Tennis’ big changes

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It will be hard to find more than a handful of people who were disappointed to see Roger Federer win his fifth consecutive U.S. Open on Monday. Likewise, there aren’t too many people complaining about Serena Williams’ third title at the event.

Both are likeable players with fearsome talent, and both won at times when they were facing questions whether they were on the downside of their careers. They are two of tennis’ most recognizable and marketable stars, and their wins come at a good time for the sport as it heads into a period of uneasy yet much-needed change.

Both the ATP and WTA tours have revealed a new emphasis for 2009 on keeping players fresh and having them make more appearances in the most high-profile events. There will be more off-weeks, more mandatory tournaments for the top players and larger purses on both tours. Plus, the ATP and WTA have long-term plans for revenue sharing with players.

The women will see a shorter season that ends in October, giving them an additional two weeks off. But top players now will be expected to play in at least 10 major events in addition to the Grand Slams. The new requirement ensures fans will see stronger fields and players won’t boost their ranking by playing in low-profile tournaments.

Likewise, the men’s tour simplified the schedule by categorizing tournaments as “1000,” “500” and “250” events based on the number of ranking points awarded. The “1000” tournaments will be mandatory for the top players; anyone who misses an event will receive no ranking points.

Tennis usually drops off the sports radar in the fall, but it’s wrapping up the 2008 season with some momentum. The U.S. Open would have set an attendance record if not for the weekend’s rain, and the match between Williams and Jelena Jankovic scored the highest TV rating for any women’s final since 2002. Meanwhile, people are still buzzing about the Wimbledon final between Federer and Rafael Nadal. And just a few weeks into the 2009 season, Federer will pursue his 14th Grand Slam win, which would tie him with Pete Sampras for the most all time.

All of that bodes well for the upcoming year, and the changes for next season seem positive, particularly the move to allow for more off-weeks. Nothing underscores the need for a shorter schedule than the last two months, in which many players exhausted themselves between U.S. Open Series events and the Beijing Olympics.

For most sports, the idea of shortening the season seems ludicrous. But tennis will make up any lost revenue by boosting sponsorship sales thanks to the new rules requiring the best players to appear at the top tournaments. Moreover, many tournaments are expected to see increased attendance, thanks to millions of dollars in new upgrades to stadiums at several tour venues.

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