Right on the heels of her Miami Masters championship, Serena Williams was bounced in the first round at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston. Serena admitted to the common affliction of tennis burnout in the South China Morning Post: "I am really just dead. I need some weeks off where I don't think about tennis and can kind of regroup. I've had a long couple of years."
Serena, like every star tennis player who makes a championship final, had to play six tough matches and then travel up to her next event with little recovery. It's also fair to point out that Serena did not play the Indian Wells tournament, so she may have been fresher than some of her competitors at Miami.
This is only the latest example of an ongoing problem that never seems to find a satisfactory solution for players and tournaments. Pete Bodo's book The Courts of Babylon explained this conundrum years ago, citing examples of players such as Pete Sampras who were obligated to show up and play, but then tried to go through the motions of playing their best while not being at their best.
Meanwhile, the matches and money must go on.
The quick explanation is that the ATP requires that Top 30 players play in eight mandatory Masters 1000 tournaments (Monte Carlo is optional), and four ATP World Tour 500 Events. For a full study of the rankings policy, participation and penalties/withdrawals and approved injuries, see this document.
But why not allow players to manage their schedules the way they want? The rankings points and dollars will be incentive enough. If a player wants to skip a couple of months, let him or her do so.
If, for example, Andy Murray wants to bypass the clay-court season at the expense of his rankings and legacy, let him. If that is the strategy to be fresh for Wimbledon, more power to him. Nobody should care if he was fresher for Wimbledon because he rested from injuries on clay. If that was actually the edge for him to win Wimbledon, then this needs to happen for all players.
If Rafael Nadal doesn't want to play the indoors season, shouldn't that be his choice? If he needs the points to close out No. 1, he will be there. If he would rather be fresh for the Australian Open or pace himself until clay, why not?
This is the only career these stars get. They must take care of their bodies and maximize their opportunities.
Of course the ATP wants early commitments and full draws with superstars, but perhaps they could dole out incentives rather than penalties to lure them over. Tournaments often do this anyway, paying monies and perks out to top players. The downside is that if this became a free agent kind of bidding, players could hold the big tournaments hostage.
It's a lengthy conversation with many details and imperfections, but when Bernard Tomic gets bounced from Miami in 28 minutes after recent surgery on both hips, because he is worried about ATP penalties, then something is definitely wrong.
And Serena? She is relieved to recharge her batteries, again explaining via South China Morning Post, "I am going to go on a vacation for sure. I just need to take a deep breath and regroup. I think it will help me for the rest of the clay court season coming up."
Good for her.
But until the ATP can loosen up regulations that need at least a few sensible tweaks, we will dump the Burnt Bagel into its lap. Of course the ATP wouldn't mind sitting on a mountain of burnt bagels as long as the revenues could haul it all away.