The issue of the tennis season has been debated for quite some time. This year, top players have been far more vocal in expressing their interests in shortening the tennis season. Murray and Nadal have alluded to a serious discussion among the Players’ Council in Shanghai, to discuss changes to the tennis schedule.
Now, there are many pros and cons in the debate of whether or not to shorten the tennis season. I think it’s a fair question to ask, as tennis players have the longest season compared to athletes in other sports. On the other hand, when players ranked below 75 are hardly earning enough to support their families, I wonder if alterations to the tennis season would only benefit the athletes at the very top. I’m of two minds about this but I side more towards the thinking that the top players are responsible for deciding their own schedule. Even Nadal, who has encountered serious injuries in his career, had his best season ever in 2010 and added to his Grand Slam haul this year after competing in three Grand Slam finals. If adjustments to the tennis season mean that lower-ranked players will bear the brunt of the financial and career cutbacks, I’d rather not see major changes to the schedule. I may be oversimplifying the point but when said top players’ career earnings are upwards of $15 million, I don’t fully sympathize with their protests against the schedule. They may risk losing ranking points and appearance fees at various intervals, but top tennis players still have the choice to make a trade-off to maintain their long-term careers.
Still, the player quotes from this so-called labor dispute have raised many interesting viewpoints.
One side: Some favor maintaining the current system. Their main argument revolves around the tennis players’ responsibility to ration their scheduling commitments, along with the disadvantages that would be unfairly apportioned to lower-ranked players if the tennis season were shortened. Nadal and Murray’s opinions have captured public attention, but not for all the right reasons. The current Davis Cup schedule was originally proposed by the players themselves in 2006. If players want to reconsider this format of playing DC semi-finals right after the US Open, that is a discussion they should initiate. If they want to change the DC schedule, they should first admit they were wrong and also look frankly at the repercussions any changes would have on all players. If they have constructive proposals for changing the tennis schedule (such as shortening the time between Wimbledon and Montreal, so tennis players do not have to compete in back-to-back Masters before the US Open), that could also prove helpful to all tennis players. It could even be a workable change for all parties involved (tournament directors, players).
The opposing side: On the other side, two arguments are made. Due to the increasingly physical nature of the game, tennis players put their bodies through much more stress and pressure. The length of matches has grown longer and due to surface homogenization, players are now accustomed to playing longer rallies. I remember reading Monica Seles’ biography, where she describes how the game has grown so much more physical. During Seles’ peak years, there were hardly any gym facilities at tournament sites. Only in the past decade has tennis required far more strenuous physical conditioning and training. You could argue that 20-30 years ago, tennis was a different sport.
On a slightly different note, the number of retirements at this year’s US Open, combined with some baffling decisions that tournament directors and umpires made at the expense of players’ health, also point to the need for better player representation. If in fact the USO’s decision to play matches on wet courts was motivated by a no-refund policy for tickets after 90 minutes of play, that calls into question the officials’ integrity in protecting players’ interests. This is where a players’ union could prove useful. The small bubble in which the tennis world operates means that the agents representing players also have a hand in the tournaments. Clearer boundaries should be drawn. All in all, it should be interesting to see if any official decisions are borne out of the top players’ current protests.
Slightly off-tangent: What’s baffling to me is the extent to which some journalists push for scheduling changes solely on account of Djokovic’s recent losses. Although Nadal and Murray spoke out against the DC scheduling, they still showed up and won decisive matches for their countries (Nadal played two matches, including the fourth match that decided the win for Spain). Federer endured a 14-hour flight to Australia (complete with a 14-hour time change) and played three matches on grass for Switzerland. That’s the three other semifinalists at this US Open, including this year’s finalist and the winner of this year’s Cincinatti Open, who managed to play through the quick turnaround.
Yet journalists argue that Djokovic would have maintained his near-perfect tennis season with only one “authentic loss,” had the tennis season been shortened. I question their motivations behind this line of argument. Djokovic has 8 wins this year via his opponents’ retirement or walkover. As one fan perfectly put it, if Djokovic takes his 8 wins via retirement/walkover then he takes his 2 losses via retirement as well. There are no two ways about it and to argue for a shorter tennis season on account of Djokovic’s recent injuries, is flawed reasoning.
To be sure, it’d make an interesting storyline if Djokovic broke McEnroe’s record for the best tennis season ever. But that record has stood the test of time precisely because it requires such an elusive mix of talent, effort, and a bit of good fortune. Berdych was no more unlucky to have to retire from his match against Djokovic in Cincinnati due to shoulder injury, an injury he sustained all the way to his 4th round match against Tipsarevic at the US Open. None of the journalists raised the flag then about the tennis season being unreasonably long, or how it was unjust that Berdych was denied his chance at a career-best USO QF showing this year. Only when it became clear Djokovic would not break McEnroe’s record did journalists suddenly highlight the false distinction between an “authentic loss” versus a “loss with an asterisk.”
Djokovic’s 2011 season has been remarkable on its own. He went on a 43-match winning streak that was broken only after losing to Federer, of all people, in Paris. He is at the top of the rankings and is now defending champion of three Grand Slams. Djokovic has no obligation to meet or break McEnroe’s record for best tennis season. His accomplishments this year are more than enough on their own. If anything, it’s those who look at him as if he’s obligated to have the best-ever season that are doing him a greater injustice. Djokovic’s recent troubles also draws attention to Federer’s season in 2006, where he went 92-5 (in 2005, Federer went 81-4). Federer also won 3 Grand Slams in 2006, while sustaining injuries that put him out of play for a few tournaments. No one rallied for scheduling changes on Federer’s behalf in 2006 and he himself was quick to dismiss the need for changes to be implemented. This is a bit of perspective I wish more people would acknowledge.
Changes to the tennis schedule may be called for, but I hope these changes reflect players’ interests across the full spectrum, not just the elite few in the top 5.