Top tennis players outplay competition

Professional tennis in recent years has been plagued by a phenomenon perhaps unique to tennis: players pulling out of tournaments. For example, after losing in the semifinals of Indian Wells (four matches), Maria Sharapova decided not to play the next week in Miami, citing fatigue.

The excuse is probably valid, however. Because tournaments are scheduled too close together, yet geographically far apart, players are bound to get worn out.

Ranked third in the world, Novak Djokovic had to win six matches to win Indian Wells in California. He then traveled from California to Miami, Fla., and despite a few days to recuperate, he was bundled out in the first round by a relatively unknown giant, Kevin Anderson. Mardy Fish, Djokovic’s final victim at Indian Wells, also lost in his first match at Miami.

When top players withdraw from tournaments, organizers and sponsors as well as the tours (the Association of Tennis Professionals for the men and the Women's Tennis Association for the women) — not to mention the fans — are left watching low-ranked players battle it out, rendering the tournament unimportant. The inconsistency of draws hurts tennis economically and makes it difficult for sponsors and fans to commit to tournaments.

The ATP and WTA have taken steps to cut down on player withdrawals. On the men’s side, after the four Grand Slams (the U.S., Australian, and French opens, along with Wimbledon), there are nine mandatory tournaments, the Masters Series. Players are fined for skipping these tournaments. However, the fines don’t deter players from not playing. Andy Roddick last year skipped four of the nine Masters Series tournaments but is still ranked sixth — and wealthy.

The ATP and WTA are also rearranging the schedule of tournaments. Idiotically, on the men’s side, Indian Wells and Miami; Canada and Cincinnati, Ohio; and Rome and Hamburg — all grueling Masters Series — are scheduled without a break between the two tournaments, making it difficult to win two in a row. This makes Roddick’s 2003 Canada-Cincinnati double (12 matches in 14 days) all the more remarkable.

However, even if the ATP and WTA do space out their mandatory tournaments more evenly to rule out exhaustion as an excuse, players are still probably going to skip tournaments. The reason is because top players win enough that they don’t need to play that often. Maria Sharapova, who rarely loses in the early rounds of a tournament, is ranked fifth, a ranking based only on 13 tournaments. Top-ranked Justine Henin only played 15 tournaments. Number-10 Daniela Hantuchova meanwhile played 24, but she’s far behind Sharapova and Henin in ranking points.

In effect, the top players are too good — Sharapova, for instance, has won three of the four tournaments she has played this year. The tours need to accept this fact, and should market other players more effectively instead.

On the men’s side much more so than the women’s side, there are players who are lesser known than Federer, Nadal, and Roddick, but are equally fun to watch.

These players aren’t inconsequential, either. Who beat Nadal at the U.S. Open last year? Number-five David Ferrer. Who beat Roddick in the quarters of Wimbledon last year? Number-10 Richard Gasquet. Who trounced Nadal at the Australian Open earlier this year? Then-unknown Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, now ranked 13th.