Australian Open: Pre-Oz Open Thoughts

In Jon Wertheim’s latest mailbag, a reader brings up an excellent suggestion for tournaments:

“Should tournaments take a leaf out of the UFC’s book and award bonus money for best match of the tourny/day, or a combativity award like they have at the Tour de France?

I like to watch cycling but I’d never thought of the ideas tennis could borrow from cycling:

1. “Combativity Award” & “Best Young Tennis Player”

At the Tour de France, each day a “combativity award” is given to the rider who showed an aggressive streak — that rider wears a red pin number on the next day’s stage.  At the race’s end, a “Super Combativity Award” and a prize of 20,000 euros is given.

white jersey for “best young rider” is given to the best-performing cyclist under the age of 25.  The red polka-dot jersey is awarded to “King of the Mountain.”  The green jersey is awarded to the “best sprinter,” who has the most number of points in the flat sprint stages.  The famous yellow jersey is awarded to the winner of the overall race.  Since these jerseys can change hands after each stage, that adds to the excitement of watching the Tour de France, which spans 21 days.

Your winners from the 2011 Tour de France.  Yes, the yellow jersey is the most-prized.  But the three cyclists to the left make the 21-stage journey that much more exciting to follow (Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Though a cyclist isn’t awarded a jersey for receiving the “combativity award,” it carries a special cachet.  At the 2011 TdF, a tour car bumped into cyclist Juan Antonio Flecha, causing Johnny Hoogerland to fly into the air and land on a barb-wire fence.  He had deep gashes on his backside, yet managed to get back on his bike and earn the “King of the Mountain” jersey en route to finishing the stage.  One of the most touching moments at last year’s TdF was watching Hoogerland cry after also being awarded the day’s “combativity prize.”  He won over many new fans with his grit, and dedication to suffering.

If Grand Slams had a “combativity prize” and a “best young player” award, that’d be a great way to drum up fans’ interest in talented but unknown players.  Although I closely follow tennis, I only rarely watch Challenger or junior tournaments.  It’s only until they’re playing a favorite player of mine, or they’ve had a breakthrough, that I learn who they are.  If a tennis tourny handed out awards after each round — R1, R2, R3, R4 — that would certainly heighten interest in the early rounds of a tournament.  The player who received the “combativity award” after R1 could wear a red armband provided by the tournament for his/her R2 match, or a special red vibration dampener for his/her racquet.  Red towels, anyone?  A “best young player” award would drum up interest for the up-and-comers, who are often unknown as they play the Challenger tour.

Can I go ahead and say that the winner of the likely match between Hewitt and Roddick should win the non-existent “combativity prize” for R2?

2. The “Obscure Pro”:

One favorite fan tradition in cycling takes place at the Tour Down Under, in Australia.  Aussie fans adopt an “obscure pro,” and cheer for him as they would a top-performing star, by painting his name on the road and mobbing him as if he were a celebrity star.  The criteria for “obscure pro” is more or less: a non-English speaking cyclist who has no chance of winning a major race that year.  For the most part they pick young riders, so the “obscure pro” label isn’t patronizing.  It’s rather endearing.

A thoroughly bewildered Arthur Vichot, 2010’s “obscure pro,” and his legion of new fans in Australia (Photo: Will L at PACC) 

The “obscure pro” tradition has carried over to tennis, to some extent.  Take the Berdych Army, for example.  Now, Berdy is by no means an obscure journeyman.  He’s defeated top players on big stages.  Still, for a top 10 player, he’s not an obvious fan pick.  Which is why it’s so much fun to see the Berdych Army at the Oz Open.  They’ve been following Berdy at the Oz Open since early 2007, before he reached the WTF multiple times and before he was a Wimby finalist.  They’ve cheered their man all the way to top 10 status.

Berdych Army

Tomas Time!

Aussie fans paint their faces in Czech colors and attend Berdy’s matches, with creative chants.  My favorite is their rendition of the “Barbara Streisand” song, where they replace “Barbara Streisand” with “Tomas Berdych.”  It’s a group of rowdy observers cheering spiritedly for their prom king.  The juxtaposition is comic and Berdy appreciates their support.  They even have a Twitter account and a #tomastime hashtag.

Maybe I should try an “obscure player” edition for Grand Slams?  I will have to take a closer look at the draw.  No. 74-ranked Lukaz Rosol from the Czech Republic seems like a pick!  He faces Philipp Petzschner in R1.  Berdych Army — get on it and support your guy’s compatriot!

Man of the hour: Lukas Rosol. (Photo: Getty Images)

3. Tennis Players Should Flaunt Their Olympic Success:

I also loved Wertheim’s business idea for an aggregator site like tennisexos.com that would do the publicity for exhos and advertise the matches, so they gain a wider audience.  On that note, here’s another small suggestion for tennis exhos:

Here is Sammy Sanchez, the Spanish cyclist who won the “King of the Mountain” jersey at the 2011 TdF, and the polka-dot outfit it entails.  In the photo, he is at an exhibition cycling race.  Why is he wearing a gold helmet?  Why are his shoes and handlebars gold?  Answer: Sammy Sanchez is the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the road race.  He dons the gold for the grand tours and exho he races.  Since 2008.

Since tennis players play exhos each year, how amazing would it be if Rafa played his exhos with a gold Babolat racquet or used gold tape for the gripping on his racquet?  It’d be quite the way to promote the relevance of the Olympics to tennis.  Roger could match him by using his own gold Wilson racquet when he plays a doubles exho with Stan.  Yes, Stan would play with a gold racquet too. 🙂

**

The Australian Open is probably the best-run Grand Slam, in terms of digitally catering to fans’ interests.  Whether it’s their TV Vault that offers worldwide access to full matches, their live YouTube streaming of qualies, their Twitter and Tumblr accounts, and their Fan-bassador schemes, they really make an effort.

Given how the Oz Open seems the most forward-thinking of the Slams, it’d be amazing if they could incorporate a “combativity award” and an “adopt-an-obscure player” tradition.  A “combativity award” might be considered tacky for a Slam like Wimbledon, which is so steeped in tradition.  I’m not sure the idea would take at Roland Garros or the US Open either.  If not at the Oz Open, maybe the Shanghai Masters?  Those are two big tournys that aren’t as anchored to historical tradition and are looking to generate fan interest.

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About mariposaxprs

I play favorites with Juan Martin Del Potro, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, Gilles Simon and the long line of mercurial talent that drives me to despair in front of the screen at odd hours during the week.
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6 Responses to Australian Open: Pre-Oz Open Thoughts

  1. Pingback: Who Says R2 at a Slam is Boring? | mariposaxprs

  2. Pingback: Australian Open: Wrap-up of R1 | mariposaxprs

  3. queridorafa says:

    Great post! Really interesting to hear more about how cycling tries to keep it exciting, and how that maybe really could be transferred to tennis! It’s hard to believe there is a “combativity award”–not usually something you think of as being rewarded! But I love it–and yeah, the first person I thought of was of course Lleyton! Berd’s army cracks me up (although, I am a little jealous…does Rafa not deserve an army??;) ) And Rosol gets my vote for obscure pro!

    • mariposaxprs says:

      Thanks! I guess since it’s harder to be really tuned into a cycling race with 200+ cyclists who race 200km each day, they need the jerseys and combativity awards to keep it interesting and make it easier for fans to identify the riders on TV. Still, I think it could hold the same appeal for a Grand Slam, by singling out some of the 127 other tennis players who don’t win the title but have a special moment.

      I wonder how the Berdych Army decided on Berdy. Did they flip thru a tournament brochure and randomly decide on his image? A Rafa army would be awesome. There’s something about Aussie fans, they manage to cheer for players in such an entertaining fashion. I bet they could come up with some creative chants for Rafa as well!!

  4. Arienna Lee says:

    Very interesting post! I really like the idea of special awards for the slams. “Best of the Day” or “best of the round” awards would be fun. Maybe even an award for best match of the day, or of the tourney? It would be nice to honor one of the things that’s so special about tennis–that it takes great performances from BOTH players to make a great match–and give the award to the combined effort of both. Sveta & Fran at the USO for instance.

    It would be tricky to give awards at the end of the tournament, because the losers so often leave… but dailies or early round awards would be fun. I’m thinking that special towels ought to do it 🙂 With players names & accolades woven in gold thread. They do love those special towels.

    • mariposaxprs says:

      Thanks, Wertheim’s mailbag that week had interesting ideas for tennis!

      I agree with red towels for the combativity prize! Those players really do like their towels, whereas armbands and racquets can get tossed at moment’s notice 🙂 It’d be tough to have awards in the later rounds — maybe if they limited it to the first week, until R4? That’s usually when the tennis isn’t maybe “as entertaining” for casual tennis fans. Some sort of prize is necessary for Sveta & Fran’s heroic efforts last year — a match like that really deserves some kind of honor.

      I think it would also help people learn about the sub-plots taking place during a Grand Slam. Even if a fan only knew the top 4 players, they could broaden their interests if they saw Gilles Simon receive a “combativity prize” for the way he played Federer last year, or learn more about recent tennis history if they saw Nalby receive the “combativity prize” for dueling with Lleyton Hewitt. It could serve as a great introduction to the tennis world.

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