The length of the tennis season is one that has always set the standard for debate and tension between the ATP Board and some players. Yet are just causes for concern, and what can be done if that is the case?
The ATP season does admittedly run for a large proportion of the year, and certainly compared to other sports it can seem long, with its eleven month length. January-November is a seriously long time to be pushing oneself to athletic extremes, and travelling thousands of miles across the globe to play in tournaments.
There are key differences with other sports. The Premier League in football finishes in May and does not resume competitive fixtures until mid-August.Other major European leagues enjoy an additional winter break in December/January. Players can suffer injuries, but even then, the players are almost exclusively on fixed contracts. They get paid either way. Match times are fixed at ninety minutes (or maximum one-hundred and twenty). Squad size and the ability to rotate means a player can rest be rested to avoid burnout.
Tennis players are afforded none of these luxuries. Tennis is by nature, an extremely individualistic sport. Even doubles demands a massive amount from the individual. There can be no free-loaders. Tennis players are also at the mercy of their own bodies. Their ability to earn a living relies on staying fit, and winning matches. An injured player cannot play, therefore cannot earn. Some, earn sponsorship from their governments if they are lucky, others by private enterprises if they are deemed a young starlet. A select few at the very top of the game earn significant sponsorships from racket or kit manufacturers.
Beyond their personal reasons, the players also have ATP obligations, where top 30 players must play at least eighteen tournaments, including the Grand Slams eight out of nine Masters, and a minimum of 250s and 500s ( the Masters event that players are exempt from is either Rome or Madrid, as these are back-to-back tournaments). All other players have similar requirements ranking-entry permitting. In reality these rules are only lightly enforced, as players can easily cite an injury or illness to avoid playing specific events.
In examining those who have criticised the Tour length, there is a common denominator. Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick. These are all players who have a some stage of their careers enjoyed a dominance that saw/sees them play many weeks, and go deep into most events they enter. Inevitably exhaustion can and does play a role. These are players whose career earnings and sponsorship deals are such that they are financially secure. There has been some movement, with an extra week added between the French Open and Wimbledon to facilitate rest and acclimatisation for the deep-runners at Roland Garros. This has not led to fewer tournaments though. Stuttgart has swapped from clay to grass, so it is a reorganisation rather than a true shortening of the season. In addition, many top players play lucrative exhibition during the off-season. Nadal, perhaps the most vocal to season length played an exhibition with David Nalbandian in November 2013.
On the other side of the argument are all the other players, who may or may not be secure. These are players who help make the numbers of events, the players who you see play, and occasionally beat the big names in Grand Slams. Michael Russell is now thirty-seven, and this year finally retired. Russell spent years flitting around the Top 100. He first broke it in June 2001, and left it for the last time in June 2014. His career earnings totalled less than two and a half million dollars. A small reward for more than thirteen years grafting on the tour after you consider how much must have gone into travel costs and other expenses. When you consider the gaudy earnings of players who at some points Russell was ranked less than thirty places from, it certainly seems harsh.
Players like Russell rely on the almost permanent availability of tournaments to compete in. If there is not an ATP event, there is a Challenger event. Even for players ranked inside the Top 100 for a consistent period rely on a steady stream of revenue. Tournament availability offers them that. The rest is up to them.
If the length of the season were cut, it might suit the top players but could have a catastrophic effect lower down the tennis pyramid. It is not enough to just cut ATP events and keep the number of Challengers the same. Players in the fifty-one hundred ranking area might drop down to play because they can or need to, it already happens, though not to an unreasonable extent. This would happen at an increasing rate if the number of tournaments were cut. This is, with all due respect, not where they should be competing. They should be competing in ATP events, playing in events that reflect their rankings. But there is a more ominous potential consequence. More top players at Challengers means less draw-space for the players who traditionally fill them. The effect this could have is that players are forced to either play Futures, where the earning potential just is not strong enough for some. Briton Jamie Baker, a veteran of Wimbledon and Australian Open main draws, announced his retirement a few years ago due to what he felt was a lack of financial viability. And he isn’t the only one. it is unlikely that the ATP would significantly add to the prize money at lower levels to compensate. If anything, fewer tournaments on the schedule would mean less exposure for the sport, and less income from sponsors and TV rights deals. They may even be forced to reduce tournament prize money to make up the shortfall, who knows?
But the ultimate factor is better-quality players dropping down. Because this would likely lead to many more premature retirements like that of Baker, forced into pursuing other careers. The depth of professional tennis would be drastically cut.
That is not to say that there is no middle ground, and it is fairly obvious where that middle ground is. Reducing the number of mandatory tournaments would be a good start. Cutting the Davis Cup in a Olympic year would also reduce the strain that extra tournament puts on players. Keep qualification for the Olympic tournament linked to Davis Cup participation to protect Davis Cup integrity. In potential years without Davis Cup, there could be some discussion with players whether simply keeping traditional Davis Cup weeks empty, or alternatively moving the schedule forward to facilitate an earlier end to the season would be more beneficial.
This is an issue that for whatever reason has not had much movement in recent years. Maybe this is because there simply is no need to change too much.
Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal Hail Return Of Fans To Italian Open
The top two players on the ATP Tour give their reactions to the return of a crowd in Rome.
Tennis stars Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have welcomed a government decision allowing fans to attend the Italian Open during its final two days.
On Friday Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora confirmed that 1000 people will be allowed to attend the event on both the semi-final and final days. A move the government minister describes as a ‘first but significant, step toward the return of normalcy in sports.’ Until now the tournament had been held behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic amid fears that allowing a crowd to attend the event may trigger an outbreak of the virus. As part of the conditions there will be rules in force concerning mask wearing, social distancing and reserve seating.
“If we are going to have 1,000 people, it’s better than no people for sure because we all miss the fans, and part of our professional careers in sport is playing in front of them,” Djokovic said following his third round win over Filip Krajinović.
“I’m really glad that that’s going to happen.” He added.
The Italian Open will be the first major tennis tournament on the men’s Tour to welcome fans since resuming after its five-month break due to the pandemic. Both the Western and Southern Open, as well as the US Open, were held behind closed doors. Meanwhile, at the upcoming French Open plans for 11,500 fans to attend the event daily has been more than halved to 5000 following a ruling from French officials.
“The situation is how it is. Very difficult and very unpredictable, so it is normal that things are changing quickly,” Nadal commented on the changes surrounding crowd capacities.
“It is normal that the people who have to make decisions, they do with the best precaution possible. I don’t expect easy decisions and I don’t expect things are prepared in advance because it’s difficult to know how the pandemic evolves during day situations.’
“Changes can change a lot. So if the situation is good enough, fantastic.”
When it comes to where the semi-finals and finals of the tournament could be played due to the admission of fans, world No.1 Djokovic is hoping officials will stick to the premier court. Arguing that it is ‘much better quality’ than the other courts at the Foro Italico.
“I heard also they are considering to use Pietrangeli or NextGen court for semi-finals and finals,” he said.
“I hope it’s not the case, because the quality of the clay and quality of the centre court is, in my opinion, much better than the other courts.”
In order for both Djokovic and Nadal to play in front of Italian fans they must both come through their quarter-final matches. Djokovic will play German qualifier Dominik Koepfer and Nadal locks horns with eighth seed Diego Schwartzman.
Novak Djokovic Survives Krajinovic Battle To Seal Last Eight Berth In Rome
Novak Djokovic reached an 85th Masters 1000 Quarter-Final in Rome.
Novak Djokovic survived a tough battle in Rome to beat Filip Krajinovic 7-6(7) 6-3 to reach the last eight.
Although the World Number one got the victory, it was a tough battle as he fought his compatriot for a place in the Quarter-Finals.
Breaks were shared to start the match as Krajinovic brought his fearless game to the top seed.
Djokovic created a total of ten break points, with only one executed as Krajinovic saved two set points in the tenth game to hold for 5-5.
After two comfortable holds, a tiebreak settled the winner of the first set as Djokovic was having a hard time to contain Krajinovic’s power.
The world number one battled from 3-0 down to edge the tiebreak 9-7 and win the opening set in 88 minutes.
Once Djokovic had survived the Krajinovic stormed, he took control and went into another gear as a break of serve in the third game was all that was needed to seal his place in the quarter-finals.
Winning 47% of his 2nd return points was key as Djokovic reaches his 85th Masters 1000 Quarter-Final of his career.
Next for Djokovic will be either talented teen sensation Lorenzo Musetti or Dominik Koepfer.
In other results today, Denis Shapovalov and Grigor Dimitrov set a last eight showdown after tight three set wins.
Shapovalov edged out Ugo Humbert 6-7(5) 6-1 6-4 while Dimitrov defeated Jannik Sinner 4-6 6-4 6-4 in a tough match.
There were also third round wins for Casper Ruud and Matteo Berrettini.
Internazionali d’Italia Day 4 Preview: The Men’s & Women’s Match of the Day
On Thursday in Rome, the prevailing theme will be established veterans taking on the new generation.
A trio of two-time Major champions will face three of the WTA’s most impressive young talents: an American teenager who was tennis’ breakout star last summer, a 24-year-old who already has 23 wins in this abbreviated season, and a 21-year-old who was the shocking winner of this year’s Australian Open. On the men’s side, 30-somethings Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils, and Fabio Fognini will all battle opposition approximately a decade their junior. What will win out on Thursday: experience, or youth?
Sofia Kenin (3) vs. Victoria Azarenka (SE)
In their only prior encounter, youth prevailed. 18 months ago in Acapulco, Kenin pulled out one of the most significant wins of her burgeoning career, 7-5 in the third. But this is a very different Azarenka that Kenin faces today. After years of injuries, personal setbacks, and tough draws, Vika is back in a big way. Following four consecutive losses prior to last month’s Western & Southern Open, Azarenka is now on a 12-1 run. Once she got a few wins under her sails, the floodgates have opened. While Kenin is rarely an easy out, she also doesn’t possess any significant weapons to contain a reborn Azarenka, who remains one of the game’s best returners. The two-time Australian Open champion should be favored to overcome Melbourne’s most recent victor.
Kei Nishikori vs. Lorenzo Musetti (Q)
Musetti has a lot of the tennis world talking after his startling upset of Stan Wawrinka on Tuesday night. Lorenzo, the 249th-ranked player in the world, was the junior champion of the Australian in 2019. Two evenings ago, he dominantly took the first set from Wawrinka 6-0. But even more impressively, he did not fold after donating a second-set lead, persevering to complete the win in straights. His one-handed backhand is a thing of beauty, and his composure is noteworthy. Is Italy’s new star ready to dismiss another top name? Kei Nishikori missed a year of action due to an elbow injury and the pandemic, and is 1-1 since returning. Nishikori certainly has a solid clay resume, but he’s currently far from his best. In a week where Italian men have exceled, another Roman conquering is not out of the question.
Other Notable Matches on Day 4:
Garbine Muguruza (9) vs. Coco Gauff. Coco routed an in-form One Jabeur in the last round, while Muguruza comfortably excused another American, Sloane Stephens.
Anett Kontaveit (14) vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova. Their only previous meeting occurred in Rome two years ago, with Kontaveit winning after two tight sets.
In his first match since February, Gael Monfils (5) vs. Dominik Koepfer (Q), who upset Alex de Minaur in a third set tiebreak on Tuesday.
Fabio Fognini (7) vs. Ugo Humbert. The 22-year-old Frenchman won his first ATP title earlier this year in Auckland. Fognini has only once reached the quarterfinals in twelve past appearances at his country’s biggest tournament.
In a rematch of a dramatic fourth round match from 11 days ago at the US Open, Petra Martic (8) vs. Yulia Putintseva.
And in a battle between two rising ATP prospects, Andrey Rublev (9) vs. Hubert Hurkacz.
Full order of play is here.
Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal Hail Return Of Fans To Italian Open
Internazionali d’Italia Day 6 Preview: The Men’s & Women’s Match of the Day
Rafael Nadal reaches the quarter final in Rome for the 15th time in the past 16 years
Grigor Dimitrov came back from one set down to beat Jannik Sinner in Rome
Matteo Berrettini won all Italian third round match against Stefano Travaglia in Italy
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