weeks of grass court tournaments leading up to it. And the U.S. Open is preceded by one month of hardcourt tournaments in the U.S., which even has a name in "U.S. Hardcourt Season."
Another solution: throw in a Masters Series tournament or two on the men's side and a top-tier tournament or two on the WTA Tour during February and early March. For example, we have three of those on the men's side squeezed into four weeks before the French Open (Monte Carlo, Hamburg, Rome). Yet from the end of Australian Open until the Pacific Life Open, which happened to be last week, we have none!
The authorities may read these lines and claim that these have been looked into and they were simply not possible due to various reasons that the average sports fan could not care less about. My advice to them: find a way.
Or watch the "tennis nation" work hard all summer, year after year, just to regain the interests of those fans who closed the curtains on the sport of tennis and found their own way to other interests during the "dull season."