Thursday September 22nd, 2011

Andy Murray has been vocal about the need to change the tennis calendar. (Al Behrman/AP)

Last week's Toss featured a debate between Courtney and tennis writer Bryan Armen Graham about who will be the first to win a Grand Slam tournament, Andy Murray or Caroline Wozniacki. The readers sided with Courtney by a slim margin, with 38 percent choosing Wozniacki and an astonishing 34 percent voting that neither will ever win a major.

This week, tennis enthusiast Alexandra Willis, a sports writer for London's Daily Telegraph, joins Courtney in a discussion on one of the hot issues on the men's Tour.

Today's Toss: Can the ATP Tour schedule be fixed, and how?

Editor's note: Players in the top 30 of the ATP rankings are required to play in all four Grand Slams, eight of the nine Masters 1000 events and four of the 11 ATP 500 events. Excluding approved exemptions, players will lose rankings points and run the risk of potential fines or suspensions for missing mandatory events.

Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me, Alexandra. I confess to needing your help. I have spent the last five days banging my head against my keyboard trying to come up with a meaningful fix to the scheduling concerns raised by top players over the last week. Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have expressed their frustrations, Novak Djokovic went down in a heap during Davis Cup and is likely out for a month, and the U.S. Open set a record for the number of injury-related retirements and withdrawals. There is clearly a problem. But can the schedule really be fixed? I'm inclined to say no.

First, we should acknowledge, as you pointed out this week, that the men will get a longer offseason next year when the World Tour Finals and Davis Cup are moved up to allow for a seven-week break. So that's ... something?

As for the in-season changes, I've seen radical suggestions that effectively ask the governing bodies to "rip it up and start again," moving the Asian swing to the beginning of the calendar, shifting the Australian Open to March and having the season basically end after the U.S. Open. Changing Grand Slam tournaments to best-of-three matches is another idea out there. But, yeah, none of that's going to happen for practical, political and historical reasons. It's not about what should be done; it's about what can be done.

The way I see it, there are just too many disparate interests fighting for their piece of the pie, demanding more but relinquishing nothing. The best men have played the fewest number of tournaments this year (13-15), but because of the mandatory Masters and Slams, they're consistently playing the top guys at the biggest events, which is a huge physical and mental drain. Then you have the rank-and-file, most of whom play as much as they can (Daniel Gimeno-Traver, ranked No. 90, has played 29 events this year) and can't afford to lose any tournaments on the calendar. They're playing for money to live on. Can the premier players really persuade everyone to agree to eliminate lower-level tournaments to shorten the season? They'd be asking journeymen, who need the money most, to give up millions in available prize money.

And then you have the ATP and the tournaments. If the ATP can't guarantee that the elite will show up to the marquee events, then the tournaments will struggle securing sponsors, television deals and, of course, ticket sales. All of that affects the bottom line, which makes the Tour less profitable for everyone. I just don't see enough pieces budging to devise a workable solution.

So what do you think, Alexandra? Is there a way to fix the schedule?

Alexandra Willis: Hello, Courtney, it's a pleasure to be involved. The issue is a head-scratching one to say the least, because, as you say, it forces the combination of so many varying interests that it seems almost insoluble. So far, we've heard only three specific views on the debate -- the top players, who are complaining; the ATP, which is fire-fighting; and former players, who are toeing the line between wanting today's players to voice their opinions without a work stoppage and siding with the players' right to strike.

Those yet to express a peep are the lower-ranked players, who, in a way, stand most to lose from the ATP's bowing to the wishes of Murray and Co.; and, of course, as you mention, the tournaments.

I agree that drastic measures such as playing fewer sets at Grand Slams and re-slotting the Australian Open (it moved from December to January for a reason) simply aren't going to happen. And to go so far as to "rip up the calendar" and start again would take years and years of negotiations. After all, as you have pointed out, look how long it took to move the Davis Cup weekend by just a week -- three years.

But there do seem to be a couple of possible solutions. They would be more of a nip-tuck instead of an overhaul, but they could make a difference. The two biggest gripes, as far as Nadal and Murray are concerned, are the length -- or lack thereof -- of the offseason and the number of mandatory events.

The first one has been partially solved for next year, although ATP chief executive Adam Helfant has been shrewd in his managing of this -- bumping Paris and London back-to-back. So the number of events remains the same. Still, it is clear that the players would rather have the two weeks after London than before. Ending the year in early November rather than the start of December will surely make a difference.

The second is an interesting one. If the ATP were to follow the lead of the WTA and cut the number of mandatory ATP events from 12 to 10 (not including Grand Slams) -- which it could do by trimming the number of mandatory 500 tournaments  from four to two -- that should go a ways toward lessening the load. And here, only those ranked in the top 30 are affected -- it doesn't involve scrapping any tournaments, and it means that Gimeno-Traver can still play as many events as he likes in his quest for points and prize money.

Of course, those two ATP 500 events will lose marquee names. But one would hope that they don't all lose the same marquee names at the same time.

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If players organize their schedule better, they would avoid always coming up against the same faces, something Murray and others have noted. Surely the example of the first week in January is a good one: Murray and Djokovic played Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia. Nadal and Roger Federer played the Qatar Open. Just the right amount of competition, one would think.

There is another option that has been suggested, too. How about a midseason break? It sort of happens almost unofficially now anyway. There is no reason why the top pros couldn't take the entire month of July off from competition, even the start of August as well. That would give them a decent four-to-five-week stretch between Wimbledon and the start of the hardcourt season. It would perhaps be too sweeping to enforce this across the entire Tour, as many players could not afford to spend four weeks not playing and not earning. But it might at least make the top players feel like they're being given some respite.

Of course, this doesn't take into account the tournaments themselves that rely on advertising Federer or Nadal in the draws.

Nguyen: I like the suggestion of cutting the mandatory ATP events from 12 to 10. But -- and I do hate being a negative Nelly -- here's the problem: If the ATP isn't contractually obligated to provide a top-30 player, then the value of the contract decreases. I'd argue that it declines significantly for those tournaments that may not be able to guarantee a marquee player on their own. A tournament like Basel wouldn't be affected too much because it will always be able to guarantee Federer. The same applies to a tournament like Belgrade or Queens, both of which are 250s (side note: How ridiculous it is that Queens is a 250?) but can rightly rely on Djokovic and Murray to show up. What about the ATP 500s in places like Rotterdam, Dubai, Acapulco, Beijing and Tokyo? If the ATP can't guarantee a strong field, particularly in places like Asia, where tennis still needs to gain traction, will those tournaments even survive?

The problem I keep butting up against is the fact that it seems like it's just the top men complaining, and even then we're not talking about the top-30 guys, for whom the mandatory 16 tournament commitments apply. We're talking about the top four, and even then we're not talking about the top four; we're talking about Nadal and Murray. There may be conversations happening behind the scenes that we're not privy to, but publicly they're the faces of the debate, for better or worse.

So, given the perception that this isn't as widespread of a problem as it's being made out to be, here's my question: Why can't Nadal and Murray just skip tournaments and take a hit in the rankings points? They have the cash and the points. If they're that exhausted, then just give up some cash and points. Seems to me that solves everything.

Willis: That is an interesting point. After all, that's what the Williams sisters do, by and large, isn't it? But my hunch is that Nadal and Murray would not like to be the bad guys. They like playing by the rules. Breaking them would be a very un-Rafa-like thing to do. Why else would he go to such an effort to actually play more tournaments than he needs to already this year?

But I take your point that it's just those two complaining -- though Djokovic did lay into the length of the season at the World Tour Finals last year. Perhaps after Shanghai we'll get a view of how some of the other players feel. The only real way of knowing will be to fast-forward a year and see if they feel differently after having a longer offseason. That has to make a difference, psychologically if not physically. They will feel they can shut the door on one year and start thinking about the next.

I also wonder how much of this has to do with the way the U.S. Open went this year. Finishing on a Monday and then having to fly several time zones to play Davis Cup just a few days later is far from ideal for anyone. Ironically, Federer, who made the longest trip, all the way down to Sydney, has been noticeably quiet. But if the U.S. Open had been smoother, would this debate have quite so much fire to it? Probably not.

I do think player scheduling would help a bit. If the players almost agreed who is going to play where, they could split themselves among the 500s to reduce the risk that they'd all end up in the same place -- thus avoiding consigning themselves to a tough week. Doing so would also protect the 500 events from being without a big name. They need to show that they can work together to effect change, not just expect change to come to them, whatever that change may be. You decide: Vote in our poll above and sound off in the comments with your takes on the best way to address the tennis schedule.

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