Just two consecutive days of play wiped out by rain at the recently concluded US Open were enough to expose the fissures between some men’s tennis players on the one hand and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) on the other.
For the fourth successive year at the Open, play was pushed to a third Monday that forced eventual losing finalist, world No. 2 Rafael Nadal, to play consecutive matches on three days before the final. He lost in the final to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
A week later, soon after leading Britain to a victory in the Davis Cup in Glasgow, earlier this month, Britain’s Andy Murray, ranked No. 4 in the world, told BBC Radio Five that senior players may go on strike to protest against what he claims is a crowded calendar. “It’s a possibility. I know from speaking to some players they’re not afraid of doing that. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that but I’m sure the players will consider it,” he said.
Go easy: Andy Murray believes players are forced to play too many tournaments. By Michael Regan/Getty Images
Murray had lost in the semi-finals to Nadal at the US Open—his third match in three days—then headed to Scotland for the Davis Cup against Hungary over the weekend of 16-18 September. This week, he’s playing in the PTT Thailand Open in Bangkok.
During the same week, Serbia’s Djokovic quit his Davis Cup match against Argentina due to a back injury, which has forced him to withdraw from the Shanghai Masters (9-16 October) and China Open (3-9 October). Djokovic went into the Davis Cup with a 64-2 win record—one of his losses came when he quit a match against Murray due to a sore shoulder. Was it too much tennis that hurt Djokovic?
Playing for points
Murray’s threat may seem a bit harsh, but his frustrations stem from the annual ATP calendar and its requirements. Sixty-seven events are played on the men’s calendar across 32 countries on six continents. Events are classified as Grand Slams (four in a year), ATP World Tour Masters 1000 series (9), Barclays ATP World Tour Finals (WTF; season-finale event), ATP World Tour 500 series (11) and ATP World Tour 250 (42). This is excluding the Davis Cup, a team tournament played between countries. In accordance with ATP rules, players are ranked on the basis of the past 52 weeks’ performance.
A player’s total points from four Grand Slams, nine Masters 1000 series, the Barclays ATP WTF (if he qualifies) are accounted for, in addition to the best four and best two results from any of the ATP 500 events and ATP 250 events, respectively. In all, he needs to play at least 18 events to prop his rankings.
While the ATP admits that the tour is rigorous, it also claims that barring the withdrawals at the US Open this year, the number of withdrawals has been less now than in the past. ATP World Tour 2011 statistics show there had been 187 withdrawals this year till the US Open, against 378 in 2006, 270 in 2007, 256 in 2008 and 242 in 2009. Withdrawals were up in 2010 (309) owing to some long-term injuries.
“This suggests that players are participating in events and the fear of injuries might be slightly misplaced,” said an ATP tour official on condition of anonymity.
So what is Murray complaining about?
Different strokes, different folks
Some former players feel the current lot should not complain. The 1991 Wimbledon champion, Michael Stich, told BBC recently that “players forget that all the tournaments out there provide them with jobs”. Stich claims that they are playing as much as players “10 or 15 years ago”; the present lot “are running after exhibitions, they are trying to make more money and don’t even fulfil their commitments to the smaller tournaments sometimes”.
For instance, former No. 1 and now retired Stefan Edberg of Sweden played on an average 87 singles matches each year between 1986 and 1994; his most dominant years. On the other hand, Murray has played just 60 each year on an average between 2005 and 2010. Edberg also played 32 doubles matches every year on an average, winning six singles and three doubles Grand Slam titles. Others like John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova too enjoyed success in both singles and doubles, having been ranked No. 1 in both over a period of time. Murray does not play doubles on the men’s circuit.
More time off next year
The ATP executive chairman and president, Adam Helfant, announced last year that the off-season on the men’s tour (the gap between the year’s last event and next year’s first event) would be seven weeks, up from four weeks presently, starting 2012. Regardless, Murray and other players will step up their battle at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Shanghai when they are slated to have meetings to discuss their schedules.
Stich says tournaments allow lower-ranked players to “earn a living”. World No. 3 Roger Federer, for instance, has played in 13 tournaments and made $3.04 million (around Rs 14.9 crore) so far this year. World No. 100 Igor Andreev from Russia has had to play in almost double the number of events (24) to be able to earn about 10% ($308,635) of Federer’s earnings.