Taking a hard look at wear and tear

Tennis cannot sell itself if its salespeople are injured. The public come to see the best, at their best, not players resembling extras from ER and trainers becoming more valuable than coaches, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Tennis owns the simplest of rules but can appear the most convoluted of sports. Indeed, while the women's tennis tour struggles to abbreviate its tour, the men's tour is trying to elongate tournaments with Sunday starts. Greg Chappell might be impressed for tennis is suddenly infatuated with "experimentation", fiddling and fussing and clucking over new rules and ideas like old women at a slipper sale.

Television replays to settle line call disputes has been this year's brilliant addition, for it adds no time yet delivers drama. It is revealing, too, to see that the players with the seemingly soundest judgements and clearest eyes, such as Federer, are often proved wrong in their challenges. Ultimately, everyone sees a ball land where they want to.

On-court coaching on the women's tour has been unmasked as the year's most unworkable experiment, for it is a meddling with the game's intrinsic philosophy of one-against-one. Much of tennis' beauty lies in its isolation, where a desperate player's only contact can be exchanging helpless looks with his guru. Sharapova's entourage of course has degrees in morse code and semaphoring, but mostly women's players have rejected the idea of having their hands held.

Pre-match interviews with players are simply banal, for focused players are unlikely to reveal tactics, or that they just vomited out anxiety in the dressing room, or that tearing off their rivals' bloody scalp has been a long-standing dream. Anyway, press conferences and post-match interviews are playing havoc with universal IQ.

Still, tennis is constantly thinking, suggesting a sport on its toes. It has to be for its popularity is under threat. Federer and Nadal cannot play every week, every city. Now more joint men's and women's tournaments are being considered (six exist already outside the grand slams) and round-robin formats in the men's field tested.

Tournament directors feel sharp pains in the heart and wallet when top players exit early from tournaments, and Polish qualifiers with no vowels or pedigree spring into semi-finals. Crowds mutter darkly, too, for every sport's attraction is its stars and with no disrespect Janko Tipsarevic verus Florent Serra does not exactly lead to a box-office stampede.

A round-robin (early on in a tournament, with three or four players in a group) ensures a second chance for better players for they might have an off day. Some, though, might see this as an indulgence, for tennis is supposed to be a test of how ready you are on the day. Now bad days are being factored in. Still as Rafael Nadal insisted recently: "Is round-robin an improvement? Yes, of course. People want to see Federer, or (Andy) Roddick. Now perhaps me. And this way they will see them at least twice, instead of once."

Tournaments (like the French Open this year) are commencing on Sunday, which means an extra day of tennis, and an extra day of revenues. Players will benefit, too, but of course. Said Nadal: "That thing about round-robin is that it favours earning more money." Of course, all this is for the good of the game.

But the main issue of tennis, like most sport, remains wear and tear. Cricket is suffering similarly and already links, however tenuous, are worth drawing between positive drug tests and players attempting to hastily return from injury. If not true now, it will be one day. Baseballers are far busier than cricketers, but their squads are constantly rotated and eventually cricket is headed this way. Not that baseball and steroids are not friends anyway.

Tennis cannot sell itself if its salespeople are injured. The public come to see the best, at their best, not players resembling extras from ER and trainers becoming more valuable than coaches. At last year's men's Masters Cup, Safin, Hewitt, Roddick, Nadal didn't show up, Agassi withdrew quickly and Federer had a bum leg. At the women's equivalent, Henin was not to be seen, neither were the Williams sisters, who must carry around suitcases of X-rays. Nadal didn't show up for this year's Australian Open, Safin has been a wreck, and Henin couldn't even finish a grand slam final. The full field at a grand slam is a myth.

Entire bodies are thrown into every shot, knees and ankles are tested by unkind surfaces, and changes of speed and direction are stunning. Already a young Sania Mirza has felt her body complain. As Andre Agassi said last year: "The ball's faster, guys are stronger, the movement is much more violent. This means the potential for more injuries." Furthermore, the greater the depth gets, the harder the tournaments become. A price had to be paid and it is.

The WTA recently revealed that withdrawals from Tier One events, which are the 10 biggest WTA tournaments, by players ranked in the top 10 more than doubled from 13 in 2005 to a record 31 in 2006. Furthermore, withdrawals at Tier One tournaments by top-10 players have increased 72 percent over the past five seasons.

Reportedly, no Tier One event featured more than five women ranked in the top 10. Women's tour boss Larry Scott admitted: "A season that overtaxes our players is hurting the fan experience." You think?

Of course, not all of it is weakened bodies, but mollycoddled stars. Sometimes it seems players drop out of events only to injure their wrists carrying shopping bags, or whine about excessive play only to waltz off to compete in lucrative exhibitions. Presumably this is why the tour is aiming to raise the current maximum fine for withdrawal from $20,000 to $40,000.

More pertinently, the women's tour is aiming to shorten its season to end in October, allow more breaks after grand slams to heal tired bodies, and reduce the minimum amount of tournaments a player must attend from 13 to 11. It is a fair start, for the wounded, grimacing champion is not the advertisement tennis needs.