‘Sharapova’s return a fillip to women’s game’
Martina and Chris believe Russian's April comeback will further boost women's tennis
Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert do not agree on several issues, but both women's tennis legends are aligned in their belief that Maria Sharapova will return from her drug ban next April hungrier than ever.
Evert postulates that the Russian "still feels wronged" and expects her to be more determined than ever on her return, especially after seemingly receiving little support from other players on the WTA Tour.
April could well see some fireworks when the former world No. 1 gets back on court, and women's tennis could well do with the attention that draws.
Football - of both the round and oval ball variety - has witnessed startling declines in television viewership this season.
The New York Times reported that National Football League (NFL) numbers are down 12 per cent in the United States, while in Britain, English Premier League (EPL) figures have dipped by nearly 20 per cent.
These numbers are alarming for two of the world's most successful sports properties that have been consistently boosted by the billions poured into their coffers through broadcast-rights fees.
But neither Evert nor Navratilova believes women's tennis will be similarly affected.
WELCOME BACK: Chris Evert (left) and Martina Navratilova (right) are looking forward to the return of Maria Sharapova. PHOTO: AFP
"Tennis is certainly more international than American football. It has the third biggest viewership on the planet after football (soccer), and cricket. It's ahead of baseball, basketball," said Navratilova.
"And because it's so global, so international, with players from so many different countries, I don't see that happening."
It is a point reiterated by Evert.
"Thank God for Serena (Williams), she has really helped the ratings in women's tennis," said Evert, who has worked with sports channel ESPN since 2011.
Williams has dominated the sport before losing her perch atop the women's rankings to German Angelique Kerber earlier this year.
With Williams expected to play in fewer tournaments next season, Sharapova's return could be the fillip for women's tennis to keep its already sensational numbers up.
In December last year, the WTA announced overall viewership figures, a 25 per cent year-on-year increase in overall viewership that includes cumulative audience for "live", delayed and highlights coverage of 21 WTA Premier events as well as the WTA Finals in Singapore.
In real terms, that is 395 million cumulative viewers, up from 316 million in 2014.
But WTA chief Steve Simon is already looking to keep tennis ahead of the curve, and that means keeping the sport television-friendly, as well as engaging for those courtside.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Wuhan Open earlier this month, Simon asserted his belief that shortening the length of matches will be key to keeping eyes trained on the sport.
"The doubles format is where tennis was progressive… where we've gone to two-set matches with no-ad scoring and a super tie-break for the third and you can put your clock on those matches, that they don't go longer than an hour and a half," he said then.
"They're 60-90 minutes max, and that's great, and I think we need to do that with tennis. It will help us with broadcast, it will help us keep people in the seats."
Both Navratilova and Evert shared Simon's sentiments on shortening tennis matches.
"The first step would be to put a (final-set) tie-break in all the Grand Slams - TV would be happy, and I think the fans would be happy too," said Navratilova, who suggested that the WTA experiment with changes, including implementing tie-breaks when the score is at 4-4 instead of 6-6 as it is today.
While tie-breakers are used to decide the first few sets at Grand Slams, this does not apply in the final set, with players continuing until one of them wins by two games.
The US Open is the only exception Slam that does utilise tie-breakers in the final set.
The John Isner-Nicolas Mahut match at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships is perhaps the best illustrator of Navratilova's point.
The match lasted for 11 hours and five minutes over three days, with the last set itself going on for eight hours and 11 minutes.
American Isner won 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68.
"Twenty-20 cricket, they pooh-pooed that too, right? Now look at how successful that has become," she added.
"What really bugs me is that 10 minutes in between sets for a bathroom break - that's pathetic," said Evert. "They got to be get stricter with the times, I think that'll be good for TV too."
Navratilova had one more idea she thought would absolutely captivate the audience.
"I would like to see a tournament where everybody plays with a wooden rackets," she said tongue-in-cheek.
"How entertaining would that be?"