Are players tanking it?

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

Where is Lleyton Hewitt, I wondered?

And where on earth is Andy Roddick?

Those were questions I was asked yesterday by a tennis friend who is intent on watching today's Montreal Rogers Cup men's semi-finals on television.

I tried to explain it to him this way:

No one should blame Tennis Canada if it felt like the unwanted little brother who has to be dragged along to the high school dance. All this comes to mind after yet another mass exodus in the opening round by the top seeds in Montreal this past week.

Some years ago, whispers abounded that certain top-ranked players were deliberately omitting the Canadian event from their calendars, feigning last-minute injuries in order to withdraw, or taking the easy exit from the Canadian Open in the first round. To be fair, those whispers also followed some lesser light tournaments around the world. All this led to efforts on the part of the International Tennis Federation to ensure better attendance at these events. Unfortunately, the message doesn't appear to have gotten through to some players.

In reviewing the past three years' results at Wimbledon, the French Open, Australian Open, U.S. Open and the Canadian Open, some startling statistics emerged which should cause Canadian tennis officials concern.

The Grand Slam events over the past three years show that only one -- that's right, one -- top-four seeded player failed to advance out of the first round. That is from a total of 11 events. During that same time, the Canadian Open has seen four top-four seeds fail to make it past opening day.

If one reviews the fate of the rest of the top-10 seeds, the disparity still exists. The Grand Slam events have lost eight No. 5-10 seeds in their 11 events (well under one per event on average), while the Canadian Open has lost six in its three events (an average of two per event.)

By reviewing the activities of the past five years of four of the most notable players of today -- Roger Federer, Roddick, Hewitt and Andre Agassi -- we find that Federer did not play twice and exited in the first round once. Roddick is the best by far with three consecutive final appearances, but he, too, did not play once and this year exited in the first round.

Hewitt is the worst with two first-round exits, two second-round exits and one third-round exit. And while Agassi won the Canadian Open three times in his younger years, he has previously exited in the first round twice (2000 and 2001), the second round once (1991), the quarter-finals twice (1989 and 2003) and once withdrew just before the tournament.

John Beddington, former executive vice-president of Tennis Canada and the man who put the organization on a solid financial footing, had this explanation:

"The current rule of the ITF forces players to play in many tournaments," Beddington said. "Andre (Agassi) once told me he could not play that many tournaments. Hewitt has been in trouble before. He escaped fines. Federer withdrew because of an injury which had been plaguing him for some time. But at least he informed Tennis Canada in time.

"The fact is that the Canadian Open is not a Grand Slam tournament, but is certainly the next best. As for some players tanking the first round, I have no knowledge of that."

Perhaps it is time for Canadian tennis officials to look at a date change so players don't use our events as an abbreviated tuneup for the U.S. Open. Maybe the seeding has to be smarter so that early losses by top players will be exposed for what they are -- calculated exits.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

Speaking of big names, Beddington has organized a tournament in the Hamptons, N.Y., for Aug. 18-21. Among the big names will be John McEnroe, Goran Ivanisevic, Guillermo Villas, Pat Cash and others ... Vancouver's prolific book author and columnist Jim Taylor compiled a book of the best columns by the late columnist Jim Coleman. It's called Fifty Years of Canadian Sports From The Man Who Saw It All. Taylor, who wrote the introductory pages to the book, will be in Toronto next month to sign autographs.


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