Will player power bring change to tennis in Shanghai?
Men's tennis's big names will voice their concerns over a packed schedule next month, but will it bring change?
The end of the US Open, the last Grand Slam of the year, always brings with it a sense of completion.
The final Slam marks the end of one of the toughest stretches in the tennis calendar, a rising hard-court crescendo towards New York that begins in Atlanta just a fortnight after Wimbledon. It ploughs through July and August with back-to-back stop-offs in Los Angeles, Washington, Canada, Cincinnati and””for the particularly hardy””Winston Salem.
This year, however, events took a turn at the US Open that could reverberate through the rest of the year and beyond. For New York is far from being the final movement in the tennis cycle.
Within days of the award ceremonies, there were major Davis Cup ties scattered around the globe. Next week, the tour heads to the Far East for the Asian swing: A pair of 250s in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, followed by two 500s in Beijing and Tokyo and capped, in the third week, by the Shanghai Masters.
The year’s concluding swing finally steers the players into the home stretch as the European indoor season heads towards the last Masters of the year in Paris. But even then, the story is not done.
The best in the world””those who have generally played deepest into the tournaments along the way””have yet another challenge. The top eight, plus two reserves, head to London at the end of November for the World Tour Finals (WTF): a minimum of three matches and a maximum of five in the space of a week.
And just when it seems over, there may still be more: The Davis Cup final this year is likely to involve at least two men who are in the frame for London.
The pivotal moment that opened the weeping wound of the tour schedule came about by chance at the US Open.
It rained, and it rained some more, forcing the organisers to cut corners. As the matches backed up, the players were asked to play on damp courts””and that rubbed salt into the festering wound.
The normally reticent Rafael Nadal thought he had been asked to play in dangerous conditions: “Grand Slams are about a lot of money. We’re part of the show. They’re just working for that, not for us. They know it’s still raining and call us onto the court. That’s not possible. I understand the fans want to see tennis but the health of the players is the most important and we do not feel protected. We have to fight to change things.”
Others added their voices to the chorus of disapproval as damaged courts exacerbated the concertinaed schedule.
The unique US Open habit of spreading the first round across three days only to play the semis and the final back-to-back on the concluding weekend added fuel to the belief that business demands rather than the players’ health was driving the decision-making. That the tournament found itself announcing a new Grand Slam record for withdrawals due to injury only added piquancy to the proceedings.
Roger Federer, President of the Players Council, weighed in: “You never have it that we have to play back-to-back best-of-five-set matches, only here before the final at the US Open.”
He went on to expose the structural dichotomy in the tennis tour: “We have not much say in Grand Slam play”¦there are a whole lot of other issues we need to work through with the Grand Slams and the ITF.”
For while the Players’ Council makes representation to the ATP on the broad tennis calendar, there is no equivalent voice for the four Grand Slams, which are organised by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
It so happens that another of the ITF’s babies, the Davis Cup, follows hot on the heels of the US Open, and that exposed afresh the very real physical stresses on the top players. Within days, 13 of the top 20 men””including all of the US Open semi-finalists””were engaged in Cup ties. And New York’s final four looked exhausted.
Nadal was practising with team-mates in Spain 24 hours after the US final but admitted: “I am tired for sure”¦and it is a challenge for me to be here.” Federer, globe-trotting to Australia by Wednesday, told the press between his second and third four-set matches: “I’m completely beat up.”
Novak Djokovic, after his tour of champion’s duties in New York, barely made it to Serbia at all. He managed only the final day of competition and injury still got the better of him. He may miss much of the Asian swing.
It was Andy Murray, playing the GB Davis Cup tie in Scotland, who revealed the major discontent behind the scenes. A reduced schedule and more consideration of the players’ needs will be, he revealed, up for discussion when the tour converges for the next Masters in Shanghai.
Murray explained to BBC Sport: “We’ll sit down, talk about it with the ATP and the ITF, see if they will come to a compromise and, if not, we’ll go from there. We just want things to change, really small things. Two or three weeks during the year, a few less tournaments each year, which I don’t think is unreasonable.”
He declined to reject the possibility of a boycott.
The ATP has, though, already approved a package of changes that will take effect from 2012″”changes designed to address some of the players’ concerns. One of the aims was to create a longer end-of-season break””currently barely three weeks for the top 10″”to allow time for rest and recuperation ahead of training blocks for the new season.
Losing one event””Johannesburg””and shuffling several other 250 tournaments have achieved this. The events of a fortnight in October have been conflated into a week, making way for an earlier Paris Masters that will be followed immediately by the WTFs and the Davis Cup. 2012 will thus end in mid-November rather than in the first week of December.
This shuffling, however, still fails to address the problems of the top 30 players who are committed to a set number of events no matter how many matches they play in each: all four Grand Slams, eight Masters, four 500s and two 250s. The best of them””invariably those with the most match wins””must add in the WTFs and, in 2012, the Olympics too.
These are also, inevitably, the players most often called upon for media and ambassadorial duties: press conferences, interviews and publicity for the tournaments.
However, the first problem lies in marrying the wishes of the top players with the needs of lower-ranked players who want to play more often because they win fewer matches at each event.
If the majority are to maintain their points and financial earnings, they cannot afford to lose the smaller tournaments.
The second problem is the uneven distribution of compulsory events. For example, two back-to-back Masters come at the end of the spring hard-court swing rather than featuring in the build-up to the first Grand Slam. And there is further tension caused by the French Open and Wimbledon bookending June with just two weeks of grass preparation in between””the only surface with neither a 500 nor a Masters event.
Another consideration is the physical stress on players of criss-crossing numerous time zones.
Once upon a time, when air travel was less accessible to all players, the Australian Championship was simply omitted from many of their schedules. Now it is a compulsory mountain to climb just two weeks into the season and is followed by tournaments in Europe, South America or North America.
The most demanding switch is taking place about now, as the tour heads to the Far East for between two and three weeks before making the return trip to Europe.
But the ATP is, in reality, stuck between a rock and a hard place. It has no control over the timing of the Grand Slams whose dates are, effectively, immoveable feasts. Many of the Masters events, too, have such long traditions and established ownership that they have the status of mini-Slams: Indian Wells, Monte Carlo and Cincinnati among them.
The sport has also to be mindful of feeding its new markets such as China and meeting a growing eastern European demand. There is only one brief swing for the entire South American continent yet Argentina, Brazil and its neighbours produce many world-renowned players.
Within these constraints, then, what can be achieved by sitting round the table in Shanghai?
First and foremost, the Boards might consider a reduction in the number of mandatory events. The top players would undoubtedly continue to contest most of the big tournaments for their kudos and their ranking points but might choose, for example, to play either Indian Wells or Miami rather than both.
Their choice may be determined by whether they win or fall early in the former, whether they need to rest sore muscles, have an important Davis Cup tie after Miami or decide to focus instead on the Monte Carlo Masters in April.
The Boards might also look at incorporating the Davis Cup more completely into the ATP scheme and allow players to count it as an alternate mandatory event that carries equal points with, and sits alongside, other 250/500 tournaments in the schedule. So the first round could take place at the same time as Zagreb and Montpellier rather than days after the Australian Open, and the semi-final could be played more than a week after the US Open during the same week as Metz.
And although the Grand Slams will never be moved””despite the logic of having the Australian Open in late February and switching the Asian swing to the start of the year””they should be encouraged to adopt a similar timetable that ensures alternate playing days. As a matter of urgency, the USTA should also be encouraged to install covers for its oft-soaked courts.
By dovetailing more carefully the two ATP and ITF strands, the players might then feel less like performing dogs and more like the thoroughbreds that they are. The trainer of a Derby-winner spends as much time fine-tuning his star earner between races as he does in competition.
The key to player’s longevity and durability is flexibility. They need the chance to rest and recuperate when the body demands, and to build a schedule around the fixed points in the year that works with their own training and playing styles.
For the health of the sport and its protagonists, one can only hope that those gathered around the table in Shanghai””whether players, business or administrators””will be flexible enough to change some “really small things” that might make a really big difference.