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Monday, December 1, 2008
Stop bickering about tennis' offseason

It's hard, sitting here holding my fire on year-end analyses and awards, knowing that it's a full month before 2008 officially ends. That's an interesting comment on what can be called the ongoing (and endless) debate about tennis' "offseason" -- or lack thereof.

All I can say contemplating the idea that tennis needs a longer offseason is … be careful what you wish for. For some reason, this idea that tennis needs an offseason has really taken hold. And it's understandable. You look at the dominant American team sports (NFL, MLB, NBA), and they all have offseasons, right?

Then you look at the schedule of a typical top player (the relatively short time between the end of one official ATP or WTA year and the beginning of the next), under today's ramped-up level of competition, and the proliferation of injuries, especially late in the year, and it's easy to jump up and call for a longer -- some would say "real" -- offseason.

But let's keep a few things about tennis in perspective. First, it's an individual sport; tennis players are, at least in theory, free to come and go as they please -- and to train (or not) as they see fit. They can jump onto, or off, the circuit at their discretion. The only person to pay a price for his or her absence is said player (and his or her fans).

And the sport itself has always been a year-round enterprise. This isn't because the Lords of Tennis were slave drivers, refusing to give players a seasonal break. It's because tennis is a global and seasonal sport, and it's always summer somewhere. Let's remember that when the annual holiday bowl games are being played by college football squads, often amid driving snow flurries, it's summer -- and time to think tennis -- in Australia, a major tennis outpost.

The larger truth lurking beneath the surface is that tennis is, in every sense, a periodic sport. The game is organized around the Grand Slam events, and those majors found their places on the calendar over a century-long desire to hold them at the right time and place in each nation. The four majors are really the four national championships of their respective countries, and each is the highlight of what might be called that nation's tennis season.

Players have always responded to this reality by embracing a judicious approach to the sport. They customarily chose their spots, alternating rest and play in the way that best suited their preferences (in terms of surface and tournament location). And that works, precisely because tennis is an individual sport populated by, essentially, freelancers. The athletes have always controlled how much they worked, and where, in a shifting international workplace. That's not a bad model.

The real culprit here is the demands placed on the players by the tours, mainly because of the way the rankings system works. The players are under pressure to play, but as freelancers they're also able to say no -- either overtly or by falling back on tennis' nuclear option: the claim (or reality) of injury or fatigue.

Over the next few weeks, a lot of jonesing tennis fans ought to ask themselves: Do we really want the sport's screen to go dark for, say, two or even three months in an effort to imitate the model of popular, national team sports?

Like I said, be careful what you wish for. Personally, I like a year-round game. Let the players get on and off the merry-go-round as they see fit.