It’s a fall ritual, as familiar as corn mazes and homecoming football games: an ATP pro complaining about the length of the tennis season, citing the number of players sidelined by injury.
This year, the spokesman is Milos Raonic. He played his first match following a seven-week layoff for wrist surgery Monday in the Japan Open. After his win, he told reporters: “I’ve had more than a dozen different injuries and reasons that have kept me away from tournaments. That hasn’t been fun because I haven’t been able to focus on tennis.”
Raonic pointed out that the top five players of 2016 all missed the 2017 US Open. He was one of that group, and he’s the only one playing this fall. He added, “Maybe it’s a testament to some kind of reform being needed for the sake of players’ careers and being able to provide a certain caliber of tennis for spectators.”
Among Raonic’s suggestions: Give players that “really stand out” mandatory events but keep those within a seven-month period. That, he said, would allow players to focus on their health and also give them ample time to work on improving — presumably in the five-month off-season.
Raonic’s frustration is understandable. But it sounds like a cure that’s a lot worse than the disease.
Tough as life has been for the oft-injured Raonic, why punish and deprive more durable players of opportunities, or rob spectators of the chance to witness top-flight tennis? Plenty of players go through the year more-or-less healthy.
Injuries are a fact of athletic life. It’s impossible to predict who will be most impacted by them over the course of a career, or even where, why and when they will occur. Athletes in every strenuous sport almost all manage injuries, small and large, on a daily basis.
As ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said in a conference call before the US Open, “I’ve been involved in the game for like 37 years. There’s always been injuries. We have been talking about this forever. Good luck on ever getting it solved, or making tournaments go away, or getting all the entities together to make some changes. I’m not convinced by any means if all of a sudden the guys had more time off that all of a sudden that’s going to cure injuries.”
Think of it this way: If the NFL season were cut back to 10 games, would no injuries occur? Of course not. It may not be as far-fetched an example as it first seems, because tennis also is a contact sport of sorts — contact between racket and ball, between foot and hard court. There’s stress, there’s strain, there’s injury.
Moreover, if Raonic thinks the physical grind is demanding now, a seven-month season incorporating Grand Slams and the events he cited as “mandatory” would be brutal.
No, the big thing most critics of tennis’ long season always forget is that the sport has always been an interval one. It doesn’t really have a “season” and shouldn’t be compared to sports that do. There are peaks of intense tennis activity in different parts of the world, and valleys during which the players either idle or chase rankings points in smaller tournaments.
Besides, tennis players largely make their own schedules — as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal amply demonstrated by taking so much time off this year. In 2016, at the peak of his powers, Novak Djokovic took off three weeks after each of the first three Grand Slams and almost a month after the US Open. In what other sport can a player take three weeks to a month off at the very peak of the action?
That luxury would vanish in a seven-month season, as would literally hundreds of jobs for ATP pros. “Ninety, 95 percent of the players in the US Open main draw need to play as much as they can to make a living,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said. “That’s just a reality. The only players that are making huge money are the top couple of players. If you don’t play, you don’t make money.”
The superstars could survive and perhaps even do better financially with a shorter season, especially because they would inevitably play lucrative exhibition matches during the off-season.
One theory is that starving the people of top competitive tennis for five months would only increase the public’s appetite. Another theory is that starving people will go wherever they can for food, like to hockey or soccer.
Yet there are some legitimate beefs with the way tennis is structured. The incessant travel is a factor that doesn’t impact athletes in other sports nearly as much. Close, exhausting matches on successive days are unique to tennis because of the game’s knockout-draw format.
There’s a constant, relentless hum of criticism surrounding the preponderance of hard courts on the tour. Isn’t tennis sufficiently advanced to embrace joint-and-muscle friendly surfaces everywhere?
Tennis impresarios are forever talking about speeding up the game. Maybe it’s time to embrace the match-tiebreaker at most best-of-three events, at least up until the final. All the majors should play a final-set tiebreaker; nobody will surpass Isner-Mahut anyway (well, let’s hope not).
If nothing else, speed up the hard courts, or the balls, or both. Reward players who show a willingness to attack or serve-and-volley. Those five-hour baseline struggles are like certain songs by the Grateful Dead — more impressive for their length than their content.
Length of match may be a bigger problem for tennis than length of season, but Raonic doesn’t see it that way. He said, “It’s hard to peak four times of the year for Grand Slams. Let alone for other tournaments.”
That may be true, but it’s still difficult to see how it would be any easier to peak four times for critical events compressed into a seven-month period.