But now that the change is being made, one wonders if it will actually be enough, or, will further changes to the calendar need to come in the years to follow. When comparing the length of the ATP off-season – even after the change – to the length of the off-seasons that other professional athletes are enjoying, it’s hard not to wonder if tennis isn’t doing itself a disservice. Especially given that tennis – seen in the past as a genteel non-contact sport – has become so brutally physical in the last ten years.
Using the first two months of the season as a gauge, staying healthy is clearly a challenge for the ATP’s top players. Case in point: World No. 1 Rafael Nadal has already been out for more than a month (adductor), world No. 2 Novak Djokovic has pulled out of a tournament (shoulder) and a Davis Cup tie (fatigue) and the world No. 4 Andy Murray recently pulled out of Dubai (wrist). None of the injuries are season-threatening, but they are signs that top players are not only finishing seasons fatigued, they are also starting them that way.
Complex issues color the players’ negotiations with the ATP. First of all, some of the tournaments are owned and operated by the players. This dynamic creates a stalemate that other sports don’t typically encounter. Next, there are a different set of physical and financial needs for virtually every player on tour. While the big breadwinners are more than good with a jumbo-sized off-season, there are plenty of other journeymen-type players who need the extra months to put their financial houses in order.
Even top players are aware that the issue is not as cut and dry as it appears. “I think Adam (ATP President Adam Helfant) is doing a great job,” said Rafael Nadal before the schedule change was made official. “He knows the season is too long. But even for some players – maybe not for the top players, but for other players – they prefer to play during all the season because they have more chances to keep winning money and to keep playing.”
Nadal showed sensitivity to the issue here, but he’s also been very adamant about telling his side of the story over the last few seasons. He’s been one of the workhorses of the tour, and his body has paid the price for that. He has alluded to the fact that the shorter schedule might be shortening the length of careers, and this is something that the ATP can ill afford, given what a boon Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been for the sport this century.
“In terms of these guys playing at their peak potential and remaining injury free throughout an extended season, the more time they get in the off-season to either heal or rehab injuries that they suffer over the course of the season, the better,” says Jason Riley, the director of The Athletes Compound at Saddlebrook in Tampa, Florida. Riley, who works with John Isner and other big names across several sports, knows that life on the ATP tour is extremely tough on a body. “The thing that most people don’t take into account about the ATP is that these guys fly all over the entire world, not just the United States, they have jet lag, and they’re playing every week, up to five matches a week – so there bodies are taking a beating.”
Riley also went on to mention the nature of tournament play makes it hard for the athlete to say no to playing opportunities, and sometimes these decisions are made to the detriment of better long-term fitness.
While a professional football, baseball, or basketball player is paid a set amount of money (though his contract may have incentives) for a designated season with a clearly defined beginning and end, players on the ATP Tour are perpetually tempted by the allure of making more money. It is a system that makes the sport that much more compelling, but it is also a system that has lead us to a season that seems never-ending.
“You’re cramming for the exam,” says Joe Regan, a nutrition and exercise physiologist with Peak Progress. “You’re just kind of rushing it (with the short off-season). You need to anatomically prepare yourself, then you need to up the load, then you need to transfer your work to the court. In my opinion, seven weeks is just not enough time for that.”
Clearly it’s not the best scenario for the health of the athlete, and we’ve seen in recent years that schedule management has become an art almost as important as a good serve or a world-class backhand. Top players who can afford it are starting to pick and choose what events they play in order to recharge their batteries for the big events like the Grand Slams. Federer takes mini-vacations over the course of the year, and Rafael Nadal has followed suit of late.
But the top athletes, in spite of their desire for more vacation time, still find the time to play exhibitions. Nadal and Federer played two this December. “That’s a very complex question,” says Nick Bollettieri. “If the players are going to have a shorter season, is it going to be rest, working on their game, more time with their families, and working harder physically? Because if they are going to throw in four or five exhibitions here and there and everywhere, you can answer that yourself.”
Before you roll your eyes at the insincerity of Federer and Nadal to be campaigning for shorter season so that they can play more tennis, consider the facts. Exhibition tennis is not stressful in the way that tournaments can be. Money is not an issue, as it is decided ahead of time, and since each exhibition is only one friendly match, players can enjoy them without having to stretch for every ball or risk injury for the result.
And while we are taking the opportunity to investigate the nature of the toll that the ATP season takes on the players, it is only fair that we note that the ATP is listening. They are showing their commitment to their players by shortening the season, and if they feel that there needs to be more tinkering down the line to prolong the careers of their stars, one gets the feeling that they’ll do whatever is necessary to maintain the integrity of the game.
Pauly Pisani, a strength and conditioning coach who has worked with Sam Querrey, Amer Delic and Robert Kendrick, is happy about the change. “I love it,” he says. “As a coach it’s a great time to train the player in a stress free environment while also spending time with the family. “I see how the players can get burnt out,” he adds. “It’s a long year. Players are chasing points relentlessly, and that can be quite draining after a while.”
No matter how long the season, or how short the off-season, there is no denying that the physicality of ATP tennis is cause for concern, debate, and two-way dialogue. Injuries are a part of the game, and finding balance between earning a living and preserving the body for longer-term success will never be black and white.
The shorter ATP schedule is definitely a step in the right direction. Whether or not it will be the final step remains to be seen.