Tennis: Talented or tanker?

By Michael Brown

It says a lot when tournament organisers were ambivalent about whether they got the world's No 15-ranked player in their draw or not.

Normally they would bend over backwards to get a player with such a lofty ranking and would be prepared to fork out an appearance fee to do so.

Not when it comes to Nicolas Almagro.

The Spaniard is undeniably one of the world's best players when he wants to be. It just seems he doesn't really want to when he gets to Auckland.

Almagro will be making his fifth visit to the Heineken Open. He has a singles record of three wins and four defeats and his best result was a quarter-final appearance in 2009 (although he received a first-round bye).

Last year, his effort in his second-round match against France's Marc Gicquel was particularly lamentable. He was the fourth seed and received a first-round bye before exiting 6-0 6-3 to the little-known Frenchman, with courtside observers commenting that he was barely bothering to run around the court.

He claimed to have a wrist injury but then went on to make the last 16 of the Australian Open the following week, a run which included three five-set matches.

Almagro owes the Heineken Open something. He was given a wildcard entry this year after failing to make the cut-off for entering. Initially he wanted an appearance fee, which tournament director Richard Palmer declined, but decided to come to Auckland anyway.

Almagro has the talent to win the tournament - he's won seven titles and US$4.3 million in prizemoney - it just depends whether he has the will.

"Even though he had an injury early in the match [in Auckland last year] and there was some criticism of his effort after that, I guess you have to be realistic and remember that this is someone preparing for the Australian Open and that has to take precedence," Palmer said when Almagro's attendance was announced. "He could have perhaps pushed himself a bit harder but he was aware that the Australian Open was just around the corner. Hopefully he's matured a bit."

The Heineken Open's timing - a week before the Australian Open - is both its strength and weakness. Players want match practice a week before the year's first grand slam but some don't want to go too deep into the tournament so they have plenty of time to get to Melbourne.

The ASB Classic suffers less from that. All players want to win because they have plenty of time to make their way to Australia, while only a handful are both good enough and motivated enough to do so in the men's tournament.

Almagro is not the first player to be accused of a lack of effort and he won't be the last. Top players really only care about the four grand slams and nine Masters tournaments. The others are there to get match practice and pocket money.

Andre Agassi famously admitted to tanking games, most notably the 1996 Australian Open semifinal to Michael Chang to avoid playing Boris Becker in the final. Agassi held a grudge against Becker for allegedly blowing kisses at his former wife Brooke Shields.

In 2007, former world No 3 Nikolay Davydenko was fined US$2000 by ATP Tour officials for "lack of best effort" in a second-round defeat to Croatian qualifier Marin Cilic at the St Petersburgh Open. He was near flawless in the first set before making simple errors in the final two sets, which also included 10 double faults.

Marat Safin became the first player in history to be found guilty of not trying hard enough at a grand slam tournament in 2000. The former world No 1 was down two sets to love at the Australian Open and stopped returning his opponent's serve by blocking it into the ground. He was fined a paltry £1400.

Even the great Roger Federer, a player most believe is the epitome of class, was once fined for violating the Best Effort rule. Federer was 17 at the time he tanked a satellite tournament in Kublis to Swiss No 11 Armando Brunold. He was fined the mandatory US$100, meaning he left the tournament $13 lighter (he won $87 in prize money).

The problem with tennis is it's an individual sport. Not trying hard enough doesn't impact others in the way it does in team sport. Players can hit for the lines. If it goes in, great. If not, no problem.

Players are only short-changing themselves and fans - but they merely move on to the next tournament, the next pay cheque, before deciding which tournament to really go for it.

Almagro will be the object of curiosity while he is visiting Auckland.

How long he is here is largely up to him.

- Herald on Sunday

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