In tennis, Masters Series events are harder to win than majors — and here’s why

23 Aug

For tennis fans, summer time means Masters Series time. In the run-up to the U.S. Open in late August, the North American “hard-court swing” makes two stops at so-called “ATP Masters Series 1000” events, in either Toronto or Montreal (the event location rotates each year) and in Cincinnati. Masters Series events are one level below the tour’s four major, or grand slam, events, in terms of ranking points, prize money, and prestige. For this reason, they are often seen as second-tier events. And with second-tier status comes a perception – among fans, among analysts, if not among the players themselves – that Masters events are not as hard to win as majors. But, for three reasons – length of tournament, draw format, and scoring rules – I would argue that ATP Masters Series 1000 events are harder to win than their grand slam counterparts.

Let’s start with length of tournament. In majors, players have two weeks to settle in to tournaments and find their games, and they only typically have to play every other day, allowing crucial time to relax and recover between matches. In Masters Series events, by contrast, once players start playing, on Monday, Tuesday, or, for higher seeds, Wednesday, they almost always have to play every day for the remainder of the time they are in the tournament. This often means incredibly short turn-around, as high-ranked players frequently feature in the evening session, in which matches routinely finish well after midnight, only for winners to be forced to re-take the court early the following afternoon. If you consider that post-match duties (stretching, treatment, showering, press conference, eating, and more) take at least two hours, it is not uncommon for late-night victors to only reach their hotel by 3am, fall asleep by, say, 3:15am, and be forced to return to the tournament facility the following day around noon to warm-up and prepare for a 3pm match. To say nothing of physical fatigue, that type of time crunch makes it extremely difficult from a mental rest perspective for players to be at their best when they resurface for combat. Winning Masters Series events usually requires top players to win five matches in as many days, and lower-ranked players to win six matches in six or seven days, an extremely grueling task physically, mentally, and emotionally.

A natural retort to this is that, while time crunches may be tighter, Masters Series 1000 events are more forgiving than their major peers because of scoring, namely that they are only two-out-of-three sets, while majors are three-of-five.

Actually, this difference in scoring format places added pressure on players at Masters Series events, especially top players who tend to compete for major and Masters titles.

Everyone has a bad day. It is not uncommon for even the world’s elite competitors to come out flat and quickly lose the first set to an inspired aspirant on the other side of the net who has nothing to lose. At majors, top-flight players can even afford to drop a second set and still have more time and more match to settle in and claw back for the victory.

In Masters Series events, they have no such luxury. After taking the first set, challengers can continue to blast away, knowing that if they just extend their hot play for a few more games, they will take the match in two quick sets before their star opponent even wakes up. This pressure negatively affects the quality of play of the star, as well. Knowledge that the end of the match is encroaching quickly builds pressure, raises nerves, and further detracts from their performance in a virulent cycle I would call the “doom swirl” or the “toilet bowl” (because, why not?).

Maintaining such hot play over the course of three sets is, however, a more unconquerable feat for challengers. Although it requires staying hot for only an extra set, knowledge that the higher-ranked player has more leeway to figure out what ails their game, and to turn it round, both eases the mind of the champ and burdens the mind of the challenger. Lower-ranked players start pressing, knowing that only a ridiculously high level of play — usually super aggressive — will power them to victory. At the first sign of fallibility, the first chink in the armor – oft induced by the nearness of the finish line – the champ smells blood and the challenger curdles in fear and mental uncertainty. This dynamic becomes a reverse “doom swirl,” an “anti-toilet bowl” in which the champ calms down, regains confidence, and starts putting games on the board, while the challenger’s game starts to fall apart. Crucially, while elite players tend to have two or even three ways they can win matches, challengers facing a champ usually have only one potentially winning game plan, which is to blast thru the champ. When their blasts start going long, wide, and into the net, they panic. This reverberates negatively into other aspects of their games: first-serve percentages start to fall, footwork becomes sluggish, and volleys, once firm, crisp, and confident, become droopy, loopy, and devoid of conviction.

Once the reverse doom swirl sets in, things can unfold pretty quickly, with the rejuvenated champ cruising to a victory that seemed improbable only half an hour before. Contrast this, again, with Masters Series events, where the achievability of two-set perfection can lead zoning challengers to outflank fatigued, flustered, and flailing champs.

The third and final factor that makes Masters Series 1000 events harder to win than majors is the quality of the competition. Major tournaments have 128-player draws. Masters Series events, by contrast, have draws of 56. This means that the latter are more exclusive affairs. Unlike at the majors, where 32 players are seeded, at Masters Series events, only the top sixteen receive seeds, with the top eight receiving “byes” into the round of 32. What this means, in practice, is that top-eight players can play the 17th best player in the tournament in their first-match. And because, with few exceptions, ATP players are required to – and do – play almost all Masters Series events, this often means the 17th best player in the tournament is also the 17th best player in the world. Top-ranked players have to be on their game right away to advance. There is no time for a let-up or a let-down. Two crappy or even mediocre sets, and you’re done.

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