As the hallowed grass of Wimbledon fades into distant memories and many of the top players are in the middle of their North American hard court season, a familiar debate rears its ugly head every year.
Unlike most periods of the calendar, which follow a geographical ‘swing’ around a country or a region and which are typically played as preparation for one of the major events, whether that is the Grand Slams or the Year-End Finals, the last few weeks of July deviate vastly from the norm.
Many of the events move back to clay, going to places such as Bastad in Sweden and Gstaad in Switzerland. Perhaps even more bizarrely, some players choose to play a stand-alone grass court event in Newport, USA.
As a result of this unusual situation, many of these events have slightly weaker fields. For example, the singles cut-off for Newport this year was 246, which barely even compares to other 250s such as Adelaide earlier in the year where the cut-off was 69.
Such a contrast often generates some attention on social media, and this year was no different as Nick Kyrgios (who frequently likes to criticise these events) made several comments about the strength of the fields.
While some of the criticisms of these events have some merit, they ignore most of the factors that make these tournaments so special. A 250-level tournament has a significant amount of overheads from license fees to player appearance fees to court and stadium maintenance fees. With such high overheads, the tournaments are heavily reliant on fans coming through the door in order to break even or turn a profit.
As a result, most of these tournaments are extremely well-attended by fans who look forward to the tournament every year. For example, the tournament in Umag, Croatia is consistently packed to the rafters and indeed the city of Umag is heavily reliant on the tourism income they receive from the event for the growth of their economy.
While this may not always translate to TV audiences, this means that the game continues to grow in local communities which may not be traditional ‘tennis hot-spots’ which is also equally important.
Additionally, the criticism about a lack of star players at these tournaments can sometimes be quite unwarranted. Last week, Iga Swiatek played at her home tournament in Warsaw to sell-out crowds every day (in spite of heavy rain).
There are very few outdoor hard court tournaments in Europe, which means that there is really no other slot in the calendar where this tournament could be held. Yet the reaction from both the crowds and Swiatek demonstrate just how much value these tournaments can bring.
It is similar on the ATP side. The tournament in Gstaad welcomed Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka in their prime while the tournament in Umag has played host to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. In fact, the final in Umag last year featured Alcaraz and Sinner, just a few weeks before their late-night Flushing Meadows classic. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Even in the tournaments where the player pool is a bit weaker, this gives some less-established players opportunities to shine. Just last week, Australians Alexei Popyrin and Alexander Vukic took advantage of these opportunities, with Popyrin beating Stan Wawrinka in an epic final to take the title in Umag and Vukic making the final of Atlanta.
The additional opportunities to gain ranking points only widen the field which is positive for the depth of the sport.
Perhaps most importantly, it creates moments that would often get lost in the big events. By now, most people in the tennis world have seen Stan Wawrinka’s tearful speech in Umag after losing to Popyrin in the final. It was a special moment but one that may not have been amplified if it had not been the centre of attention that week. If these tournaments were to go, we would lose these very moments that make the sport unique.
I was lucky enough to attend Umag in 2019 where I saw just how much spirit and excitement the tournament had. In the town, there was a buzz around, with tennis posters plastered over almost every wall.
After each night of tennis, there were incredible parties and nightlife well into the next morning. It was a special tennis-watching experience that simply could not be had at one of the other tournaments.
And there was a great up-and coming list of players as well, headlined by Jannik Sinner and Andrey Rublev (the latter of which was involved in a very fiery doubles match on an outside court which provided great entertainment).
The point is that the allure of these tournaments cannot simply be grasped from watching them on TV, they need to be experienced as well.
With the ATP moving towards more two-week Masters events, it seems more likely that some of these special events will be lost in the calendar. While they could possibly move time slots, this is very difficult as they are often timed with events in the region that make it difficult to move.
When this happens, the critics will have their opportunity to see if the tennis world is better without these tournaments. Maybe the calendar will indeed be more streamlined however, the richness of the stories that will be lost, in my opinion, far supersedes that.