There was a time, mostly during the ‘80s, when the final tournaments of the women’s and men’s tennis seasons were played just a couple of weeks apart and on the same stage: the mythical Madison Square Garden in New York.
Although they changed their name several times - including the name of the sponsor at the time - the WTA Championships or the ATP finals used to be mentioned by a sector of the press such as the Masters tournament, a label that the governing bodies of the game did not like very much but which, in turn, qualified the hierarchy of the participants.
The example I want to share dates back to November 1988. I choose it because I was fortunate enough to be present in the press gallery of the New York Knicks house.
First it was that of the ladies. At just 18 years old, Gabriela Sabatini won the final against local Pam Shriver in three straight sets: one of the experiments of the time was to establish that the final of the tournament would be played in the best of five sets, such as the Grand Slams or, then, the Davis Cup and some decisive tournament matches of those that today are part of the lot of the so-called ATP 1000. The intention was, among other things, to demonstrate that girls could compete at a high technical level and physical rigor just like men. In the early ‘90s, the idea fell into disrepair, but much more so because it did not comply with the idea of spectacle -due to its own scoring system, a tennis match can last much longer than is advisable for audiences today- than because girls weren’t up to the task.
Two weeks later, it was the gentleman’s. Boris Becker defeat Ivan Lendl in an epic final, resolved by 7 to 5 in the tie-break of the fifth set after a match point in which the ball went over the net countless times and which, to complete the thriller, ended with a setback from the German who grazed the girdle and fell dead on the other side of the net. I recommend looking for the moment on the networks. It must have been the most extraordinary match-point of all time.
The detail of the time, which is difficult to replicate today, was that the fans generated a sold out of seats in several of the sessions of the women’s tournament, while there were even empty seats left on the afternoon of the men’s final.
Surely there have been several reasons why what usually doesn’t happen today was a strong sign of the attraction of women’s tennis over men’s tennis. Personally, I think that one of the most relevant had to do with the diversity of sports and even personal profiles offered then by the girls’ tennis elite.
Steffi Graf was unbeatable and forceful: that year she won the big four and the Seoul Olympic Games, the Golden Slam.
Martina Navratilova, the greatest of all time, was eternal. You had to go and see her to learn how daring a racquet game can be.
Chris Evert, about to retire, was still Martina’s great rival, the antithesis, tennis placed inside a processor, although she began to win when computers didn’t exist.
Mary Joe Fernandez was already arriving and Arantxa Sanchez was on her way. And soon Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati would arrive.
And the finalists of the mentioned tournament. Sabatini, a goldsmith’s tennis and an aesthetic worthy of Isadora Duncan. Shriver, the chip and charge miracle that seemed to have no hits and, finally, had almost everything.
Not that the boys lacked all this. What’s more, that year, in addition to Lendl and Becker, Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander played.
However, that kind of role played by the best in the women’s circuit, the virtue of the stereotype, allowed us to atomize our fanaticism.
More expanded, of course, but with a certain air of what the men’s circuit is starting to say goodbye to, after two unrepeatable decades in which the fantastic trio of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic stands out, but which they shared with Murray, Del Potro, Wawrinka or Safin to name just a few of those who dared to take away some great title from the monsters in this unforgettable era.
That era has already ended - we don’t have Roger anymore, there is a lot left of Nole and we don’t know how much more of Rafa - it exposes the ATP to a logic of tremendous tennis players difficult to place in that attraction of roles mentioned above and seems to be similar to what happens with the WTA, which has many talents that alternate on the main stages but which has not yet found succession for the iconic times of the Williams sisters, Sharapova and some others. Volatility can be attractive or chaotic. I still wouldn’t know where to place that more than a dozen players have shared the last 8 years of Grand Slams.
The challenge that both circuits had, have and will have is that of either waiting for generations to appear that will produce attractions similar to those of other times or to make extreme efforts to obtain resources -money- that satisfy the pretensions of the main players and at the same time does not destroy the finances of the organizers.
That is why it stands out as good news that, after having incorporated Hologic as its main Sponsor, the WTA announced Morgan Stanley a few days ago. It is a sign of present and future confidence beyond any speculation. Including those proposed in these lines.
Today, an ATP 250 tournament that can distribute around $700,000 in prizes needs more than triple the investment to cover all expenses. Depending on logistics and guarantees, the proportion may even increase.
The data is just a reference and the starting point for focusing on the three key elements in generating income: ticket sales, television rights and, above all, sponsors.
Perhaps since the search for balance has not yet entered into crisis, the sports authorities do not feel the urge to give another dynamic to the show. Things have been tried that range from the 25-second rule between one serve and another to the elimination of the decisive sets unlike two games. Even so, tennis has a scoring system that sometimes threatens to take us to infinity.
When the doubles mode was about to be excluded from the main circuit, the alternative was proposed that the possible third set would be replaced by a match-tie break and the No Ad mode was installed for each game: in the case of an equality in 40, only a little longer is played, with the receiving couple choosing which side they should take it.
This would be an important shortcut to prevent, especially on slow courts, that many games from entering a zone of boredom and exposing us to the feeling of eternity.
It is known that many players do not like this idea. Fewer would like to see funding for their prizes lost. The match has to be very important or the protagonists too powerful for the audience, whether on the court or, much more so, in front of the screens to stay three, four or five hours attentive to the show. We must all accept that we live in a time of fleeting audiences.
This not only jeopardizes the interest of the circuit itself, but it also does not seem too encouraging compared to the space that tennis occupies in the Olympic universe, which increasingly tends to speed up the times of the disciplines that compose it.