The Tennis Calendar, Demystified
Now that the year’s first Masters’ tournament, the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California has passed us by, the familiar questions have started to emerge: What exactly is a Masters’ tournament? Does anyone even care about such a tournament? Does ANYTHING really matter in tennis other than the Grand Slams? If this tournament is such a big deal, why the heck aren’t the Williams sisters playing it? You’d think it would be the other way around, but only the last of the 4 questions I just mentioned has an objective, clear-cut answer. Attempting to answer the first three, on the other hand, can turn into something akin to wading into deep and disturbing waters, all thanks to the trigger-happy changes to the tennis calendar that the officials have been inflicting on unsuspecting fans ever since I can remember.
This will not be an easy task, but I’ll take a stab at trying to decipher the very complicated tournament structure in professional tennis, starting with the men’s calendar. Everyone knows, of course, that 4 tournaments make up the Holy Grail of the sport; the 4 Grand Slams, or Majors, to be more precise – the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. These 4 tournaments are, it is safe to say, the most important tournaments in the game; they have a rich and long-standing history, and tennis tradition and folklore largely consist of incidents and results that occurred at these 4 events. The Majors are organized and overseen by the International Tennis Federation (ITF); the ATP (which stands for Association of Tennis Professionals, by the way) has no say over anything to do with the Majors, which is just as well, according to most observers.
One rung below the Majors come the Masters’ tournaments, or as the ATP has newly designated them, the ATP World Tour Masters’ 1000 tournaments. There are currently 9 such tournaments on the ATP calendar – Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, Toronto/Montreal, Cincinnati, Shanghai and Paris. The winner of a Masters’ tournament gets 1000 points added to his ranking points total, as opposed to the 2000 points you get for wining a Major, and the total prize money at stake in a Masters’ tourney ranges from US$ 2 million to US$ 4 million. Prize money at a Slam, of course, can easily go upwards of $10 million (I know, that’s some serious dough we’re talking about). All the Majors and Masters’ tournaments are mandatory for players who meet the ranking requirement. Thus, if you’re ranked anywhere in the top 32 (the Indian Wells and Miami tournaments have an expanded direct entry list – they include the top 64 players), you compulsorily have to play these cash-rich tournaments. The sole exception is the tournament at Monte Carlo, which was downgraded to non-mandatory status (although it is still classified as a Masters’ event) last year because of the ATP’s ambitious plans to expand the game and bring the Asian market into its ambit by introducing a Masters’ tournament in Shanghai.
Next in terms of importance come the ATP World Tour 500 tournaments, which, as the name suggests, reward the winners with 500 ranking points. There are 11 such tournaments in a year – Rotterdam, Dubai, Acapulco, Memphis, Barcelona, Hamburg, Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, Basel and Valencia, and the prize money can be anything from $1 million to $2 million. The 4 best results from the 500-level tournaments that a player plays in a year count towards his ranking points total, so it would not be amiss to say that these tournaments act as the best possible padding for a player’s ranking. Sitting snugly on the last rung of the ATP calendar are the ATP World Tour 250 tournaments, each of which, if you hadn’t guessed it already, net the champion 250 ranking points. The top players rarely play these small events, despite the fact that their two best results from 250-level tournaments count towards their ranking.
Of course, all of these events on the calendar lead up to what the ATP officials hope will eventually turn into the high point of the annual tennis program – the ATP World Tour Finals, or the ATP WTF for short (I must admit, I still can’t get over that acronym). This event, formerly known as the Tennis Masters’ Cup, is the high-profile, year-end championship that is open only to the top 8 players in the world. Naturally, you would expect that such a caveat for gaining entry into the event would considerably heighten its prestige and importance, but while there usually is a mad scramble towards the end of the year among the top players to make sure they are invited to the tournament, the concept hasn’t gained too much traction with the fans so far. The winner of this title gets himself 1500 points and the prize money here can go as high as $5 million, so clearly the event is nothing to be sneezed at, even if it isn’t as wildly popular now as the ATP would like it to be.
Alright, now we come to the women’s calendar, and all of a sudden things get murkier. The 4 Major tournaments follow the same rules that are applicable to the Majors on the men’s tour; in fact, these 4 tournaments are held as combined events and are overseen jointly by the ITF. The ranking points for winning a Major are also the same on the men’s and women’s tours: 2000. The parallel body to the ATP on the women’s side is the Women’s Tennis Association or the WTA. The WTA introduced a strange little scheme last year called the Roadmap in an apparent bid to simplify the tennis structure for the women and help the top players get some much-needed breaks from the game. As per the Roadmap, 4 events in the year have been designated as ‘Premier Mandatory’ tournaments – the 4 combined events at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing; these have to be compulsorily attended by all the top female players. The winner of a Premier Mandatory event gets 1000 ranking points.
There are also 5 events called the ‘Premier Five’ tournaments which are held in Dubai, Rome, Cincinnati, Toronto/Montreal and Tokyo. While these tournaments are not mandatory, each of them does hand the winner a neat haul of 900 ranking points, so it goes without saying that they usually boast strong fields and big-name attendance. Next in line are the ten ‘Premier’ tournaments, each of which can earn a player 470 ranking points. The big development envisaged by the Roadmap is the growth and promotion of the ‘International’ events which are held in 31 different locations during a year. These tournaments provide the middle-to-low ranked players a chance to avoid the top dogs and improve their ranking so that they can get entry into the bigger, more elite Premier-level tourneys.
As on the ATP tour, all the events on the WTA calendar lead up to the year-end championships, but since last year, there has been one big difference: the WTA has two such year-end championships – one for the top 8 players in the world called the WTA Tour Championships, and another for the top players on the International circuit, which is currently named ‘The Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Champions’. The WTA Tour Championships have been held in Doha, Qatar since the last 2 years, and just like on the men’s tour, the event rewards the winner with 1500 ranking points, and a similar amount of prize money. The Tournament of Champions, on the other hand, is held at Bali, and while it may not hand the winner a whole lot of ranking points, it does give the second-tier players a chance to get out of the shadows and gain some glory and fame of their own.
I realize that I have valiantly tried to deconstruct the messy tennis calendars on both the men’s and women’s tours, but I haven’t yet answered the one question from the introduction to this essay that was supposed to have a clear-cut answer. Just in case you were wondering, the Williams sisters have boycotted the Indian Wells event since 2001 because of what they perceived to be racist behavior from the crowds. The incident was not particularly pleasant, and it occurred when Venus Williams pulled out of her semifinal match against sister Serena just 10 minutes before the start. This led to assumptions that the result had been fixed by their father Richard, and consequently Serena was booed and heckled, with alleged racist overtones, when she played (and won) the final. Since then, no amount of cajoling or admonition has made the sisters budge from their stance, and they continue to boycott one of the ‘crown jewels’ of the WTA calendar. Arrogant snub or genuine fear of unjust racism? Well, the answer to THAT is murkier than anything that the tennis calendar can throw up.