Pride and Pressure: On WTA CEO Steve Simon and potential changes in tennis

Last month, WTA CEO Steve Simon suggested introducing several major ‘changes’ to tennis – including the length of matches. And with Vienna’s recent ‘Tiebreak Tens’ competition – in which every match consists solely of a champion’s tiebreak – whispers have started circling again. I examined the case with an open mind, and I disagree with Simon rather passionately.

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So far at the WTA Finals in Singapore, Garbine Muguruza has played two matches. During this time, she has been broken whilst serving for the set three times.

For a woman capable of the quality that the Spaniard can produce – at a tournament of this calibre – that statistic is rather awful. Unfortunately, it has been an all-too-common occurrence on the WTA tour this season. All eight women competing for the final crown of the season have been culprits this year – Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep seeing 13 breaks of serve pass between them during their straight sets Wimbledon quarterfinal.

On Wednesday at the WTA Finals, Muguruza could not serve out the first set at 5-3 in her clash with Agnieszka Radwanska. She would go on to surrender a lopsided tiebreak, and then the match: 7-6(1) 6-3. The moments that truly cost her the victory – as she served for a 6-4 advantage – caused me to think back to an often-discussed factor in tennis: That players should only be allowed one serve. How weak, I though, would the women’s game become if that were so? No player would have the gut to really go for their first shot – and if they did, there would be many bombs spraying wide of the service box. The aim of this introduction – or reduction – to the sport would be for less time to be wasted, and more tennis to be played. Actually, the amount of single faults that would ensue would surely result in less tennis being played. And even if the serve landed in, its tentativeness would ensure a return dominant enough to end the point in seconds.

When Steve Simon stood before the press in Wuhan last month, he did not try to suggest that tennis should introduce single serves – which, do not be mistaken, would probably wreck havoc on the ATP World Tour, too. What he did suggest, however, followed the same theme. He wants shorter matches.

“The doubles format… we’ve gone to two-set matches with no-ad scoring and a super tiebreak for the third, and you can put your clock on those matches. They’re 60-90 minutes max, and that’s great,” Simon, as reported by Sport360, preached. “When we switched format for doubles, it wasn’t liked, but it became normalcy.”

Among his full quotations – all of which can be viewed at the above link – came the phrases: “The attention spans of the audience today is shrinking”, and: “To see somebody sit for two or three hours and watch anything any more is getting harder and harder.”

On those statements, I – and, I’m sure, many others – would beg to differ. Every week of the tennis season, millions and billions of people pay for tickets to tournaments across the globe. And the vast majority of these viewers don’t even pay for attendance to one match. They pay for attendance to afternoon sessions, to evening sessions. Heck, some people pay to watch tennis for the whole day! Attention spans may undoubtedly be shrinking, but that does not stop the crowds for major events, especially, growing by the year – while a hundred million more dedicated supporters watch tennis daily from the settee.

Here, it is also worth noticing that it’s the Grand Slams, above all other contests, that remain outrageously popular year upon year. In Great Britain, at least, curiosity is finally expanding beyond Wimbledon to its three sister tournaments. Off course, people look to these competitions because they are the headline acts of the tennis tour. But the point is, the gruelling best-of-five-set contests in the men’s game – and the no-final-set-tiebreak epics that occur amongst the women – hardly turn off the majority. In fact, it is these distance-spanning thrillers that keep fans and casual viewers glued to the television screen.

“The kind of matches that stay on in the memory, and on the history of our sport, are… dramatic matches that become emotional; the physical issues, everything,” Rafael Nadal stated earlier this month. “You need to put everything together to create a great show, in which the people feel emotionally involved.”

Svetlana Kuznetsova – the first woman into the WTA Finals semifinals, despite a title last week and two marathon encounters so far in Singapore – agreed.

“I think it would be a horrible call,” she said of Simon’s plans. “I would do five sets like the men [instead], that’s what I would choose for sure. But three sets, deuce, advantage, this is the point of singles game. It’s very interesting and it’s going to be physical and everything. It’s not only luck. In doubles, it is so much luck sometimes.”

We could spend hours examining the flaws in Steve Simon’s ideas – and his statements. Anyone want to admit to not being able to watch something for longer than 20 seconds? I, for one, have never watched a tennis match via a mobile/cellphone. And players still win or lose tennis matches in roughly an hour on a weekly basis. In fact, a general tour clash that extends the two hour mark would be generically termed ‘long’.

But enough of that. Believe it or not, this article was not begun with the intent of trashing Simon’s ideals. Rather, it was to ask some questions.

Is this whole discussion really to do with making tennis a better sport? Or is it, perhaps unconsciously, to do with pride?

Another question: What were Steve Simon’s main reasons for requiring shorter matches?

“I think there’s a lot of things that we have to look at in our sport to continue building the interest,” Simon implored in Wuhan. Another comment, as quoted earlier, argued: “It will help us with broadcast, it will help us keep people in the seats.”

Steve Simon does not require shorter matches for the players – to rest their weary bodies, to please their non-existent desires, or whatever excuse you wish to insert here. Steve Simon wants shorter matches to build the tennis audience. And as we have already examined, tennis already possesses a heaving – and growing – audience. So why this fixation with wild steps to place more bodies in seats? Are adverts and websites and magazines and social media and reports not enough? They seem to have worked so far.

Ticket sales for the majority of tournaments year-round never look precarious. True, occasional live streams can capture scores of empty chairs scaling the stands, depending upon the location and timing of an event. Nevertheless, whether people are watching or not, has a tournament ever been cancelled – or the broadcasting of it banned – because of this?

It has been made pretty obvious that two high-profile players, at least, are no fan of this pro-telly plot of Simon’s. The WTA’s CEO has hardly manufactured this imagination to gratify those whose day in, day out job is to compete on the tennis tour. So why evolve for the onlookers, in an effort win the hearts of those – for example – who are hopelessly devoted to football?

Sure, reach out to them. Show them (and their 90-minutes-plus-half-time matches – is that too long?) that tennis exits. But stop at the point of changing yourself to meet their eyeline, taking away the things that make you different and unique, and the elements that will make you historic. Stop before you change yourself to please a foreign crowd.

At high school, they call this peer pressure. And succumbing to it is not looked upon kindly by wiser adults.

If this route of changing to suit the world is what higher authorities are gravitating towards, then we might as well drop the tennis racquets, store away the fuzzy yellow balls, and start kicking leather footballs between goalposts.

Tennis is not soccer. Tennis is not rugby. Tennis is not swimming, or sprinting, or rowing, or hockey, or NFL. Tennis – although it needs them – is also not about the fans.

At the end of the day, tennis is tennis. And part of what defines tennis is that you have these long, gritty clashes. You have these games that swing from deuce to advantage, deuce to advantage, testing mentalities and dividing the elite from the not-so-great. You have two serves, and are required to win six games to claim a set. You have tiebreaks in singles matches that are the first to seven points.

So I ask again: Is this suggestion of change, of leaving some of tennis’ oldest roots, based on pride? Because even though the soccer fans are widespread and rampant, tennis is blessed – in its current state – with faithful followers from every generation going.

A recent headline on a tennis website stated: “Tennis shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with change.”

I say tennis shouldn’t be so afraid that it gives up its essence – and starts to become something that it’s not.

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Thanks for reading! Do you agree or disagree? Discuss in the comments section!

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