Andy Murray has been mowing through the Davis Cup competition, but he may find a bigger battle against the long arm of the ATP.
Fresh off his heroics to guide Great Britain past Australia in the September semifinals, Murray will be in a quandary before he leads his team in their November 27-29 clash in Ghent, Belgium.
The first part of the equation is that Murray is required by ATP guidelines to play in London’s lucrative World Tour Finals, which end on November 22.
The year-end showcase at the O2 Arena, London, is played on fast indoors hard courts, and Murray as the No. 3 player and popular UK native is the most-important attraction (Yes, Murray is a commodity not a person in this vein) next to Roger Federer.
Murray recently entertained the idea of skipping the WTF event in order to rest his body and acclimate his game and footing to Belgium’s selection of a clay-court surface.
He said as much on BBC Radio 5 Live (h/t Simon Bragg of The Telegraph) after his victory over Bernard Tomic:
The O2 would obviously be a question mark for me if we were playing on the clay. I would go and train and prepare on the clay to get ready for the final.
You saw last year with Roger Federer that the matches at the O2 are extremely tough and physically demanding. If you reach the final and play on the Sunday you also need to take time off - you can't just play five matches against the best players in the world and then not take any days off.
Perhaps Murray erred by not keeping his cards closer to his vest. ATP president Chris Kermode quickly fired a warning shot across Murray’s bow, according to the AP, via Tennis.com:
All players who qualify, unless injured, are required to compete in the event. Andy Murray has had a fantastic season and earned his place among the world's top eight players to compete at the season finale. We are aware of the comments made after the Davis Cup tie in Glasgow, however our expectations are that, if fully fit, Andy would compete in this year's tournament.
Translation: We are the ATP and we own you, Andy Murray. We expect to profit off of your star rather than let you compete for your country and for an event sponsored by our competitor the International Tennis Federation that puts on the Davis Cup events.
Once again, the ATP has asserted its Orwellian authority without regarding the best interests of the players.
That’s wrong and the system needs to change. Players must be allowed to have more autonomy with their own schedules and choices.
It will be difficult enough for Murray to get a few days of rest following Sunday November 22 after playing a few matches against the other best players in the world, but the biggest problem is that the Scot must transition from indoor hard courts to Belgium’s surface of choice, clay.
Clay is a sliding surface with bigger, slower hops, and the footing can be tricky, like sliding on a gym floor with socks. It’s always been Murray’s weakest surface and the double problem of trying to rejuvenate with fresh legs and condition himself to the clay will be one of the most difficult tasks in tennis.
Furthermore, Murray acknowledged that his chronic back has been acting up. This does not bode well to come back on short rest and play three more days of high-intensity Davis Cup tennis where Murray is expected to win both singles matches and team with his brother, Jamie, to win the doubles.
Clay is gruelling enough with longer matches and rallies, and it could indeed be the final straw upon Murray’s back.
He has no margin for warming into the event or counting on one of his teammates to win a singles match.
The hopes of Great Britain rest almost entirely on Murray’s optimum health, strength and comfort on clay.
But the ATP is only concerned that Murray punch his timecard for their assembly-line demands, and if he must ride in a wheelchair before boarding a plane to Ghent, so be it.
Quick Semi-Parallel Starring Pete Sampras
Twenty years ago, the great Pete Sampras, at the peak of his career, wrapped up the 1995 year-end ATP Tour World Championship (the tournament name at the time) with a subpar semifinal loss to fellow American, Michael Chang. His participation ended on November 18.
Sampras then had the next week off before his American Davis Cup commitment in Moscow, Russia on December 1-3. This was fortunate because Team Russia chose to play on clay, Sampras’ weakest surface. He had almost two weeks to prepare for his Davis Cup battle.
Sampras won both of his singles matches, which was necessary given that singles teammate and usually reliable, Jim Courier, was unable to win on a surface he used to dominate.
Sampras was at his best in winning both singles matches and with Todd Martin in doubles. He had suffered hamstring problems and had collapsed following his first win against Andrei Chesnokov, but he was brilliant in defeating Yevgeny Kafelnikov (who ironically would defeat Sampras months later in the 1996 French Open semifinals on his way to that title).
Sampras’ legendary Davis Cup performance most certainly would have not happened had there not been that extra week to rest and prepare.
Murray does not have that luxury, and it will not be easy to grind away on clay against world No. 15 David Goffin and capable veteran Steve Darcis. It could be entirely awkward for him to move with more vertical net forays in doubles.
The Belgians have put Murray on the rack, and somehow he must answer to everyone’s demands with a superhuman strength and mental resolve.
Don’t blame the Belgians for choosing clay. They made the smart move in the search to win their first-ever Davis Cup.
Murray should be able to counter this move with his own choice, whether that means playing in both the WTF and Davis Cup or skipping one or both events. It’s not right that he cannot call his own shots.
The unfortunate part to this is that Murray is not allowed to control his own destiny.
If his top priority it to throw all his eggs into this rare—and most likely only—opportunity of his life, to say nothing about the loyalty and support he has for his British teammates and proud nation, then it’s a moral outrage that the money changers dictate when and how he expends his body.
How would Murray feel if the WTF weakened him significantly and Great Britain crashed in Ghent? If so, that’s something he must reflect upon forever.
Meanwhile, the ATP could bully up to fine Murray if he does not show up in London. Yes, the same ATP that called him up to play an emergency final exhibition match against Novak Djokovic, after Federer withdrew with his own injury (Everything surrounding this is dripping with irony.) Murray answered the bell even after getting humiliated 6-0, 6-1 a couple days earlier.
Now ATP amnesia must have set in, because Murray is not going to get an amnesty. Superstars will come and go their expendable ways, but the ATP will continue to expand its empire.
It’s the greatest and most unsettling problem in the sport, and long after this Davis Cup debacle has been thrown into the archives it will be yet another sad reminder of corporate control over the star employees who make it happen.
How much damage could this do for Murray’s back well into the future?
What manner of blame should the ATP take for adding greater demands upon Spanish legend Rafael Nadal’s tender knees?
Will world No. 1 Novak Djokovic come crashing down to earth too exhausted from the ATP’s mandatory tournaments?
On the other hand, examine the benefits Federer, 34, had in skipping last month’s Canadian Rogers Cup in order to charge through his rivals and win Cincinnati, followed by a hard-charging bid that just fell short in the U.S. Open final. Never mind the ATP rules about Federer’s age granting him this allowance.
Rest and independent autonomy should be available for all athletes, because they are unique individuals who have various needs to perform at their best.
So here we are with the problem coming full circle yet another time, and it will most assuredly happen again before too long. It’s the eagle coming out of the sky to torture bound Prometheus every day through the rest of time.
Someone’s got to shake this up, because the ATP may eventually kill a gaggle of golden geese.
Best of luck, Andy Murray.