It's one of the hot tennis topics of the moment. But then it always tends to be one of the hot tennis topics around this time each year.
Is the A.T.P. tour too demanding for the players?
2009, though, was meant to be different. The 2007 U.S. Open saw the official launch by the A.T.P. of a new approach to the men’s tour that was designed to create a healthier schedule for players and a more attractive package for sponsors and broadcast partners.
According to the then executive chairman of the A.T.P., Etienne de Villiers, “We need to have the best players, playing in the best stadia, in the best markets at the right time. Our players, fans, tournaments, and sponsors deserve a world class tour and that is what we will be giving them in 2009.”
What he presented was a re-branding of the elite tournaments into an easy-to-identify schedule that described the tour in terms of ranking points. It also aimed to ensure that the best performers entered the top tournaments.
In theory, the benefits for the players would be a more evenly spread through the season, with bigger prizes for those who fulfilled their commitments. The down side was that those who skipped mandatory events could face suspension.
The 2009 Package
So from 2009, the world’s top 30 players have been expected to compete in 18 tournaments each year, to include the four Grand Slams, eight of the nine Masters 1000s, and four 500s.
Monte Carlo became an optional ninth Masters or a substitute 500. Shanghai replaced Hamburg, and Madrid changed from an autumn indoor event to a late spring clay event.
Add in some non-mandatory events—the Davis Cup up to four times a year and the November finale for the top eight players—and the year filled up nicely for the sponsors, the fans, and the media.
But this is proving to be a workload that many players view as unsustainable. Rafael Nadal has gone so far as to say that it could force players into early retirement.
Nadal has had more reason than most to be worried. He heads a list of casualties that have peppered the season.
In early spring, Roger Federer struggled with a back injury sustained during the autumn of 2008. By May, Nadal’s knees were causing him increasing difficulty, followed by similar problems for Gilles Simon and Fernando Verdasco.
Wimbledon was without Nadal and Gael Monfils. July and August saw problems for Andy Roddick, Andy Murray, and Federer. That latter pair did not even attempt the trip to the autumn Asian swing, where yet more players succumbed to muscle pulls and tendinitis: Juan Martin Del Potro, Stanislas Wawrinka, and Tommy Haas.
Little wonder, then, that the chorus of dissatisfaction has begun again.
Nadal: “It's impossible to be here playing like I did the last five years, playing a lot of matches and being all the time 100 percent without problems."
Roddick: “We're finished in November and have to be pretty much Grand Slam-ready by Jan. 4th year after year after year. And the people who are playing the most, they get added two weeks [for the Masters Final].”
The soon-to-retire Marat Safin: “Everybody is falling apart, getting injured, and complaining the season is long. Should it really take five years to realise that something is wrong?"
Even former champion Andre Agassi has piled into the debate: “I’d like to see people come to the table and work out a schedule that suits everyone. I always thought it’s best to give the players a schedule that enables them to be at their best.”
It’s at around this stage that the press and the bloggers begin to wade into the argument.
The elite players ply their trade for give or take 30 weeks of the year. They earn big bucks both in prize money and sponsorship. They are doing something they love. They are pampered by their hosts and adored by their fans. There are worse ways to earn a crust.
It’s not long after the initial media grumblings that another line of argument surfaces. What about the days when….? What about, for example, the days of perhaps the greatest player of the Open era, Rod Laver?
That Was Then, But This is Now
Laver's 11 singles and eight doubles Grand Slam titles, together with two calendar Grand Slams, is all the more remarkable because he was unable to play the Slams between 1963 and the start of the Open era in 1968.
It was an era when there were no chairs at the change of ends, when there were no tie breaks, when there were three grass Slams and one clay Slam. Laver never had to contend with a Grand Slam on a hard court.
In assessing his success, he himself now says: “Probably one of the most fortunate things for me was that I was healthy all year. It helped, of course, that all of the Slams were played on softer surfaces.”
There were also fewer players on the circuit, with opponents in the early rounds who would not get near the draw these days.
And the game revolved around the serve and volley. The grass of Wimbledon, Australia, and New York had a less pristine surface, less predictable bounce, but a slicker finish than today’s grass. There was therefore a greater incentive to play the ball before it bounced. Even the French clay was not dominated by baseline play as it is now.
Laver’s assessment of the then and now, though, is striking. “Today’s game is much more physical than when we played. The ball is hit so much harder, the players generate so much speed and spin. I’d have to play differently if I was out there today.”
So that’s the view from “the days when.”
The demise of grass in favor of hard courts, advances in racket technology, and new training regimes have all allowed the baseline game to evolve and dominate.
The spin and power that can be generated by today’s finely-tuned athletes, using the best technology that money can throw at a racket, would leave Laver’s contemporaries open-mouthed.
Laver is a man of few and carefully-considered words, not given to hyperbole. In a recent I.T.F. magazine, he further compared the days of then and now.
“It’s getting more and more difficult [to win a calendar Slam] because of the quality of play that’s out there with the new technologies. You look at the amount of great players. That has to create tremendous competition. You can’t have a bad day...The tennis racket is the biggest change that’s happened in tennis. It’s changed the game totally from what we knew...it’s tough out there today.”
That tough game is the gladiatorial, physically exhausting sport which today’s enthusiastic crowds pay to see. And if today’s players are to bring this spectacle to the tour for anything approaching the years of Rod Laver’s career, something has to give.
A Better Balance of Court Surfaces
Six of the eight mandatory Masters tournaments are on hard courts and just two are on clay. The balance is also biased towards hard courts in the Slams. As for grass, the season now lasts barely four weeks and has no Masters event at all.
Sadly that is unlikely to change. What could change, however, is how one of those surfaces plays. Return the grass window to its original style: fast, slick, and low bouncing. The grass seed may be the same as it once was, but the underlying surface is harder, the balls are slower, and the bounce higher.
The unique qualities of the grass court game that favor touch, slice, and net skills have been almost swallowed up by the baseline game of every other tournament. By bringing back the speed, there would be some incentive to develop different tactics, and to shorten points.
To swing the balance away from the punishing hard courts, it may be possible to remove some of the post-Australian tournaments to make way for an earlier Davis Cup.
At the 500 level, why not switch a couple of the hard court events to clay? This would go some way to redressing the balance away from the unforgiving synthetic surfaces towards the kinder clay.
A More Flexible Schedule
The top players are more than capable of selecting enough tournaments to maintain their ranking without having those tournaments specified for them.
If they play too few, their points and their rankings will drop, and they will start to meet tougher opponents in the early rounds. So they won’t play too few, but they will be able to select on the basis of their fitness, personal circumstances (the birth of children, for example) or, most important of all, the state of their health.
With adequate spacing between destinations, they also have time for regular training and conditioning to keep themselves in peak condition.
Lleyton Hewitt added his weight to this particular debate: “The players know their bodies better than anyone, especially the top guys. And the tour needs the top guys. You shouldn’t go out and try and make them play every week.”
The calendar would still retain its high spots at regular intervals without shortening the overall season.
Outside the Box
There are few players who do not want to represent their countries in the Davis Cup. Yet it is squeezed into the schedule in the week before two 1000 events in March, and then on the back of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Tour Finals.
For the top players in particular, who are most likely to reach the latter stages of the Majors, it is a big ask for them to then play the best-of-five-set format Davis Cup ties.
What about allowing the players to substitute the Davis Cup for one or two 500 events, awarding similar ranking points? And what about treating the Olympics in the same way, trading off perhaps a 1000 event against participation in one of the jewels of a sporting career?
Both would achieve a broad appeal beyond the core tennis fan base, and take big tournaments to new venues.
The Players Council has Federer in the Chair, with Nadal as Vice-Chair. Novak Djokovic is also an elected member. These have the intelligence, the pulling power, and the responsibility to negotiate changes from a unique position of strength.
The new Executive Chairman, Adam Helfant, also has the intellect and the sporting track record to thrash out a reasonable compromise. He is, after all, a Harvard graduate and former Nike executive.
He met with the players in Monaco and again in New York. The schedule will be the main issue on the table when they meet in London during the Tour Final.
Djokovic, in one of the U.K.’s prestige newspapers, summed up, in his usual incisive way, the task ahead.
“The players now are more united than ever. We can't expect just to shorten the season because that would hurt certain tournaments. We have to make a compromise. The A.T.P. is an association of tournaments and players together. The bottom line is that you don't want to have injured players. The schedule, in my opinion, is too long, but we have to go step by step and try to solve it."
With this kind of common sense and pragmatism on both sides of the table, a change for the better must be achievable.