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South American ATP Clay Swing Reinforces The Need For New Scheduling

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

You will immediately note that I did not use the word “better” in the title of this piece. I specifically chose the word “new” for a simple but precise reason: The ATP needs to explore new ways of scheduling its tournaments.

This does not automatically mean that the explored path WILL be better. It DOES mean the new path should be explored. It is worth trying.

The ATP’s South American clay swing is clearly illustrating the need for tennis to try something new. Here is the not-that-complicated explanation:

The ATP South American clay swing started with a 250 in Cordoba, Argentina, in the first full week of February. It then moved to Buenos Aires for another 250 in the second full week of February. The tour is now finishing the ATP 500 in Rio de Janeiro, at the end of the third full week of February.

Full credit is due to Felix Auger Aliassime and Laslo Djere for making the Rio final. They earned it. More precisely, they went through highly-seeded opponents to meet in Sunday’s championship match. Full stop.

Yet, we can give the two finalists credit and still note that their wins occurred under a very specific set of circumstances:

Three of the top four seeds in Rio reached at least the semifinals in BOTH singles AND doubles in Buenos Aires: Dominic Thiem made the singles semifinals and doubles final. Marco Cecchinato won the singles tournament and made the doubles semifinals. Diego Schwartzman reached the final in both singles and doubles.

It is true that those players willingly played both singles and doubles in Buenos Aires. No one forced them to play doubles. It was their choice. They risked putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage in their first Rio matches.

Nevertheless: Can we see that while playing a 500 the week AFTER a 250 does make conceptual sense — play tournaments in escalating order of points, which is normal and logical in tennis — it is nevertheless not always the right thing to do?

This is where the discussion gets slightly more complicated, but not too complicated to lose track of the basic principle:

Masters 1000s or Premier Mandatory/Premier 5 tournaments end at least a full week before a major tournament begins. Players need that off week before the major starts. The relationship between Masters 1000s and ATP 500 tournaments is more complicated: Some 1000s (Madrid) do not have a 500 played the week before. The ATP 500 in Barcelona ends a full week before Madrid begins. Rafael Nadal can play Barcelona, get a week of rest, and then play Madrid, which will start for him on Tuesday or Wednesday, not Sunday or Monday, due to his very high seeding and his opening-round bye.

However, other 500s come right before Masters 1000s: Washington right before Canada (HELLO, ALEXANDER ZVEREV!), and Basel right before Bercy. There is no week off between the 500 and the 1000. These are products of the compressed tennis calendar.

At the 250 and 500 levels, it is simply not practical or reasonable to create an off week between the 250 and the 500. The calendar could not accommodate this practice if done throughout the year, or even half the year. 250s and 500s have to occur in consecutive weeks. It’s a possibly harsh but plain reality of tour life.

We now arrive at the basic point of this piece: The ATP should trial — as a new exploration, not necessarily a locked-in, long-term commitment — playing a 500 the week BEFORE a 250.

The Buenos Aires-Rio fortnight shows why.

Thiem, Cecchinato and Schwartzman did willingly play doubles and singles in Buenos Aires — their choice, their responsibility — but they nevertheless compromised their fitness for the bigger-point tournament the next week.

Playing Rio FIRST, Buenos Aires second, would have enabled the best clay players on tour (who play 500s in February, that is…) to come to the ATP 500 stop in Rio with a fresh tank of petrol. If they had a full week of tennis in Brazil and then wanted to follow up and get more work in Buenos Aires, they would have been free to do so… but the points-based cost of losing early would not have been as severe.

The ATP should feel it has nothing to lose by trialing, for two seasons or every other season in a four-year period, a schedule structure in which select 500s are played the week before 250s.

If the sport is to grow, an awareness of new possibilities in scheduling will be part of such growth.

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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