To truncate or not is the question

Anything that undermines the impact of the Nadal forehand, or diminishes the manic energy that Djokovic brings to court is something that needs to be looked into. What of the Tipasarevics, the Monfils, the Stakhovskys and the Granollers? You wouldn't so much as hear a squeak from them against ‘overcrowded' scheduling. They are out to make a buck, and rightly so. Is it possible then to pacify both ends of the tennis spectrum? An analysis by Kunal Diwan.

Every fall the ceaselessness of the tennis calendar comes into focus as fatigued top players stumble through the last stretch of the season. Recently, the year's most dominant player, Novak Djokovic, turned in a perfunctory appearance at the Paris Masters for a $1.6 million bonus pool year-end payout that was on the line. The Serbian struggled through two rounds with a sore shoulder before withdrawing from his semifinal against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, knowing the money was his and safe. The safety of his shoulder, put to successive tests against Ivan Dodig and Victor Troicki, was slightly more contentious.

A fortnight earlier, the same shoulder and a third-set bagel featured prominently in Djokovic's shocking defeat to Kei Nishikori in the Basel Indoors semifinals. A player who had met with scant resistance for over 10 months giving in to the feisty-but-nothing-special Japanese was a pointer to just how impairing the injury was, but it still did not prevent Djokovic from biting the million-dollar bait that was dangled before him in Paris.

The situation embodies the current dilemma that top tennis players find themselves in. There is too much tennis and there is a whole lot of money to be made — both direct consequences of the professionalisation of organised sport. Rafael Nadal, who also withdrew from the Paris Masters (a tournament he has never won), has periodically vented his frustration at the long calendar, possibly since his physical investment in the game surpasses anybody else's. The Spaniard was among 17 of the top 20 players who asked the International Tennis Federation to drag in the Davis Cup closer to the U.S. Open, the last major of the year. The change was implemented at the start of the 2009 season.

Sustaining the kind of physicality that has seen him win 10 Grand Slam titles is not easy for Nadal, which is why he recently came out with the veiled threat of a player strike. “We don't want to get there. We want to play. But if it's a fight about something that we think is fair, something would have to happen. Sometimes the only way to make things happen is to choose strong action," he said in September.

Nadal has a point. The ATP imposes an annual compulsion of participating in at least 18 tournaments (aside from the year-end World Tour Finals) on a player. These events (the four Majors, eight of the nine 1000 Masters, the best four 500 series results and the two top results in the 250 series) count for ranking points, making the entire exercise a systemised process for ensuring marquee names across global venues. But amid all this talk of shortening the season or at least reducing the number of mandatory tournaments, there are just four or five players who tailor their playing activity to the minimum prescribed limit. Most of the scrounging tennis fraternity — the lowly ‘ rank and file' according to Peter Bodo — far exceeds the lower limit of 18.

In 2011, Djokovic has thus far competed in 17 tournaments (71 matches), Nadal in 18 (79), Murray in 17 (65), and Federer in 17 (66). The rest of the top 10, leave alone the masses that follow beyond, has competed in at least 21 tournaments each to date. But more tournaments do not necessarily mean more matches. Ninth-ranked Nicholas Almagro has hit the court 69 times in 25 tournaments this year, while the basement-dweller and claycourt specialist Pablo Andujar's 31 tourneys have entailed just 53 matches. Even beginning to compare the prize money earnings of the top four, or the top 10, with the others would be sacrilegious and that is why one cannot really blame the proletariats of the tennis community for picking up whatever pennies they can, as often as they can. The top players want to play less. The rest don't mind swinging a racquet as and when necessary. Bodo hit home when he commented that “the needs and desires of the handful of top players are very different from those of the rank-and-file”.

But as Federer said recently, it's not all about the money. Inhabitants of tennis' elite class obviously have to win a lot more than the rest to keep ahead. They also have to sustain a high level of play against better quality opponents (at the business end of tournaments) to ensure that ranking points are defended, spectator interest is quenched and tournament commitments are honoured. There has always been loose talk about reorganising the calendar — at the behest of a chosen few — if not actually snipping it. Propositions have included spacing out the cluttered French Open-Wimbledon stretch, displacing the late-year Davis Cup fortnight to a more convenient slot (this was partially addressed in 2009) and having a different set of guidelines for players on whose star credentials the success and saleability of events rests. All this is easier said than done because a single modification to an already packed calendar would involve a rejigging of the entire schedule.

Andy Murray, who appeared ready to lead the charge against the association right before the Shanghai Masters, seems to have lost his tongue following a rather successful last three months, which included a sweep of Asian titles, a 17-match winning streak and the usurping of Federer at Number 3. Murray and Federer, in a way, along with the backbenchers illustrate how the fag end of the season provides a sort of balancing act between the haves and the have-nots. Those who ran away with glory in the first half of the year break to lick their wounds, while others look to cash in and make a final push. It is this dichotomy, this levelling of sorts of the playing field, that any restructuring in the calendar has to seek to preserve.

But where will the restructuring originate and who will be the catalyst that triggers the reaction of change? The now historic ‘Parking lot press conference' at the 1988 U.S. Open and the ‘Tennis at the crossroads' agenda that resulted from it turned the infrastructure of international tennis into one that was equally controlled by players, tournament representatives and the ATP. It is an easy guess how tournament directors would respond to a top player being exempted from their event to accommodate time off, forget about their reaction to actually having the tournament scrapped. This is precisely why aging warhorse Andy Roddick became the latest to voice dissent against the packed programme. Now out of the top 10 and on his last legs as a pro, Roddick spoke openly on the state of governance of the Tour and how the lines were blurred when it came to whose interests needed to be protected first.

“Listen, you don't go into negotiation and have someone represent both sides. It just doesn't happen in any business transaction or negotiation. I don't think it's the (ATP) CEO's fault. It's an impossible situation. I think the system is suspect.”

The American was talking about the liaison between the ATP and the tournaments that works to keep in the forefront the best interests — financial, physical, moral or voyeuristic — of everybody. One cannot hold tournament organisers culpable for hankering after big crowd-pulling stars — the guarding of a business interest being their primary concern. Neither can one level an accusation at the crème de la crème of men's tennis, who are expected to compete at a phenomenally high level, set and break world records and continue turning up when summoned to whichever two-bit venue the ATP has managed to peddle its way in. The ATP — in the same way as the BCCI condoning India's non-stop itinerary citing financial and other commitments, or the EPL continuing to function in a blurry state of hyperactivity — is out to maximise its yield from the travelling circus. Surely, the purpose of this entire framework cannot be just the attainment of the perfect balance sheet?

It's not. The principal concern of the circuit is to enable the best in the business (sorry, wrong choice of word!) to compete at the peak of their powers at the biggest tournaments. Something indeed needs to be changed if extraneous, avoidable and mendable factors are preventing the big four from going at full tilt in the majors.

Anything that undermines the impact of the Nadal forehand, or diminishes the manic energy that Djokovic brings to court is something that needs to be looked into. What of the Tipasarevics, the Monfils, the Stakhovskys and the Granollers? You wouldn't so much as hear a squeak from them against ‘overcrowded' scheduling.

They are out to make a buck, and rightly so. Is it possible then to pacify both ends of the tennis spectrum? Perhaps the only way out is for the Djokovic-Nadal-Murray-Federer quartet to harmonise their disjointed, directionless voices into a chorus loud enough to register in the cacophony of the professional tour. But first they'll have to find out what exactly it is they seek — exemption from laws that govern lesser folk or an exclusive new roster befitting kings.