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Tennis : Fifteen Years Later, Questions Over Best Format Still Haunt the Masters

January 13, 1985|MIKE PENNER

NEW YORK — What to do with the Masters?

That's a question that has been asked since 1970, when the idea of a year-ending tennis Super Bowl, a showdown among the tour's top money winners, first was hatched.

It was a good idea, a way to lend some order to an unruly and congested men's tennis circuit. But, after 15 years, there's still no consensus on how best to implement it.

Should the Masters keep its early January time slot? Or should it be moved up to December, creating a more logical climax to the tennis season it represents?

Should the field remain at its current number--12? Should the pretenders be ousted and the draw trimmed back to an elite eight? Or should it be expanded to 16, eliminating the byes now extended to the four top-seeded players?

And, finally, should the Masters retain its present single-elimination, mini-tournament format? Or should it revert back to its old Red Group/Blue Group round-robin system?

Some of these question already have been answered. Next year, the Masters will extend invitations to 16 players, its largest field ever. And, in 1986, the tournament moves to December for the first time in a decade.

Players, for the most part, view this as a split. They like the move to December, but dislike the 16-man format.

"The Masters is very confusing the way it is now," Ivan Lendl said. "Fans don't know what's going on. Is the Masters the start of one year or the end of another?

"When you're playing the 1984 championship in 1985, how can the fans know what's happening? In 1986, they move it to December, which is good. It will be the finish to the season. It should have been that way five years ago."

However, Lendl, who faces John McEnroe in today's final, does not like the idea of an increased field.

"The Masters should be eight-man," he said. "With 16, almost everybody is making it. You just might as well make it an open tournament. Make it 128 players."

McEnroe seconds that motion--in typical McEnroe style.

"A 16-man Masters is stupid," McEnroe said. "With 12, it's already getting like the hockey playoffs. It's absurd. It doesn't make sense to me.

"It was better when it was eight players, round-robin. It was more exciting for the players. . . . It's not too late to change it back."

Under the Masters' round-robin structure, which existed from 1972 through 1982, eight players were split into two divisions--four in the Blue Group, four in the Red Group. Every player would play three matches within his group, standings were kept, and the top two finishers in each group would advance to the semifinals.

The players liked the format because they could lose one early match and still emerge from their respective groups to win the championship.

Masters officials, however, didn't like the format because certain players, already guaranteed their semifinal berths, would default their last round-robin matches or, worse yet, tank them.

"The system is subject to controversy," Lendl said, "but I prefer the double-elimination."

Lendl, of course, was a leading subject in the controversy. En route to the 1981 Masters final, Lendl admitted tanking a round-robin match against Jimmy Connors. Similar allegations were made about Bjorn Borg, who won the event but lost a round-robin match to Gene Mayer, 6-0, 6-3.

Under heavy criticism, the Masters scrapped the round-robin in 1983 and adopted its present single-elimination structure. Wanting to maintain its week-long schedule, the Masters also decided to add four players to the draw, giving byes to the top four players and creating two days of preliminary matches.

But those matches, featuring such cards as Eliot Teltscher-Tomas Smid and Henrik Sundstrom-Anders Jarryd, haven't exactly brought the masses flocking to Madison Square Garden. Promoters want McEnroe, Connors and Lendl on the first-round marquee, thus the proposed 16-man field--with no byes.

Do Kevin Curren and Brad Gilbert belong in the Masters? Under a 16-man format, they would have qualified this year.

Of course, it also can be argued that Smid, Vitas Gerulaitis and Aaron Krickstein--who all appeared in the '85 Masters--don't belong, either.

Suggestions: Move the Masters to mid-December, right before the holidays. Limit the competition to just the cream, the world's finest eight players. And bring back the round-robin--with one rule change: Eliminate the semifinal round. After the three round-robin matches are complete, take the top finisher in both groups and seed them straight into the final. That's how the AT&T Challenge of Champions the previous week in Las Vegas was structured--and the result, basically, was legitimate, above-board tennis.

Upset over the on-court behavior of McEnroe and Connors during the United States-Sweden Davis Cup final, Louisiana-Pacific Corp. has petitioned the United States Tennis Assn. to enforce a stricter code of player conduct in 1985, threatening to withdraw its sponsorship of the U.S. Davis Cup team.

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