This won’t be a long column — not necessarily because it doesn’t need to be, but because scheduling flaws are so pervasive in tennis that the sport lags far behind where it should be.
Tennis won’t solve its many scheduling problems with a few mere tweaks. This problem requires an overhaul. The architecture of the scheduling process is unsound. Core values need to be brought into the process. Leadership — yes, in tennis — has to emerge. Anyone who has followed tennis for an appreciable length of time knows such notions are hard to turn into reality. The concepts are easy enough to grasp, but few in organized professional tennis seems to have the appetite to push through reforms. The actual solutions tennis needs are secondary to the need to stress reform in the first place. Unless or until leaders realize what’s wrong, they can’t begin to make things right.
So it is with WTA scheduling, as shown on Sunday in Madrid.
Petra Kvitova, Elise Mertens, and Mihaela Buzarnescu were all forced to play on Sunday in the Madrid Premier Mandatory event. Why is that a problem? All three players reached WTA finals on Saturday — Kvitova and Buzarnescu in Prague, Mertens in Rabat. Kvitova and Mertens were able to power through and win their round-of-64 matches, but Buzarnescu didn’t have enough in the tank to handle Maria Sharapova.
While the ATP has the clarity to award byes to its highest seeds, the WTA does not do the same. Simona Halep had to play a round of 64 match on Sunday. I strongly agree with the ATP’s use of byes — they reward top players with points and money, a tangible way of incentivizing year-round quality on tour. Yet, that’s not primarily the point here. The point is that if the WTA is not going to use byes, it should certainly have a plan in place to protect players who make finals (i.e., who play the full length of a tournament, regardless of whether they win or lose in said final).
It is a basic point of fairness, but it is also a basic element of a smart entertainment business: If the WTA Tour wants players such as Kvitova to play in a small (International level) event, thereby selling tickets and keeping the tour more robust at lower levels of competition, it should do everything in its power to make sure players know they will have at least one day off between a final and the first match at the next tournament.
Of course, with qualifiers, not much can be done, but for players able to get direct entry into the main draw, this should not be so much of a problem.
Which solution is best for the WTA? The question is worth asking, but it’s not the heart of the matter. Yes, we can toss around various reform plans and weigh their pros and cons, but the larger, more fundamental area of need for the WTA, which starts its tournaments earlier than the ATP does in dual-gender events such as Madrid, has to protect its players. One way or another, the WTA’s leaders need to produce rules and policies which demonstrate a commitment to the athletes who make the tour possible.
The solution could be to move the Saturday final to Sunday, bumping all events up one day. The solution could be to have Kvitova and Mertens play matches on consecutive days at the start of the week. Under the current setup, they were both forced to play Sunday but will have Monday off before returning to action on Tuesday. A far more enlightened plan: Have them play on Monday and Tuesday.
The solution to this problem could also be to award two provisional byes to the players who make the final at a WTA tournament who then gain direct entry to the next WTA tournament at the start of the following week. That might rub some people the wrong way, but it would show to players that if they win smaller tournaments, they will be treated well at the bigger (Premier Mandatory or Premier 5) event they arrive at days later.
Shouldn’t a tennis tour want its players to know they are being looked after, and being given the incentives and/or protections which will continue to convince them that playing in smaller tournaments won’t ruin their bodies for the bigger events on the calendar?
Can some grownups enter the room at WTA headquarters? Please?
Yes, scheduling in tennis has to change… but first, the people who make decisions in tennis — in this case, on the WTA Tour — have to want to change themselves.