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Steve Flink: Spreading the Wealth

10/27/2008 2:41:00 PM

by Steve Flink

During the Presidential campaign, not too long ago, Senator Barack Obama got into a brief conversation with the now renowned "Joe the Plumber". Obama--- speaking of his economic plans, trying to clarify his stance on taxes--- explained his philosophy by saying he wanted to "spread the wealth". That comment became a major debating point between Obama and John McCain as boosters and detractors of both candidates passionately analyzed, debated and reflected upon Obama's stance.

As I monitored the three ATP Tour events played out over the course of the past week, that phrase "spread the wealth" kept springing to mind, over and over again. Why was that the case? Although the analogy is not necessarily entirely appropriate, it occurred to me that the events of the week gone by make it abundantly clear that the men's game is in such good shape that the spread of wealth has seldom been more evident in tennis.

Consider what happened at the three tournaments as the leading competitors chased points, hoping to qualify for the elite, season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. In Basle, performing for his home nation's fans, Roger Federer came through commandingly in the end, raising his career record against old rival David Nalbandian to 10-8 by clipping the Argentine 6-3, 6-4 in a final round clash both players considered a high quality encounter. Other big names appearing in Basle were James Blake--- who was upended in the quarters by Feliciano Lopez--- and the formidable Juan Martin Del Potro, who was ushered out of the tournament by countryman Nalbandian in the penultimate round.

Meanwhile, over in Lyon, Andy Roddick was fighting hard to secure his place in the Shanghai field. Roddick pounded no fewer than 26 aces in a two-tiebreak victory over Robby Ginepri, but the 26-year-old American lost in a pair of tie-breaks to Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals. Soderling went on to topple the remarkable Frenchman Gilles Simon in the semifinals, and then won the tournament by ousting another Frenchman Julien Benneteau.

And yet, Roddick and Simon were not the only marquee names in Lyon. Richard Gasquet--- who lost early--- was there, as was the resurgent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a semifinalist who bowed out against Benneteau.

So Basle sparkled with compelling players, and Lyon was graced by a cluster of top of the line shot makers. Nevertheless, there was room for more tennis of a high order in St. Petersburg, Russia. At that tournament, Andy Murray successfully defended his title and won a second tournament in a row, following up confidently on his victory at the Masters Series event in Madrid by sweeping through the field for another crown. Murray routed qualifier Andrey Golubev in the championship match, conceding only two games in two sets. But he had an impressive supporting cast in St. Petersburg. In his toughest match of the week, he moved past the entertaining and dangerous Janko Tipsarevic 7-6, 7-5 in the quarterfinals. Murray then dissected the big hitting left-hander Fernando Verdasco in the semifinals. Verdasco is celebrating the best season of his career. Nikolay Davydenko, Marin Cilic and Marat Safin were other standouts in that field.

To me, this was a week which advertised the depth and enduring value of the men's game. There was Murray, carrying the event nicely on his shoulders in St. Petersburg, backed ably by a fine cast of players. Here was Federer, coming through for his legion of fans back home in Switzerland, surrounded by the likes of Nalbandian, Del Potro and Blake. And over in France was another glittering contingent, graced by performers giving the audiences all week good value for their money. Soderling had good reason to be proud of his efforts as he surpassed a strong field.

There is no doubt that we all most eagerly anticipate the Grand Slam events, with the Masters Series tournaments second on our list of priorities. This week, the top men will be in Paris for the Masters Series event in that magnificent city, and it is hard to imagine anything less than a stirring tournament with so many great players performing under the same roof. But what makes tennis so appealing is the rich diversity of talent in the upper regions.

The majors and the Masters Series tournaments are made all the more attractive because we do not take them for granted. The showcase events are deliberately staged at different stages of the year, spaced apart to provide maximum interest and impact, allowing the public and the press to fully appreciate the most prestigious tournaments whenever they take place. It is crucial for the game that the biggest and best events be staged strategically across the calendar.

This kind of thinking has long served tennis effectively. From the time the original Grand Prix circuit--- the brainchild of the one and only Jack Kramer--- was introduced in 1970, the concept was always to widen the popularity of the sport by taking the sport to diverse locations. The notion was not to have the greatest players meet too often, but to let them flourish at different venues. If the very best players met week after week, and appeared too often in the same fields, that would be counter-productive.

This was also the case during the golden days of the World Championship Tennis (WCT) circuit in the 1970's. How well I remember the way WCT sprinkled the players into three different groups in their January to May time slot. Let's take 1974 as a prime example. On the road to the WCT Finals in Dallas--- the culmination of the tour for the top eight players--- the players were assigned to three different groups. The Red Group featured Ilie Nastase, Cliff Drysdale, Tom Okker, Tom Gorman and Tony Roche among others. The Green Group had Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe and Bjorn Borg as its star competitors. And the Blue Group was headlined by John Newcombe and Stan Smith, backed up by the likes of Raul Ramirez, Cliff Richey and Dick Stockton.
The top players in the three separate groups played only their own events with the notable exception of the U.S. Pro Indoor in Philadelphia, which was held in late January for all of the best players from the three groups. But the rest of the time, the competitors went their separate ways, and those tournaments did very well. That meant that when the WCT Finals came about in May, the season-ending event was all the more exciting for the fans and for the players as well. Fittingly, Newcombe, the greatest player in that period, captured the WCT Finals that year over the rapidly emerging Borg.

As I followed Lyon, St, Petersburg and Basle last week, I was reminded in many ways of how it was done in the old days, and why the concept of "spreading the wealth" works so well.

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