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Mailbag: Tennis' March Madness equivalents; ATP, WTA prize debate

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Picking off some questions in midair, grab-bag style. I will write until we begin our descent when laptops and other electronic devices must be put away and cell phones must remain in airplane mode….

Watching the NCAA tournament made me wonder about comparisons to tennis. At a tennis tourney, lower ranked players take out higher seeds, but there isn't always the edge of your seat action or dramatic buzzerbeater. To mix another sports analogy into the question, what is thetennis equivalent of a walk-off homer?
—Mark, Olean, N.Y.

• Good question. At some level, we’re simply talking about two different sports with two different rhythms. Tennis is more subtle. If you're waiting for buzzer beaters, you will be disappointed—though a tight third set can be great drama. The real beauty is in the subtle momentum shifts, the natural drama of a match, the players’ battles with themselves as well as with the opponents.

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With March Madness upon us, who would be the Gonzaga and Butler of both tours? I'll throw David Ferrer as the Gonzaga and Kei Nishikori for Butler. Feel free to comment on Wofford and Davidson equivalents as well.
Neil Grammer, Toronto

• Quick story: I’m writing some TV pieces for CBS’s March Madness coverage this year and we had one ready to go on our (slightly irrational) love of the underdogs. Through three rounds, though, most of the underdogs—certainly the Wofford and Davidson level—were eliminated. We decided not to do the piece. Someone posed the question: “Since when is the seventh seed an underdog?”

Quietly, I’m thinking: in tennis. The dominance of the Big Three is so comprehensive that players like Ferrer and Nishikori—who have done significant time in the Top five—are still considered dark horses.

Stop the presses for this Mailbag inquiry on Grigor Dimitrov's loss to Tommy Robredo. Is Dimitrov perhaps a bit overhyped? Robredo is a very solid player but there is no denying that this was a bad loss for Dimitrov. And is his coach Roger Rasheed on the hot seat if these disappointments continue?
Fernando, Valencia 

Indian Wells Mailbag: Dimitrov's red face, Serena's return and more

I’d frame this slightly differently. We all like new blood and breakthrough successes. But this is still further validation of the Big Three—whom we shouldn't be so quick to shunt off the stage. The ATP has fed us a steady diet of Raonic, Nishikori and Dimitrov. All are fine players. Yet, it's been three years now and none has won a Slam. Broadening: Stan Wawrinka broke through in Australia last year and he’s scarcely been heard from since. Same for Marin Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open winner. The ATP is smart to prepare for a universe in which Federer/Nadal/Djokovic are retired and new stars will be minted. But we ain’t there yet.

As for Dimitrov specifically, he is experimenting with rackets, so discount his recent slide a bit. (Digression: this is one of the great mysteries in tennis. Countless players—Djokovic, Wozniacki, Verdasco, James Blake and Dominic Thiem are some names that pop to mind—have lost chunks of their career making racket switches. New rule: Do. Not. Mess. With. Your. Equipment. The extra $500,000 or whatever will look penny-wise, pound-foolish while your ranking slips as you struggle to find the right stick.) Dimitrov has all the shots, but some intangible just seems to be missing. As a former pro put it to me in Indian Wells, “the wires just don't quite seem to connect.” He likely suffers from the problem that plagued Federer early in his career. Namely, he was so skilled, he had almost too many options sometimes. (The difference: Federer overcame this was winning majors in his 21st year. Dimitrov is in his mid-20s and has been to one major semifinal.) He’s a nice kid with a beautiful game and you’d like to think he can tap the spigot and great gobs of talent will spew forth. But right now he is akin to, say, Henri Leconte, an aesthetically pleasing player who is not quite at the top level.

There's no way to delicately put this, so I'm just going to ask. As I sit watching the Indian Wells matches, I marvel at the number of empty seats, especially during the women's matches.  Do you think the WTA would survive if the Slams and other Masters tournaments didn't combine the men's and women's tours? I'm honestly beginning to think the answer is no. There will always be followers of women's tennis, but I equate this to the WNBA. The players are paid paltry sums in comparison to their male counterparts. Teams are bankrupt. Arenas are empty. I know female tennis players have fought for (and received) equal prize money, but I honestly think if they didn't have the ATP to lean on they wouldn't be as successful as they are today. Your thoughts?
—Kris, Norwalk, Conn.

Miami Open preview: Matches, players and storylines to watch

• First, I’m not sure the WNBA comparison quite works. One critical difference: the NBA and WNBA players don’t compete simultaneously at the same event. But, Kris is discussing the elephant in the luxury suite. Tennis is stronger when genders are combined. As a matter of social justice and principle, we like equality. The sport looks small and petty when the men earn a purse of X and the women playing simultaneously earn of a purse of, say, .7X.

But as a matter of economic justice, it’s very hard to defend equal prize money. Strictly looking at balance sheets, the WTA is simply not equal to the ATP. Media rights, sponsorship, attendance—pick your metric. (Note that the WTA includes Grand Slam prize money whenever it lists its overall purses. Subtract that and the picture gets considerably less rosy.)

The persistent question that has yet to be answered: when my standalone product is worth demonstrably less than yours, do we deserve to be paid the same when we are combined. Some promoters have taken a hard line. A well-kept secret: the WTA actual pays some events the equivalent of a refund for “economic shortcomings.” (In other words: the players make equal purses, but the events are then made whole by the WTA, which covers the shortfall.) Other mixed events have lobbied to pay equal purses but then give the men—and the men only—a bonus. So instead of making $900,000 the winners would each make, say, $500,000 and the men’s winner would get $400,000 year-end bonus while the women’s wouldn't. This proposal failed.

Again, for practical reasons, I think equal prize money is the best course. The optics of two unequal purses are just too lousy. The blow to morale (the negative energy, as the West Coast types say) would be awful. The rhetoric that “together, we should grow the pie” has validity. But—as Kris notes—there ought to be an honest economic discussion here.