WTA CEO Steve Simon discusses tour calendar changes, says matches need to be shorter

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  • Steve Simon in Wuhan on Friday (Credit: Visual China Group)

    Wuhan, China — The future of the women’s tour could see shorter match formats and more high-status mandatory events, according to WTA CEO Steve Simon, who discussed calendar reforms with reporters in Wuhan on Friday as well as ideas like no-ad scoring and match-tiebreaks in singles play.

    No-ad scoring (the next point after 40-40 decides the game, with no advantage) and match-tiebreaks (10-point tiebreaks replacing the deciding third set) were introduced to doubles play by the ATP in 2006 and by the WTA in mid-2007 but the format is not adopted at the grand slams.

    Simon believes the length of singles matches is currently a hindrance to the sport and format changes should be considered in order to appeal to a bigger audience.

    “The doubles format is where tennis was progressive, at least on the ATP and WTA side, where we’ve gone to two-set matches with no-ad scoring and a super-tiebreak for the third and you can put your clock on those matches, that they don’t go longer than an hour and a half. They’re 60-90 minutes max. And that’s great,” Simon said on Friday on the sidelines of the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open.

    “And I think we need to do that with tennis. It will help us with broadcast, it will help us keep people in the seats – you’re much more likely to sit there and watch that match, that’s going to have a lot more action points too, the no-ad scoring creates drama in the middle of the sets, the tiebreaks…

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  • “I think there’s a lot of things that we have to look at in our sport to continue building the interest…

    “When we switched the format for doubles, it wasn’t liked, but it became normalcy.

    “The conversation should be held and I’m sure the first conversation will be ‘no I don’t want to do that’. But if we start doing that maybe at the lower levels and then it becomes normal and then you slowly begin phasing it in over generations, maybe it’s something that we could get to and we’ll ultimately be in a better place.”

    According to ATP statistician Greg Sharko, the average length of a men’s doubles match was 87.73 minutes per match in 2005 and fell the following season to an average of 71.51 minutes when the format changes were introduced.

    Simon says he is willing to challenge the sport through this and is determined to get the conversation started. He says he doesn’t see any format or scoring changes implemented before 2019 or 2020, and is aware there will be push-back but feels phasing in such changes, starting with the smaller tournaments, can eventually be accepted across the board.

    “The attention spans of the audience today is shrinking. Everybody wants it in very short nuggets and to see somebody sit for two to three hours and watch anything anymore is getting harder and harder,” he said.

    “Our future audience, that we need to begin embracing – now if a video is more than 20 seconds it is too long and they won’t even look at it…

    “There’s a lot of traditionalists in this sport that don’t like change but sometimes you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and be honest with yourself. I know that the audience that we’re all trying to gain now, which isn’t in this room, and they’re all watching us on this (points to his cellphone), that audience isn’t going to sit there and watch a three-hour match. Not going to do it.”

    World No10 and two-time grand slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova is not a fan of the idea of playing singles with no-ad scoring and a match-tiebreak.

    “I think it would be a horrible call,” the Russian said on Friday after losing her semi-final match to Dominika Cibulkova.

    Kuznetsova addressing the press in Wuhan on Friday (Credit: Visual China Group)

    Kuznetsova addressing the press in Wuhan on Friday (Credit: Visual China Group)

    “For doubles they make it so singles players play it. I think this is what gives you drive.

    “I would take out five sets of men’s, that’s what I would do for sure. I was thinking about it. The men always say we shouldn’t earn that money or whatever it is.

    “But I never watch one match from beginning to end of five sets. They start and you say, I’ll come back in fourth, fifth. You turn the channel. It’s no point. It’s too hard for the guys.

    “But three sets, deuce, advantage, this is the point of singles game. I think it’s very interesting and it’s going to be physical and everything. It’s not only luck. On doubles, it’s so much luck sometimes.”

    While shortening matches is important to Simon, it is something that is yet to be addressed. The most effort he has put in, in his first year at the helm of the WTA, has been towards the calendar.

    While he did not give details about the planned changes to the tour calendar in 2018 and beyond, Simon implied there would be a concept similar to the ATP Masters series – the nine Masters 1000 events (eight of which are mandatory) – introduced to the women’s tour.

    Simon feels the current tournaments structure of, WTA Finals, Premier Mandatory, Premier 5, Premier, and International events is not fan-friendly and a dramatic overhaul is expected.

    There are only four Premier Mandatory events (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing) at the moment and Simon says that is not enough.

    “What I want to try to do is to clean up and create a better definition of what our tournaments are. I think there’s a lot of confusion out there with respect to the differentiation of what type of event are you watching, what level of the event and what is its relevance on the tour? And I think we have to better define that,” he explains.

    “And I also like to create a higher amount of events in which we deliver what I consider our premium product. I don’t think we provide it on enough frequency out there…

    “Professional sport is about the best of the best and we need to create that opportunity more often which will create the new rivalries, it’ll create the new stars, it will create the system where you can do a little more storytelling than what we’re able to do today.”

    ATP events like Indian Wells and Shanghai have both been in talks with the men’s tour about introducing a new status, called the ‘Super Masters’ that would place them higher than the Masters 1000 but lower than the grand slams. Does Simon see the WTA following a similar approach?

    “I think ours is going to reflect more fundamental change than maybe what the ATP is thinking of doing. And it is about creating a clearly defined premium product on our tour, so when the global audience knows that when they tune in, they’re seeing the best available product,” said Simon.

    Players are already pulling out of big events as it is, with Serena Williams opting out of the Premier 5-level tournament in Wuhan this week, the Premier Mandatory in Beijing next week, as well as others like in Dubai and Doha. She missed the whole fall Asian swing last year.

    Asked if he could see the players committing to as many as nine Premier Mandatory tournaments instead of the current four, Simon said: “Yes, I could see that.

    “I don’t think it’s a function of convincing the players, I think the players will be supportive of it. The players want to play in big events, they want to play for lots of prize money, and lots of points and lots of people and fans. That’s what they’re about, that’s their job, that’s their careers, so they’re looking for that.

    “It needs to be smart, it needs to be healthy. What you don’t want to do is go and create a calendar, which I think has been a tendency in the past, is to cram things in, or create new things that just create clutter. And that’s not what you want to do. It’s got to be redefined, so that you know where it is, and they can play as healthy as a calendar as you can as an athlete.”