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Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Is the tennis calendar too long?


Flashback: 1988, U.S. Open parking lot.

A warm late-summer day in New York and the players are heated, but not as a result of the weather. They're unhappy with how the men's pro tennis council is running the yearlong tour. Banded together, top players and lesser players, they want change. They back their leader, Hamilton Jordan, the former chief of staff to President Carter, in his vision for the ATP (Association of Tennis Players, then just the player's union) to take over the organization of the tour in 1990. Denied access to the U.S. Open press room, Jordan and the players take their protest outside to what will forever be known as the U.S. Open parking-lot press conference.

The media covering the parking-lot protest wonder aloud about the illogicality of the players controlling the tour. Yes, more than a few chuckled at the notion of the inmates running the asylum. But, in actuality, the prevailing opinion was that the players were being naive to believe they would have control if they took over the tour.

Flash-forward: 2009, Shanghai Masters 1000 interview room.

Andy Roddick arrives to do a pre-tournament press conference -- and given the opening, the always-outspoken American takes his case to the media. Many of the players are unhappy. The yearly calendar that runs from early January to the Davis Cup final the first week of December is too long. It is not designed to adequately provide players with the necessary rest, recuperation and rejuvenation for the coming year. Roddick cites convincing evidence: Roger Federer (fatigue) and Andy Murray (wrist injury) didn't show in Shanghai. He talks about the months Rafael Nadal missed this year tending to knee tendinitis and a stomach muscle pull. Little did Roddick know that only days later he would become one of nine players to retire injured from a match in Shanghai -- he bowed out in the first set of his opening match to Stanislas Wawrinka with knee pain.

"I just hope that the shortsightedness doesn't affect the length of careers," said Roddick, who applauds the innovative WTA Tour Road Map instituted this year that was designed to give the women a longer offseason. "I think in tennis you definitely want your stars around as long as possible. We've been talking about this forever and now we get slapped with mandatory tournaments."

Although Roddick admits that new ATP CEO Adam Helfant appears more willing to hear players' complaints than his predecessor, Etienne de Villiers, the U.S. star is concerned whether anything will be done to fix the calendar problem.

Roddick is searching for a little "common sense" to be applied, and within that goal, he acknowledges that the concept of the players union running the tour is fraught with conflict of interest. Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing is up to interpretation, but it turns out the players never really gained control. Their adversary: Many serving on the ATP board are directly linked to tournaments with their own self-serving agendas.

"Well, I think so," said Roddick, when asked if players lose out by not having more traditional union representation. "I certainly don't see any other sporting leagues or federations following our lead as far as not being individually represented."

Many players, including former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, back Roddick's contention that the calendar is too demanding, especially for the top guns who qualify for the eight-man year-end tournament, and those participating in the Davis Cup final.

"I've always thought the season is extremely long," Hewitt said. "I've always argued that and I never really got anywhere. I think something's got to be done at some stage, because you want to have the best guys playing in a lot of the big tournaments."

Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, believes there are plans to alleviate the situation, saying, "Of course, we have a hard calendar. It's difficult to play 11 months, high level, but we know they are working on that, so we hope that could change for the future. But we know it's difficult to change soon."

And not everyone has joined the bandwagon for a shorter, more streamlined ATP Tour calendar.

"I have a different point of view of most of the players," said Tommy Robredo, a former top-five ranked player. "I think if we will have tournaments every week, it will be perfect. Because then anyone has the chance to play the weeks he wants. The problem now is that we have the obligation to play certain tournaments and then we have to play the Masters 1000, the Grand Slams, and that's an obligation. "