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Nadia Podoroska (and Paul McNamee) might have revolutionized tennis

Matt Zemek

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Tennis decided to play tournaments in a pandemic. I admit to being skeptical that the U.S. Open and Roland Garros would work this year, but on a broader level — for all the smaller flaws and inconsistencies one could find in the operations of the two tournaments — they were fundamentally successful. There was no COVID-19 outbreak. Players competed safely. Other criticisms could be lobbed at organizers, but on the most important issue — playing a tournament safely — they passed the test.

Yet, everyone can see that tennis has a long way to go to deal with the pandemic. We’re not about to have full stadiums. We’re not about to have full calendars. Lots of tournaments are going to take a financial hit, if they haven’t already. Lots of revenue streams are being severely eroded. The economics of tennis are not going to look the same when the pandemic finally lifts and large crowds can attend tournaments once again. The sport exists in an “in between” reality right now. Leaders need to be thinking for ways to support more tennis players — more specifically, lower-ranked players who haven’t had as many chances to play the events they depend on as sources of income.

One specific idea was provided by a commentator and former doubles player, during the same tournament in which a specific player bolstered that very idea.

The commentator involved here is Paul McNamee, an elite doubles champion — four men’s doubles major titles, one mixed major title — who won over 550 professional matches in a combined singles and doubles career. He is a former World No. 1 in men’s doubles, an author of many significant achievements in the game.

The player who excelled at Roland Garros — magnifying the virtues and the timeliness of McNamee’s idea — is Nadia Podoroska. The Argentine became the first qualifier in the Open Era to make the women’s semifinals of Roland Garros this past fortnight.

McNamee’s idea is easy enough to understand:

Martina Trevisan did not beat Iga Swiatek to guarantee the presence of a qualifier in the Roland Garros women’s final, but Podoroska’s run to the semifinals is enough to show that qualifiers are capable of achieving.

McNamee is putting forth the modest proposal that qualifying matches at majors should be seen not as a prelude to the tournament, but as part of the tournament. It makes sense, even though a player could lose a final round qualifying match and still get in the main draw as a lucky loser. It remains that a player who wins three qualifying matches has — in a single-elimination format — advanced in a tournament.

Play. Win. Keep playing. That’s tournament tennis. On that basis alone, McNamee’s point is structurally sound. Quallies aren’t exactly like main-draw competition, but the similarities are greater in number and structure than any differences which might exist. Players in quallies go to a tournament’s host city (in most cases) just as the main-draw players do; they merely arrive earlier to play their way into the field.

Consider Indian Wells and Miami as examples: These 96-player events have 32 first-round byes. While 64 players play in the opening round, 32 players get that round off. The 64 first-round players are playing their way into the second round. That’s not dramatically different from qualifiers playing their way into a field of 128.

Let’s take the next step in advancing McNamee’s idea, so that players such as Nadia Podoroska can get a significant paycheck before reaching the semifinals of a major.

If we view qualifying as part of the tournament and not as a prelude to the main draw, a major tournament would have 10 rounds instead of the current seven. This would conceivably enable major tournaments to have a two and a half-week duration, which could fetch more television rights fees. Those added fees could be passed on to the qualifiers, who would make several thousand more dollars for each of the first three rounds, which are currently qualifying rounds but — under McNamee’s vision — would become rounds one through three of an expanded 10-round tournament.

The combination of increased TV money and a conscious decision to reduce prize money for champions and finalists would create an expanded prize pool for the players who would participate in rounds one through three, all while the top 128 players get byes into the “fourth” round of the 10-round event.

Added TV revenue could also be distributed to the various challenger events for both men’s and women’s tennis — singles and doubles — throughout each tennis season.

Tennis needs to be able to make it easier for the No. 300 player in the world to make a decent living. Imagine being the 300th-best engineer or doctor or lawyer in the world. Someone that good in those professions makes a substantial amount of money. Tennis players deserve that same treatment.

Paul McNamee’s idea — whose virtues are reinforced by Nadia Podoroska needing eight match victories to reach the Roland Garros semifinals (as opposed to only five) — is a great way for the tennis industry to make needed changes during this pandemic, so that when the pandemic lifts, tennis players outside the top 100 will have a far better chance of being able to have a more financially stable career.

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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