Nicolas Mahut’s name will forever be immortalised in tennis folklore thanks to his three-day marathon match with John Isner in 2010. Whilst his conqueror has gone on to establish himself as a Top 10 player, what of the genial Frenchman who reluctantly posed for photographs with the tall American next to his losing scoreboard when it was the last thing that he will have wanted to do?
27 months on from the defining moment in his journeyman career, this week he was playing in an ATP Challenger tournament in Mons, southern Belgium. His second-round match with his compatriot Kenny de Schepper attracted a crowd of less than 100 people, this despite the tournament organisers offering free tickets to those who reserved their places in advance. Far away from the Grand Slam atmospheres, this is the crushing reality for the majority of tennis professionals. Hit a fantastic running backhand pass? You’re lucky to get a handful of people applauding. A serve that is long? The call from the line judges reverberates around the building. A succession of horrible line calls? You bet.
Mahut’s serve-volley game is still there, but so is the inconsistency. This latter component is what has resulted in him regularly appearing on the Challenger Tour. It is no surprise that the majority of the competitors this week come from Belgium and France. The prize money from playing here is minimal; if you were to offset it with accommodation and then travel costs, you can see that the life of a tennis pro outside of the Top 60 is not all the biscuits and gravy that it is made out to be. It also begs the following question; how are tennis tournaments at this level sustainable? If you offer free tickets and still can’t attract customers so that they spend money in the building, how do you raise the revenue to offset player prize money, other than sponsorship? What is in it for the sponsors at this level?
How demoralising it must be for these players to look up and see rows and rows of empty seats as tournament organisers continue to overestimate people’s interest in the sport. For the record, it wasn’t until the second game of the second set that either player faced a break point. The paucity of such opportunities is unfortunately where the comparison with the Isner-Mahut match ends. This is the level that Mahut’s career was at before that match and this is where it continues to be. It’s a sad fact that the highlight of his career will be a 1st round Grand Slam loss, but the right man won that record-breaking contest; Isner has used it as a springboard to regular appearances in the second weeks of Grand Slams. For Mahut, he must continue to forge on with the Challenger tour to protect his ranking of 68.
What can tennis do to attract people to events? It’s a clear problem, but I don’t know how to resolve it. Far better qualified people are clearly failing to find a solution. There are plenty of empty seats at most ATP Tour events and even the early rounds of Masters Series and Grand Slam events, if you discount the matches of Federer and Nadal. Two stars do not a sport make. If you struggle to attract people to Masters events, you have no chance at Challenger level. Free tickets is an excellent idea but clearly one which does not guarantee good crowds. The very nature of tennis means that it has to be played during the week, which prevents most of the workforce from attending – you would have to be incredibly dedicated or downright crazy to pull a sickie to watch Evgeny Donskoy play Jerziy Janowicz. I hate to imagine what awaits the ladies who play at the equivalent level. Suffice to say, I am sure their entourages outnumber the spectators.
The prize money has to remain competitive because even now there are countless players struggling to make a living. Is it necessary to cut the calendar? To have less tournaments, but with greater prize money? To regionalise the Challenger and Futures calendars so that the players’ rankings are not threatened if they don’t try to tackle tournaments in far-flung areas of the globe? I am throwing ideas out there – I am sure the sport’s governing bodies have their own thoughts. These ideas would probably help the players, but would they improve attendance? Probably not but heck, it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?
For now, Nicolas Mahut must continue to motivate himself to play in front of empty seats. A far cry from the packed rafters of Wimbledon’s Court 18, the Frenchman’s run came to a grumbling halt here. Never happy with the quality of the surface, he stumbled to a 6-7 3-6 defeat in less than 85 minutes. Maybe more people will attend the semis and the final, but at 15Euros a ticket at the weekend, I won’t hold my breath. One thing is for sure – the most famous loser of a first round Grand Slam match in the history of the sport will not be around to see it. Onto the next Challenger event for him as John Isner attempts to close in on a debut appearance at the ATP World Finals. Those three days in South-West London in the summer of 2010 could not have been more seminal in either man’s career.