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Time for a Change

by Steve Flink

Nearly every week in this space, I monitor the progress of the leading competitors. Trying to make a cogent assessment of why players are winning and losing, getting lost in the world of viewing top flight tennis competition, doing my best to read between the lines, is the best part of my job as a tennis journalist. Give me an excuse to watch a compelling match, and I will take it every time.

To be sure, last week was intriguing in both the men's and women's games. Roger Federer got back on track, capturing his 50th career singles championship in Cincinnati with an emphatic 6-1, 6-4 victory over James Blake, restoring his conviction with that triumph in his last appearance before the U.S. Open. In Toronto, Justine Henin played her first event since an inexplicable semifinal loss at Wimbledon to Marion Bartoli, securing the title there with a hard fought 7-6 (3), 7-5 final round win over Jelena Jankovic. In the process, the tenacious Belgian won her 35th career singles title.

Both Federer and Henin deserve much credit for how they carved out their successes. I would have loved to devote the rest of this column to the reasons why these two champions are the best in their profession. But I am not going to do that.

Instead, I want to address a significant problem that has not been resolved, the problem of how tournaments are scheduled. We all know that the calendar is too crowded with events all through the year, from January right up until the middle of November. It is never easy for the players to determine which events they are going to enter because they must make their schedules so far in advance. But at least the most prestigious events should be spread apart with more rhyme and reason.

Consider what happened the last two weeks with the U.S. Open Series. The leading men are required to compete in the Masters [Series] tournaments. Therefore, the fields at those events are always excellent. But some players get shortchanged because they are asked to play too much tennis in too short a span of time. The week before last, the men were in Montreal for the Rogers Masters. World No. 3 Novak Djokovic toppled No. 2 Rafael Nadal and No. 1 Roger Federer back to back to win his most important career title. In the final, Djokovic held back Federer in the clutch, prevailing 7-6( 2), 2-6, 7-6 (2).

No one had upended Nadal and Federer at the same tournament since they have dominated the top two spots in the rankings over the last few years. That was no mean feat. Close followers of the sport eagerly anticipated the next week at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters in Cincinnati, hoping that Federer and Djokovic might square off in the semifinals with the winner coming up against Nadal in the championship match. But it was not to be.

After receiving opening round byes, both Djokovic and Nadal bowed out in the second round of Cincinnati. Djokovic went down 6-4, 6-1 against the wily former world No. 1 Carlos Moya. Earlier on the same day, Nadal, suffering from an arm ailment and still nursing a tender knee, realized he could not afford to exacerbate an already bad situation. He retired at a set and 4-1 down against Juan Monaco. And so the tournament lost two dynamic figures in the space of a few hours. Both men had worked hard the previous week in Canada, and as a result they were more vulnerable in Cincinnati.

Because they give the top 8 seeds byes, those players don't start playing matches until Wednesday. But that formula still doesn't really work. Djokovic surely could have used a week off after winning Montreal. He needed more time to digest what had just happened to him. He had made a substantial step forward by claiming his second Masters [Series] title of a productive 2007 season, by overcoming Federer for the first time in five career meetings. And yet, Djokovic had to go right back to work. Nadal was in essentially the same boat. He had played four tough matches in Montreal at the start of his hard court season.

Last year, Federer had a rough week at the Masters event in Canada, winning a string of three set matches including a come from behind triumph over Richard Gasquet in the final. Then he came to Cincinnati, won his first round match (there were no byes) but lost in the second round to Andy Murray. To win the two events in Canada and Cincinnati back to back, a player is forced to play 10 matches in 12 or, at most, 13 days to get the job done. Last year, without the byes, Federer would have needed to win 12 matches in 14 days! That is unreasonably demanding. In the spring, the players face the same dilemma on clay with the Masters [Series] tournaments in Rome and Hamburg in consecutive weeks.

A year ago, Nadal and Federer had an epic showdown in Rome that Nadal took in a fifth set tie-break. The match exceeded five hours. Both players, exhausted and debilitated, understandably pulled out of Hamburg. This year, Federer lost early in Rome and was fresh for Hamburg, which he won. Nadal, however, was worn down as he played his fourth tournament in five weeks. He had nothing left after splitting sets with Federer in the championship match, going down tamely 6-0 in the third.

I hope the ATP Tour can find a remedy for some of these scheduling obstacles. As it was, Cincinnati turned out well enough this year, with Federer edging Lleyton Hewitt in a third set tie-break in the semifinals and then ousting James Blake in the final. But there is no justifiable reason to play the Masters events back to back. Players who make the final the first week are severely disadvantaged the following week.

I would like to see a reshuffling of the cards. Move other tournaments around, keep the Masters events spaced sensibly apart, and give the public and players a better shake. Surely, with some creative thinking, without too much trouble, this could be done.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com

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