As Roland Garros kicks off today, one of the most unique pit-stops on the tour, is there such thing as the perfect tennis tournament?
Tennis tournaments are like islands. Each is run according to its own rules, has its own priorities, characters, identities. They have different surfaces, layouts, sponsors, merchandise. The press in attendance are often different. The fans, too. In fact, the only thing that is constant is the players. And even they vary, injuries and entries permitting.
And yet they are united by their place on the tour, a circus of caravans that rumbles around the world. For one week, (or two in the case of the four Grand Slams, Indian Wells and Miami), the focus of the tennis world spotlights on each tournament in turn. And then it’s off again, that place on the calendar forgotten about for another year, the tournament staff left to clean up, clear out, and assess what went right and wrong.
The four majors are such unique entities in themselves – the cool, lackadaisical atmosphere of Melbourne that makes it everyone’s friend, the heady, rebellious and exuberant hubbub that is Roland Garros, the calm and genteel sophistication of Wimbledon, and the brash and exciting glitz, glamour and noise of New York.
The Slams though, are big enough that they can afford to do things the way they want to without overly bothering about the reaction. And they’re by no means perfect. Think that before they built Henman Hill in 1998, there was very little public space at Wimbledon, Roland Garros is extremely over-crowded, the US Open has no roof, Melbourne Park is also short on space. As a result, all of the four majors are undertaking vast development projects.
Other tournaments, especially the smaller ones which have to justify their reasons for existence, do not have that luxury. They have to prioritise on certain areas.
Take Madrid and Rome, for example, two events that are as different as salt and stilton.
From a column inches perspective, Madrid was a much-maligned and distinctly un-magical clay court event, which yielded more ‘blue’ than someone writing the origins of the colour. The venue is a soulless place that reeks of corporate hospitality, the layout of the (largely empty) stands keeps fans as far away as you an get from the players, and the practice courts are buried behind some sort of lake. But, from a player and press perspective, the blue clay aside, it is a very efficient and well-run tournament, with huge wealth, a player restaurant, and media restaurant, that beats the grand slams, a transport service that didn’t put a foot wrong, extensive press facilities, (even if every single TV was tuned to a very noisy Spanish soap on day 1), a huge player lounge and all sorts of other things that yours truly wouldn’t have had the foggiest about.
Rome, meanwhile, is a universally-loved explosion of noise, people, red clay, and general Roman-ness, with courts sunken into the ground like amphitheatres, an abundance of space to get up close and personal or simply linger at wander off at your leisure, and an attitude that shouts ‘we love tennis’ at every step.
But it is also totally chaotic, the media centre located in a youth hostel a good 10-minute walk from the Centre Court, with no announcements of press conferences, and tech-bods pulling out wireless cables left right and centre. The shambles over the postponement of the men’s final when it had finally stopped raining and the stadium was full was proof in the pie. No wonder people threw things.
So, where do you put your priorities? Indian Wells, the baby that Larry Ellison has nurtured into a toddler, is like the slams in that it has the luxury of a lot of capital, so that when a need for improvement is identified, they are able to make it happen. Last year, for example, fans noted that there wasn’t much cover, from rain or shine. So the tournament built a brand new dining area covered by a great big white canopy.
But not every event has the funds to do that.
Does a tournament choose to be the one that players love, and thus attract the top personalities? Or be the most popular amongst the media and thus generate plenty of headlines? Or, be a magnet for fans, and thus sell lots of tickets?
Madrid, for example, falls into category two, in my opinion. Rome, category three. Shanghai, Miami, category one. Indian Wells, probably a bit of all three. And that’s mentioning just five.
There is, naturally, no perfect answer. There’ll always be something each one can do better, which is a good thing in itself. But it’s an interesting one to noodle on.