October 16, 2009

It Takes a Toll

Earlier this week Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick both criticized the professional tennis season for being too long and greuling. Players have little time to recover after an intense schedule stretching almost eleven months, and top players have it even worse -- with just a few weeks off in December before heading Down Under the next January.

"It’s ridiculous to think that you have a professional sport that doesn’t have a legitimate off-season to rest, get healthy, and then train," Roddick told the AP. “I just feel sooner or later that common sense has to prevail."

It's true -- there are less than two months between the Paris Masters in November this year and next January's Medibank Open. And the top players have it even worse! The Davis Cup finals are held the first week in December, just thirty days before the Doha invitationals. By comparison the baseball season, which will end in a few weeks after the World Series champ is crowned, doesn't even begin spring training until March. And football players get the entire spring and most of summer off before hitting the gridiron again in August.

Though, as a fan, I'm happy to see tennis action nearly year-round, the athletes, of course, could use a bigger break. Seven of the top ten players have played more than twenty tournaments in the past year -- even Nadal, after accounting for his injury-addled absense after the French Open, has played eighteen and a handful of guys in the top hundred have entered more than thirty. Sure that's the kind of dedication that racks up ranking points, but that kind of strenuous activity is bound to eventually take its toll on the body.

And the Shanghai Masters tournament taking place this week seems to be showcasing just how rough that toll can be. As if to prove his point the day after he made his statement, Roddick retired from his second round match with a knee injury. U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro, who had an extremely taxing summer hard court season, retired the following day, and Stanislas Wawrinka, who had benefitted from Andy's knee problems on Tuesday, subsequently dropped out of his next match against Radek Stepanek on Thursday. In all seven singles matches in China this week were not played to completion. And that's after both Roger Federer and Andy Murray avoided the tournament altogether due to exhaustion and a wrist injury, respectively.

I wondered briefly if the players were trying to make some sort of statement this week, banding together in a kind of protest. Maybe, but of course I can't know whether this is true.

It certainly does beg the same questions I had been asking when the new ATP rules were introduced this year. Shanghai is one of the eight Masters 1000 events players are required to play. When counting the mandatory Grand Slams, four ATP 500 tournaments and two other events, that means men have to enter eight more events during a year than the ten the WTA requires. And that creates a lot more opportunities for injuries, exhaustion, and ultimate burnout before the age of thirty.

And as a fan I certainly don't want to see my favorite players retire, not just from individual matches, but from the entire circuit before their time. It's no fun to look for a new favorite every couple of years. And besides, one of the biggest draws of tennis is that it's a life-long love -- I see more than a few seventy and eighty year olds on my local courts every weekend. So why should the pros be pushed out so early? Maybe Andy and Rafa are right to call for a change to the rules -- one that allows players a proper off-season to rest, recoup and ready to bring it even harder the next year.

I'll miss watching them for a few months at a time, but it'd be worth the sacrifice.

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