By Jane Voigt
The ATP Tour Finals is a showcase of tennis nobility. Eight of the best singles players plus 8 of the best doubles teams for the year arrived in London by invitation. They have grabbed the media’s attention, as they always do, no matter the week, no matter the tournament. But what about the remainder of the field?
Andy Roddick wondered aloud, at a press conference prior to his retirement, why tennis journalists don’t expand their scope. He wanted them to write about the top 100 players, not only the big names. His comment did not catch fire, it seems.
Matt Cronin, Tennis.com and FOX Sports tennis contributor, and owner of TennisReporters.net, tweeted to a post by DownTheTee, “It’s a knock-out sport.”
But what about the under-dog effect?
Pit American and aging journeyman Michael Russell against Rafael Nadal, and a chunk of fans will root for Russell. Why? Because he is the underdog. Russell’s career began in 1998; he will be 36 come January. He has straddled the net between Challenger and ATP tournaments for most of his career. This week, he rose 20 spots in the rankings to No. 76, a respectable position for a direct entry into the main draw of The Australian Open.
Maria Sharapova pins her day-to-day tennis progress on chances, just like Russell should get in Melbourne if he keeps his ranking up. Maria cherishes the opportunities she earns, by plowing through a draw. If she ends up across the net from, let’s say, Serena Williams, whom, Sharapova has not beaten in 9 years, she nonetheless has given herself a window to win.
Her nugget of realism applies to every player in the top 100, even the elite eight. Look at what a few have accomplished this year, as they climbed the ranking ladder.
Vasek Pospisil — The six-four 23-year-old Canadian leapt from No. 125 to his current No. 32 in a matter of months. He scored wins over John Isner, Tomas Berdych (in London), Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet (in London) and Radek Stepanek (competing in doubles in London). In Basel, just two weeks ago, he played his childhood idol, Roger Federer in the semifinals. Up a set, a break, and serving for the match, Federer found himself fending off an aggressive Pospisil comeback campaign. The match went three, but Pospisil lost in a tiebreak to Federer.
In the semifinals of Davis Cup, Pospisil teamed up with veteran Grand Slam Doubles Champion Daniel Nestor. The tie was even on day two of the competition. One-point had been awarded to each country, Canada and Serbia. The two Canadians struck a cord in the doubles match; the pivotal match of any Davis Cup weekend. They performed beautifully, tipping the scales in Canada’s favor. They won a five-set thriller, 10-8 in the fifth. Canada did not move on to the final, however. Yet, Pospisil showed his all-court inclinations that should improve as we look forward to the new year.
Grigor Dimitrov, the youthful Bulgarian everyone loves to call ‘Little Federer,’ won his first career title this year in Stockholm. He also handed a loss the No. 2 player in the world, Novak Djokovic, in Madrid at a Masters 1000 tournament and broke down in tears. Dimitrov recently hired Roger Rasheed. Rasheed had been Lleyton Hewitt’s coach for a decade, when they parted ways in 2007. Dimitrov’s current rank is No. 23.
Ernest Gulbis is right behind Dimitrov in the rankings at No. 24. Gulbis has attracted quite a bit of media attention; his name may not be obscure. He has wins over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer; and, he stormed to the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in 2008. There, he met his childhood friend, Novak Djokovic, who was more consistent and experienced. Since then, Gulbis has not made it pass the second round in Paris. He fell to No. 159 last October, but renewed his commitment to the game. He also swore off drinking, drugs, cigarettes, and partying. He has a new coach, too, Gunther Bresnik. No one wants to see the Latvian in their quarter of a draw; they never have. He is capable of beating anyone. He won 2 ATP titles in 2013: St. Petersburg and Delray Beach. If Gulbis can contain and control his talent, and quiet his mind, he has a shot at the top 20, or better. We’ll see. He’s been on the radar screen in the past only to blip off at will, or so it seemed.
Matt Cronin does make a point, though. Players get ‘knocked out’ of draws and fade into the sunset before a press conference convenes. Reporters argue they cannot write about players if they are out of a tournament. Who would read a story about, let’s Somdev Devvarman, if he was bounced in the second round of Wimbledon? Devvarman’s background in intriguing, though. He’s the one who stopped John Isner from two NCAA singles championship titles.
All players have a background story. An on-court story. What if groups of players were discussed on a Podcast. For example, those that have made a living but never rose about No. 60. Those that pay their families bills.
Knowing more about any one in the top 100 deepens the sport. Fans want to be as close to their tennis heroes as possible. If more tennis players could rise from the ashes via greater coverage of the sport, the demand for tennis would also rise. More fans would spring up around the world. That would please tournament directors, title sponsors, and management companies. More money would be generated, which, in the end, is the priority.