In Praise of Certainty

One year ago, Kevin Anderson’s most pressing concern was to avoid goring himself on his maiden trophy at the SA Tennis Open, a trophy that bore a suspicious resemblance to a pair of gold-inlaid impala horns attached to a hunk of wood, with a golden tennis ball suspended between them. Upon surviving the presentation, he donated a portion of his prize money to assisting orphaned rhinos, presumably making good on an earlier rash promise to God. The SA Tennis Open has since been excised from the Tour, and yesterday Anderson lost a toenail in one of those freak shower door mishaps you read about in the papers. All of this is true. Think about it.

The SA Tennis Open, or Jo’burg as it was affectionately known among its six or seven fans, was this year replaced by the Open Sud de France in Montpellier. Presuming you aren’t Anderson, an unemployed Jo’burg organiser, or the aforementioned fans, you would have to say the substitution has been a successful one. Montpellier’s field is strong for a 250 level event, and particularly so for an event huddled in the lee of the year’s first major. (This was always prominent among Jo’burg’s shortcomings; it proved impossible to entice marquee names to South Africa the day after the Australian Open wrapped up.) There are several reasons for this, some more obvious than others.

Firstly, it is much easier for a player to commit to a tournament that takes place near his home, and for many in the Montpellier draw, home is very near indeed. It’s crawling with Frenchmen – there was at least one in every second round match. Zagreb, also underway, is similarly replete with locals (and bona fide Russians), while Viña del Mar boasts its share of South Americans (and lesser Spaniards). This has hardly gone unremarked.

Being a tournament director is probably a stressful job at the best of times. Directing an event occurring immediately after (or before) a major must inspire stomach-wall to stomach-wall ulcers. Recall Halle last year, when Roger Federer pulled out on the first Monday, citing a groin strain he’d sustained in the Roland Garros final. Halle’s director, Ralf Weber, famously dropped his bundle at hearing the news, since Federer’s presence had for a year been the centrepiece of the tournament’s entire promotional campaign. Weber insisted he was ‘stunned’, though its hard to imagine he hadn’t seen the writing on the wall as the French Open final ground into its fourth hour. It was a perfect example of loading far too many eggs into one basket, even if that basket was a five time former champion with a lifetime contract. The tournament has since vigorously and successfully pursued Rafael Nadal for 2012. In terms of advertising, it’s good to see they’ve learned their lesson.

The lesson, really, is that uncertainty is a bummer when you’re trying to plan and market a substantial event around the presence of star athletes with recalcitrant bodies. Imagine how much easier it would be if you knew in advance which players would be playing on the final weekend of a major, and would thus be unserviceable the week after. Knowing who the semifinalists would be, one could thus feel safe in securing the services of everyone else. The players themselves could make better plans, certain in the knowledge that they would not be inconveniently exhausted from a chance run to a slam final.

There are any number of downsides to having the same four players contest the semifinals at every single major in perpetuity until the heat-death of the sun. But we would be remiss not to acknowledge the advantages, as well. This calibre of certainty might kill off fan interest in the long-term, but in the short-term, it’s precisely the thing investors love, and procuring the services of a top ten player is an investment. The Montpellier organisers could rest assured that, come what may, top seed Tomas Berdych would front up, hale and polished. Their hearts may have skipped a beat as he struck that volley to move up two sets to love against Nadal in last week’s Australian Open quarterfinal, but I’m sure they had faith. More importantly, they had certainty, and the volley landed wide.

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