It's post-US Open time, and as is the custom, it's time to debate the merits of the ATP's current schedule. This year, however, there is a new wrinkle, as the big "S" word has been spoken by some of the players (most notably, Andy Murray). The mere mention of a player strike has taken the conversation to another level, and since a good healthy dialogue about a lingering issue that never seems to go away is always a good idea, I'm heavily in favor of opening the can of worms and keeping it open.
This week's Weekly Net Post by the USA Today's Joe Fleming has some really good background on the situation, and there are currently scads of opinions being thrown around, some in favor of the players, and others not so much.
Former world No. 2 and current tournament director at Hamburg Michael Stich had some choice words for Andy Murray in response to his complaints. "I don't think it's a big issue," said Stich. "They are not playing more than we did 10 or 15 years ago and they have shorter seasons than we used to. I think the players forget that all the tournaments out there provide them with jobs."
Stich's argument, while passionate, overlooks the systemic changes that have occurred in tennis over those aforementioned 10 to 15 years. Anyone who knows the sport knows that the physicality of today's tennis is exponentially greater than that of decades past. And let's not forget how truly global the game has become too, which means that players are traveling more in addition to playing more physical tennis when they finally arrive at their destinations.
And correct me if I'm wrong, but is the issue about what happened in tennis 15 years ago or is it about what is happening now? In spite of the ATP's laudable efforts to reduce the schedule by two weeks starting next year, issues still remain.
Murray's biggest beef is about the mountain of mandatory events that players must attend. The rankings are built around these mandatory events, and the biggest rewards don't just go to the players that play the best -- they go to the players that play the best the most often.
Players that want to play less over the course of the year, either to prolong their careers or to recover from injuries or to simply relax, are punished for doing so. "I know because I've spoken to a lot of the players, that they're serious now about trying to get some changes," said Murray. "To get another change implemented, it might take 5 or 6 years at the rate it's going now, and then all of us will be done, so we want it to happen sooner than later."
Players are preparing to meet Shanghai next month, and Murray, while not adamant about a work stoppage, is not ruling out the possibility of a boycott. "We need to have some say in things that go on in our sport. Right now we don't," he said. "I think it's (a strike) a possibility, and I know from speaking to the other players that they're not scared of doing that anymore."
Martina Navratilova came out in support on Thursday, saying in an interview with the BBC, "You cannot maintain that level of intensity and not put your body in hospital eventually. I don't know why Andy Murray should be criticized for taking charge of his life."
Having watched this year's US Open, which featured a record number of player retirements due to injury, it's hard to argue with Murray and his peers. The quality of the game is suffering in it's current state due to the rigors of the calendar, and as much as I hate to mention this, tennis is basically daring it's players to find ways to enhance their performance beyond natural levels in order to maintain the intensity that Navratilova spoke of in her interview.
Think about it: If tennis becomes a sport that rewards players more for their ability to recover quickly, last longer and play more often, is it really putting its best foot forward in terms of growing the game, entertaining its fans, and ensuring that the best possible product is put on the court at all times?
Of course there are different standards for the top players on tour and the lower-ranked players, because the top players play more and have their services in demand more often, which is why lowering the amount of mandatory requirements (and adjusting the way that rankings are kept accordingly) might be a good place to start. This way players who need the money can still play all year long, and tournaments can stay in existence (albeit with a little less starpower).
There's no way to avoid hurting someone, but the fact is clear: Having a system that grinds the top players to a pulp and spits them out of the sport when they have hardly turned 30 is a travesty.
Something needs to change, and I'm all for Murray and his fellow players doing what it takes to ensure that it actually does.