sistaff
Thursday September 29th, 2011

Caroline Wozniacki was upset by unseeded Kaia Kanepi in the third round of the Pac Pacific Open. (AP)

Last week, Alexandra Willis of the Daily Telegraph in London joined in on the fun to try to hammer out a solution for the grueling men’s schedule. More than 54 percent agreed with her that the best way to address the schedule is to reduce the number of mandatory events.

But this week’s topic is a little less convoluted. So, Courtney, are you ready? Good, let’s dive in.

Today’s Toss: What makes for more exciting tennis: the top-heavy ATP or the parity of the WTA?

C.W. Sesno, tennis producer for SI.com: Two words: Stars reign.

The reason many experts are throwing Novak Djokovic’s season into the discussion for the greatest ever in the Open Era -- up there with John McEnroe's losing only three matches in 1984 -- goes deeper than just match record. It’s the level of competition conquered along the way.

In ’84, McEnroe won 13 of 15 singles tournaments with an 82-3 record. A darn impressive feat in and of itself, sure. But even more amazing given that seven of those 13 finals were against a surging Ivan Lendl -- one of them a five-set loss in the French Open final. Two were against Jimmy Connors and one against Mats Wilander. That’s the top-four players squaring off in at least 10 finals in one season. Sound familiar?

Eight of Djokovic’s 10 titles this season have come against the top four -- Belgrade (a home-court 250 event) and Montreal (a win over Mardy Fish) being the exceptions. Six of them were against Rafael Nadal, and his only loss in a Grand Slam was to Roger Federer at the French Open, setting up a Nadal-Federer showdown on the red clay of Roland Garros.

These rivalries are built to a point where simply taking the court opposite one another turns heads. But then we've been privileged to watch in astonishment as the game's best elevate the sport to new heights of athleticism and shot making. Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray (in a slightly less exciting way) have all spoken about the importance of their contemporaries in helping to raise their own games, the competitive desire to beat each other pushing them to make that extra shot.

And this certainly isn't meant to downplay Kim Clijsters, Li Na, Petra Kvitova or Sam Stosur. They played some stirring matches on their respective runs to Grand Slam glory. But let's say, completely hypothetically, the U.S. Open schedule this year gets bungled to smithereens, and in some abomination to the tennis gods, both men's and women's finals are played simultaneously. You're on the grounds with tickets. Which would you watch?

Courtney Nguyen: I would have been front row for Serena vs. Stosur. Here's why:

To me, this question ultimately turns on a different question: What makes sports compelling? Some people watch in hopes of seeing the game played at the highest level. Some watch for the technical mechanics. Some watch in hopes of seeing history. There's no universal answer to the query, which is to say, there is no right or wrong answer. It's completely personal. So, given that premise, my answer to your question is probably more personally revealing than I'd want.

Me? I watch for the suspense and the drama. There is no certainty in sports. We can all agree on that so let's get that out of the way. But if I have to choose how to spend my time and money when it comes to sports, I'm going to save up for those matches where I think there will be the most dramatic tension. Any sense of dominance diminishes that tension. Watching one person win all the time, while awe-inspiring, can get boring. I'm less inclined to pull myself out of bed at odd hours to watch the matches or shell out a load of cash to be a part of it.

Nothing inspires a fan like a good Cinderella story. For some, and I would include myself in this segment, it's exhilarating to sit down and genuinely have no clue how a match will turn out. On the WTA side, this happens on a daily basis and it doesn't matter whether it's a first-round match or a final. The players have shown all year that on any given day the lower-ranked player can produce a dramatic upset. Parity is self-perpetuating. It inspires belief among the rest of the field and that's what makes it so exciting.

You just don't get that on a regular basis on the ATP. The Big 3 are dominant and the rest of the field seems to believe that. That's why I find Murray to be a compelling player. He seems to be the only one (maybe a healthy Robin Soderling qualifies here, too) who truly believes he can beat the Big 3. The problem is the rest of the field believes any one of them can beat him, too, which is why, regardless of the tournament or the opponent, Murray's matches are must-see. You just never know what's going to happen. He could win, he could lose, but I want to tune to see how it all plays out.

So back to the original question. Which Tour has been more exciting? I can't argue with the level of play in the later rounds of the majors and Masters events. As you point out, the ATP has been blessed with having the top guys go against each other and they have continued to summon some of the highest-quality tennis we've seen over an extended period of time. So, if that's what you're watching for, then I'm not sure my argument will convince you. But when you want to talk about storylines to keep you engaged on a week-in, week-out basis, the WTA has brought the drama.

Sesno: Yes, the wide-open WTA has provided more drama and unexpected victories on a week-by-week basis, and that makes for fine storylines. But, now particularly, it's hard for me to buy into the contention that the sense of dominance going on in the ATP is diminishing the tension. Sure, Djokovic is in the midst of a season that's beyond awe-inspiring. And in the early rounds of Slams and Masters 1000s, there's a very good chance that you'll see the world No. 1 take control of a match from the start and never cede ground.

But the field isn't just rolling over. Guys like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have proved that the Big 3 are not invincible, and proved that point in thrilling fashion. Heck, even Andrey Golubev stepped up to the plate and nearly took a set off Nadal in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Fish put up a heck of a fight against Djokovic in the Montreal finals.

Are the Big 3 favorites in any match they play against lower-ranked players? Of course. Are they going to win a lot of blowout matches? Certainly. So, if you watch sports for the Cinderella story, then I'd caution against watching the top guys early. And while it's not as likely for Djokovic or Nadal to lose in the first round as it is for some of the top women, it does happen. And when it does, doesn't it make for a more dramatic storyline on the men's side than the women's?

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When Ivan Dodig blasted ace after ace and served his way right past Nadal in the second round of Montreal, it sparked a firestorm of analysis and commentary about what it meant for the Spaniard's U.S. Open chances and beyond. When Richard Gasquet downed Federer in Rome just before Roland Garros, the "past his prime" murmurs grew louder. So how great a story that Federer would be the one to snap Djokovic's undefeated run in the French Open semis? Contrarily, was there not much less discussion when Caroline Wozniacki fell early in Tokyo?

How great was Li's genuinely exciting interview after becoming the first Chinese woman to win a Grand Slam? Was I on the edge of my seat as Stosur bullied Williams around the court in the U.S. Open final? Absolutely.

And you're right. There's never certainty in sports. And most of the time, I'd rather watch compelling competition than a blowout. But right now in men's tennis, the level of play is so absurdly high that even a blowout can have me on my feet yelling, "You can't be serious!" (see: Berlocq, Carlos). I'll watch almost any tennis at any time. But once the top men lace up for the Asian swing, well, buy stock in Starbucks. We've got some exciting, long nights ahead of us.

Nguyen: Where I envy the ATP is in the category of rivalries. Rivalries create drama. To see Nadal and Djokovic go head-to-head six times in tournament finals this year was highly entertaining, and those matches produced some mind-numbingly fantastic tennis. Could Rafa figure him out? Could Nole beat him one more time? That's a storyline I could, and did, get behind.

The WTA doesn't have that right now and it's a direct result of being so unpredictable. It takes two to tango when it comes to rivalries and with upsets coming out of nowhere all the time, you don't get to see two players clash on a consistent basis. That I agree is regrettable. I would love to see Wozniacki and Serena play more than once a year, or Victoria Azarenka clash with Maria Sharapova time and time again. There just isn't enough consistency on Tour to allow these matchups to grow.

To your point about upsets on the men's side, of course they happen. The difference is that you're talking about one-off upsets. Absolutely, Tsonga has been a bit of a revelation this year with his multiple wins over Federer. He's played the role of the non-top-four spoiler, a la Juan Martin del Potro in 2009 and Soderling in 2010. You need those guys around to make the matches that aren't semifinals or finals between the top three (or top four if we're being nice to Murray today) exciting.

But major upsets on the ATP are rare. So rare that you're citing guys who almost pulled off an upset. On the women's Tour, upsets aren't one-offs. In fact, isn't that the big knock against the state of the WTA these days? That there is no dominant player or players whom fans can count on to consistently make deep runs? Well, one man's trash is another man's treasure.

The WTA is completely unpredictable, and in that uncertainty I find a tremendous amount of entertainment. Li, Kvitova and Stosur created some of the best stories in tennis this year. Li and Stosur had historic breakthroughs. For Kvitova, it felt like a watershed moment as someone from the younger generation finally broke through. But what made it all even more compelling was the fact that their title runs virtually came out of nowhere. The surprise is what makes it fun.

Expect the unexpected. There's nothing more exciting than that. You decide: Vote in our poll above and sound off in the comments to let us know what you think.

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