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Rotation: a word tennis schedulers need to learn about and apply

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

There are women’s international football teams, such as in the English Premier League. There is a women’s basketball equivalent of the NBA, the WNBA. Yet, international football and basketball aren’t the same thing as women’s tennis in this particular way: Women’s tennis players share venues with men’s tennis players at the four biggest tournaments of the year (the majors) and several of the other high-profile tournaments on the tennis calendar. The WNBA basketball season begins when the NBA season ends, and the WNBA season ends before the next NBA season begins.

Tennis? The women and men will occupy the same orders of play for most of a major tournament, most of Indian Wells, most of Miami, most of Canada and Cincinnati, and most of the just-concluded tournaments in Madrid and Rome. Tennis is unique among (most) prominent sports in that it blends the women and men as part of the same product at the same place and time for the same ticket-paying customer base. If you get a ticket for Manic Monday at Wimbledon, you’re getting a tennis ticket, not a women’s or men’s ticket.

Yes, it is true that Wimbledon and the other major tournaments are not ATP or WTA Tour events. They exist under the banner of the ITF. Nevertheless, the reality of mixed-gender competition on the order of play for a paid ticket is something tennis needs to adjust to.

One can make the argument that the sport truly hasn’t adjusted to the reality of dual-gender competition, particularly in the realm of scheduling.

I have talked a lot on #TennisTwitter about split-session semifinals. No one needs a refresher on what that means or why that practice is so bad. Let’s move right into a solution to this problem.

The word at the heart of a realistic solution: rotation.

This is a word the tennis industry needs to learn about and apply. The dual-gender reality of tennis is connected to the word “rotation.”

Why do split-session semifinals exist? Partly to sell more tickets, but that is not a complete answer at a dual-gender tournament.

If you have two men’s semifinals and two women’s semifinals on the same day, as Rome does, and as Canada and Cincinnati also do, you are going to stage four matches in one day. Therefore, having two sessions — one afternoon, one night — is entirely reasonable and appropriate. Moreover, the reality of night semifinals (more broadly, night tennis) comes from the entirely understandable need to get bigger TV ratings to justify the rights fees TV outlets pay to televise tennis. Having night matches isn’t the problem.

The problem is that tennis — in a misguided attempt to create equality and fairness — puts one men’s match at night and one women’s match at night. That is not how to arrange semifinals.

The same tournament — WTA/women and ATP/men — should have semifinals back to back, one in the afternoon and one at night. Then, on Sunday, the afternoon tournament should have an afternoon final. The night tournament should have a Sunday night final no earlier than 7:10 p.m. local time. This obviously solves and addresses a lot of problems, but there is one relatively obvious sticking point:

TV rights-holders would almost surely insist on having the ATP (at least as long as Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are still around) be the night tournament for the semifinals and final. Longstanding practice has — with a few occasional exceptions (in Cincinnati, for instance, in 2013) — put the men’s final after the women’s final at a tennis tournament, including tournaments where the two singles finals are played on the same day.

In specific instances, it might be true that since the next tournament on the calendar begins with women’s play before men’s play (the women being one day ahead in terms of the start of main-draw play), the women need to play their final first. Yet, this is not always the case. At Rome, where the Premier 5 is not followed by a tournament of remotely comparable point value, there is no particular need to have to play the women’s final first. The men’s final is second in Rome and at other tour stops because it is the greater TV showcase, especially when Nadal and Djokovic meet in the final as they did on Sunday.

It is therefore unreasonable to ask tennis — as a whole sport — to put WTA championship matches after ATP championship matches at most tour stops where the two tours share real estate.

Tennis can do something much simpler in situations when the women do not have to play their final before the men: apply the concept of rotation.

In one year at a specific tournament, women play afternoon semifinals and finals, men play night semifinals and finals. The next year, they rotate.

Even better: If — for instance — Rome puts the men at night in a given year, Cincinnati would put the women at night to provide balance within that tennis season. The two tournaments would rotate the next year, ensuring the preservation of balance within a year’s tennis schedule.

I personally think tennis should explore rotation in other ways. For instance, the South American clay swing should put the Sao Paulo ATP 250 before the Rio ATP 500 every other year. Try a schedule in which the 250 leads into the 500, and try an every-other-year schedule in which the 500 leads into the 250, as it did this year. Keep those two-tournament clusters rotating so that fans and players get different options. If — after six years of rotating — it becomes clear that one pattern or schedule is better than another, those smaller tournaments can settle on a plan, but it seems like a missed opportunity to not experiment with schedule rotation in that manner as well.

Rotating schedules represents a way to give both tours preferential treatment, instead of only one. Night tennis can still be preserved. Yet, stacking semifinals back to back for the same tour will improve competitive balance.

Television is the sticking point here, but if tennis is willing to concede modest rights-fees decreases in exchange for serving its players better, that’s a tradeoff a healthy sport — a wise sport — would be willing to make.

Obviously, tennis just isn’t healthy or wise enough right now.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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