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HomeSportsRise of the ‘mini-slams’ cranks up demands on tired tennis players |...

Rise of the ‘mini-slams’ cranks up demands on tired tennis players | Tennis

Hours after successfully completing her first match in Madrid this year, Daria Kasatkina, the highest-ranked women’s player from Russia, stood in the corridors of La Caja Mágica as she described how she was managing the mental fatigue that had built after years of being a hamster in the ever-revolving wheel of professional tennis.

A more topical question followed: she was asked how big tournaments lengthening by a week has affected those feelings. “It affects the payment of the hamster,” she said, laughing. “Poor hamster has to work more for the same money. Poor hamster.”

Madrid has hosted the 1000 tournaments for the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in its southern barrios since 2009 but this year everything changed. For the first time in its history, the Madrid Open has become a two-week event – 12 days of main-draw play preceded by two qualifying days, its singles draws expanding from 56 players to 96, copying the successful format of the Indian Wells and Miami events.

Its expansion reflects tennis’s arrival at a tipping point. In 2020, Andrea Gaudenzi, a former player, was voted the new chief executive of the ATP, which runs the men’s tour. Gaudenzi assumed the position with ambitious plans to transform the landscape. He pointed to tennis’s status as the fourth most popular sport around the world and the potential that, due to its fractious nature, it has yet to realise.

The primary phase of ATP’s strategic plan includes expanding prize money with the pledge of a yearly increase, a new profit-sharing ethos between ATP players and tournaments and greater cooperation between the events. For both players and fans, however, the most obvious shift has been the attempt to essentially transform ATP and WTA 1000 events into mini-slams.

Next week’s tournament in Rome will also take place over two weeks, rendering the two events a month-long odyssey akin to Indian Wells and Miami. The Shanghai Masters 1000 will expand later this year and in 2025 the pre-US Open joint events in Canada – alternating between Toronto and Montreal – and Cincinnati will follow.

The Madrid Open is one of a number of tournaments extended to boost the stature of Masters 1000 events. Photograph: Europa Press Sports/Europa Press/Getty Images

The primary aim is to bolster the stature and importance of the Masters 1000 events, closing the gap from the grand slams. With more days of action for fans and broadcasters, naturally they will generate more money.

Whether all of the changes will be received well is another question. A defining characteristic of most ATP and WTA 1000 events was their briskness compared with grand slam tournaments. Players would usually arrive in Madrid a few days before the main draw began and after two and a half weeks both Madrid and Rome were done. “Now that is four weeks,” says Andy Murray.

The ATP has suggested that the extension of their 1000 events will aid with injury prevention, the lengthier tournaments allowing more off days for players. “I really like it,” says Aryna Sabalenka. “It’s another preparation for the grand slams. You’re kind of playing 1000 tournaments with the same conditions as a grand slam, so you can prepare yourself for a longer tournament and for an extra day off to manage your energy.”

While most players stressed that they are open to change and waiting to see how things pan out, they also expressed some scepticism. Iga Swiatek, the women’s No 1, pointed out that the “rest days” in the middle of big tournaments are still work. “If the tournaments were shorter, then we have more time in between to actually have days off without even looking at a racket,” she says.

Murray takes a similar position, saying: “I have heard a lot of players over the years, I don’t mean recently, talk about the tennis season being very long. I don’t think that this necessarily shortens it. It’s just a little bit more time at tournaments, a little bit more time on the road.”

These are primarily issues that affect top players who last the distance in both events. For those who lose early, normally the lower-ranked players, the concern is fewer playing opportunities. “At the end we’re losing two weeks because we’re playing two tournaments in one month,” says Kasatkina. “And if you lose the second round, what do you do? You cannot do anything. You can’t play anything. Just practise.”

Daria Kasatkina returns the ball to Veronika Kudermetova during their 2023 WTA Tour Madrid Open singles match at the Caja Mágica in Madrid on 1 May 2023.
‘Poor hamster has to work more for the same money.’ Daria Kasatkina has objected to the changes to the tennis calendar. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Cameron Norrie, the British No 1, acknowledges the benefits of increased prize money but echoes concern for the lower-ranked players. He says: “You take an early loss and you want to get back on to the court fairly soon. If not, you’ve got a lot of time in between.”

Before Gaudenzi’s plan was finalised there was much talk about the prospect of ATP 250 events in the second week of these events, but this year early losers such as Murray and Tommy Paul had to drop down and take wildcards into a Challenger event in Aix-en-Provence. Those who lost on the second Monday, however, faced a week on the sidelines until Rome.

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A counterpoint is that the lower-ranked players now have more opportunities to compete at the big events. Daniil Medvedev says: “I think it’s more fair when the draw is that big we are going to see more ranking changes, more people coming in from qualifiers to the later stages. So in general I think it’s good, even if it disadvantages the top players.”

Medvedev was toppled in the fourth round by qualifier Aslan Karatsev, who lost his semi-final against lucky loser, Jan Lennard Struff, on Friday. Struff’s and Karatsev’s rankings of 103 and 107, respectively, would have excluded them from the qualifying draw last year.

“From one side it’s long, it’s really long,” says Karatsev. “But on another hand you have time to recover. Especially for me that I’m coming from the [qualifiers]. So you have some days off in between.”

Even on the vast grounds of grand slam tournaments, practice court allocation can be a prickly topic. The limited space on site at La Caja Mágica meant some players have had to practise elsewhere in vastly different conditions. Meanwhile, prize money has increased but more time on the road means higher expenses.

“They don’t help [with hotels],” says Kasatkina. “They actually did the opposite. You can ask IMG what they’re doing with the hotel rates in Miami and here. Because, show me an NH Collection hotel that costs €280 per night.”

While it is the ATP that has initiated change within its organisation, the WTA has followed at the joint event. For Kasatkina, the issues are particularly with Rome rather than Madrid. While Madrid offers equal prize money, Rome is technically categorised in the WTA’s second-biggest tournament category, previously known as a Premier 5 event. In Rome, the women’s total prize money is significantly less than the men’s event yet it will be presented in the same light as Madrid.

As players come to terms with the new format, fans will also have to adjust. More spectators will undoubtedly attend in person, but lengthy tournaments also require more commitment and effort for fans. With seeded players receiving byes, half the top men did not take to the court until last Saturday. On the second Monday, the men’s event was still in the third round. It was difficult to escape the feeling that the tournament dragged on for too long.

The expansion of the Masters 1000 events mark only one of the first steps in the ATP’s plans and as it looks to win over the players, the next step will be even more complicated – it will attempt to promote close cooperation between the governing bodies and unify a sport that has been fractured since its inception.



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