As expected, the comments from retired French player Julien Benneteau on a radio talk show last week have elicited major reaction.
The main topic was the preferential treatment accorded to the game’s biggest star. And the reactions have predictably fallen along partisan lines.
What is this, American politics or something?
Benneteau, along with French journalist Eric Salliot and show host Sarah Pitkowski (a former player) made waves in offering their opinions about the Federer phenomenon.
They also went into the amount of money in appearance fees, and the inherent conflict of interest in an international Grand Slam federations also investing in the Federer/Team 8 exhibition Laver Cup.
(The group didn’t bring up that the USTA also has invested in the Laver Cup. But that’s also a fact).
Federer was a no-show for his scheduled practice at the O2 Monday. And agent Tony Godsick has not responded to various requests for comment. It’s going to be a challenge for them to duck the issue, even if the off-season is nearly upon us.
But the man in the middle of all the talk, Tennis Australia CEO and Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, issued a lengthy statement Tuesday.
Tiley: Player preferences, injury concerns
“When looking at a schedule in tennis, there are so many factors that demand any tournament director’s consideration. The players and fans are obviously at the forefront.
“But even within those groups there are many and varied requirements. These can range from player preferences, injury or general fitness concerns to general broadcast preferences or a major broadcaster’s own program needs for their particular market.
“On top of that there is another layer of considerations. That includes operational logistics requiring the scheduling team to have to make estimations on the likely length and outcome of matches (sometimes days in advance) to the everyday considerations of dealing with changing weather conditions.”
Tiley: “Australia’s favorite athlete”
“In terms of players and their appeal, it needs to be said that Roger Federer is a once-in-a-generation player widely regarded as one of the biggest ‘box office’ athletes in the world.
“He has been regularly voted Australia’s favourite athlete. The fans demand his appearance in the big stadiums and our broadcasters naturally want his matches to air in prime time. And I don’t think there’s a tournament director in the world who’s not going to take those factors into account when setting the schedule. This is the case with all the big names in tennis, and in sport in general.”
“Best experience for all the players”
“We also make no secret about working hard to provide the very best experience for all the players at the Australian Open. And we will continue to do this. Because we want players to love our sport, our event and get appropriately rewarded.
“We put significant resources into looking after all of them and making the Australian Open, and Melbourne, one of their very favourite places to be. We’ve prided ourselves on really listening to the players and taking into account their needs and priorities. Whether it’s the way we operate our transport system, the food we serve, the relaxation and training areas we provide and of course, scheduling matches.
“There’s no way we can please everyone all the time. And everyone knows we do everything we can.”
Tiley: “Proud of the Laver Cup”
“Tennis Australia is justly proud of the success of the Laver Cup, in which we certainly have a share, along with the USTA and other partners. It’s been one of the most successful new tennis events in recent times, showing the sport in a new light and attracting new fans.
“I’d say the success of the Laver Cup has been seen as somewhat a ‘disruptor’ to the men’s game. We run our events to the highest standards and reject as well as challenge any claims to the contrary.”
Tennis Australia is an investor in Laver Cup – not Tiley personally, but his employer. And that relates directly to the current power struggle between the ITF (which administers the Slams) and the ATP. The ATP’s smaller fall events are the ones most directly affected by the Laver Cup.
The reality, at least so far, is that while they have invested, they have not profited. We’re told that the first edition of the Laver Cup lost $9 million. This year’s second edition in Chicago reportedly lost $2 million. So beyond the perceived conflict of interest, they are also risking significant dollars.
Laver Cup a multi-pronged venture
For Team 8 to have attempted to create an event like this from scratch without the built-in expertise of Tennis Australia and the USTA, and their investment dollars, would have been prohibitive.
Should they be involved in both? Well, Tennis Australia is involved in the Hopman Cup. That’s an exhibition that competes directly with ATP and WTA Tour events for players during the early season. Management companies such as IMG own and operate several tournaments during the year.
The wild cards handed out at the IMG-owned Miami Open, for example, always have been heavily weighted towards IMG clients. If not current, then prospective IMG clients. IMG client Maria Sharapova generally will chose Shenzhen over the other WTA Tour events that week in January. Her agency owns that tournament.
Novak Djokovic and his family once owned an ATP Tour event in Serbia, and his uncle Goran was the tournament director. Djokovic won it twice.
Those are conflicts, too, like so many other conflicts in tennis. And that’s just a few examples. But Federer did not make the rules. He’s playing by the rules – such as they are.
“Just to clarify matters, I’m just saying that we have to avoid conflicts of interest as much as we can, to preserve a certain sporting equity. It’s nothing personal against Roger Federer. Because I’m the first to say that he’s the greatest. And he has done, and continues to do an enormous amount for our sport.”
Benneteau said all that during the radio show as well. Of course, that didn’t get the same amount of play.
Tennis is a business
The whole tempest in a teapot has brought to the fore the unfortunate but true fact that tennis is first and foremost a business.
The top players the fans support are mega-mega millionaires. They are corporations in their own right. Yet tennis fandom is emotional, not practical. But the players are not playing solely for the love of the game. Nor are they playing for the sole purpose of entertaining you. It’s their livelihood. And it’s a small window of opportunity.
Many of those dollars come from tournament prize money, which comes from television broadcast rights and high-priced ticket sales and corporate sponsorship.
And the player most coveted by all of those diverse sources of revenue is … Federer.
Pointing this out and not laying the blame on him for what the game has become is not being an apologist. It is stating reality.
If there were another player who brought in more revenue, was more popular and sold more tickets, Federer would be relegated to Court 2 in a heartbeat.
The 37-year-old from Switzeland didn’t ask for this. But he (and his agent) would be fools if they didn’t take advantage of every opportunity presented to them.
Well-established pecking order
The other top players do this as well. They just don’t have quite the same leverage. That’s not to say that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are not extremely popular. They are.
But Federer – despite being the downside of his illustrious career – takes up the majority of the oxygen in the game. Still now.
When he does jog off into the sunset, there might be more love and money available for the rest. Or maybe not.
Maybe there is a big share of that revenue that came in specifically because of him, and will leave with him. Maybe someone else will come along and capture the global imagination on the same level.
Only time will tell.
A weather issue, not a favoritism issue
The big to-do last January with the heat and the scheduling is not a “we prefer Federer” issue, even if the fans and the TV networks do want him for the night session.
It’s a heat issue.
And it’s a “roof protocol” issue.
Other than these late-season indoor tournaments, tennis is an outdoor sport.
Wimbledon also has stumbled in its decisions about using the very expensive roof it built over Centre Court. That’s because it considers the tournament an outdoor one. And as much as is practical, it will be played outdoors.
In Australia, there’s a similar mindset. There have been many times in recent years during which the weather conditions were decidedly temperate for mid-summer in Australia. During those years, it’s not been an issue.
This year, there were days in the second week this wasn’t the case. The tournament stumbled for the Simona Halep – Caroline Wozniacki women’s singles final. It righted itself for the Federer – Cilic match.
Still, the rules currently in place state that if the retractable roofs are closed because of excessive heat, all play on the outer courts must be stopped. There are significant consequences to that. Not only does it fail to satisfy the demands of the ticket-buying public. It can affect the integrity and fairness of the tournament schedule as a entity.
We suspect that going forward, the Slams are all going to feel their way to a happy medium on the roof issue. But they well may stumble again before that happens.
Where to draw the line on “fair”
How fair is it for all the players not scheduled for the roofed show courts, if those more blessed can play on? They can then sit back with their match won, and watch as their next opponent is delayed – and perhaps robbed of significant amounts of rest before meeting them in the next round.
So in the end, the issue of “favoritism” is all about where you draw the line about who should be “favored”.
The big Three? The top 10? Seeded players?
It’s not a dissimilar argument to being a player scheduled for a court that has the Hawkeye line-calling system, and one that doesn’t. That’s also not fair, even if that issue is less than it used to be.
Somehow, there has never been the same outrage about that.
Or about the fact that seeded players get significantly more advantageous practice-court privileges. They don’t have to share with three other players. They benefit from more quality practice time than the rest.
Where is the outrage about that?
In the end, from the fan’s perspective, this is a Federer vs. Djokovic and Nadal issue.
(Yes, another one).
And the supporters on each side are going to stand firmly behind their favorites.
But all of this operates in a context within tennis that is rife with conflicts of interest both public and not. No one denies this, but it’s unlikely to change any time soon.