Commentary

The next sports work stoppage: Tennis?

The power structure should listen to Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray

Originally Published: September 21, 2011
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Pain. Rest. Strike.

Tennis has a new mantra. Forget Game. Set. Match.

It's been replaced by the latest call from some of the game's marquee players to end the sport's grueling, global, near-death march through a calendar year's series of tournaments and have a true offseason, just like every other major sport on the planet.

Rafael Nadal, the world's No. 2-ranked player, ignited the buzz during the Davis Cup semifinals last week when he said players might take "strong action" if the ATP World Tour (which runs the men's tour) and the International Tennis Federation (which runs the Grand Slams and Davis Cup) don't figure out a way to give players substantive time to rest and recuperate.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Greg Wood/AFP/Getty ImagesSo far, Rafael Nadal and other players are only threatening some sort of action. But it's a threat to take seriously.

Britain's Andy Murray, ranked No. 4, went even farther, saying in an interview with Alexandra Willis of the London Telegraph that a players' strike is a "possibility."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Murray said, adding that the players are "not afraid" of such an action.

Next month, Nadal, Murray, Roger Federer and No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic are planning to meet in Shanghai at the Rolex Masters, another gotta-be-there event. Murray insists the gathering of the world's top players isn't meant to convey the ire over the schedule as an elitist mandate. He says the players in Shanghai will come up with a list of "requests" they believe will benefit players of all rankings.

"Two or three weeks during the year," he told the Telegraph, "a few less tournaments a year, which I don't think is unreasonable."

Head-butting over tournament requirements is nothing new. It's almost as much an annual rite in tennis as the heat Down Under for the Australian Open, the red clay at the French, strawberries and cream at Wimbledon and rain at the U.S. Open. Indeed, perhaps in response to earlier complaints, there are two fewer tournaments this year (71) than there were five years ago. Still, for years, the players' grumbling typically went no further than the locker room.

Now the gripes are sitting square at centre court.

And they're justified.

Men ranked in the top 30 are required to compete in a minimum of 12 events each year in addition to the four majors -- the first of those is the Australian Open in mid-January -- and if they finish among the top eight, the season could take them through the very non-major ATP World Tour Finals in late November.

Of course, the requirements may mean one thing to a lower-ranked player flying coach who is ecstatic to cash a second- or third-round check every once in a while, and quite another to an elite private jetter who regularly plays deep into tournaments. In a blog on the controversy, Willis of the Telegraph detailed Djokovic's magnificent 2011. In winning three of the grand slams and 10 tournaments overall, he's already played 74 matches this year (including exhibitions), with the season yet to run into December. (In 2012, the season will be two weeks shorter, in response to prior player complaints.)

Andy Murray
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesAndy Murray, who fought back pain at the U.S. Open, says the players aren't afraid to … well, stop playing.

The women, by contrast, are required to play in only 10 events each year. Their tour ends a month ahead of the men's, and they pretty much have all of November and December off.

Today's game is markedly more physical than it was a generation ago. Advanced racket technology allows players to crush the ball harder than ever, and the overall increase in training and fitness has made players stronger. The result?

Djokovic might be Exhibit A. The physical toll from his wondrous year manifested itself at the U.S. Open earlier this month. The 24-year-old Serb battled a partially ruptured back muscle throughout the tournament and looked like he might have to forfeit against Nadal in a masterful, yet brutal, 4-hour, 10-minute final when he required treatment and an injury timeout after the first game of the fourth set. He recovered and went on to win 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1.

This year's Open, not coincidentally, saw a record number of matches that ended in retirements -- players quitting in mid-match.

Last weekend, when Serbia hosted Spain in a Davis Cup semifinal, Djokovic skipped his opening-round match, then was forced to quit on Sunday after falling to the court in pain during the third game of the second set against Juan Martin del Potro. Spain won to advance to the final against Nadal and Argentina -- in December.

Interestingly, Djokovic has not joined the "strike" chorus, at least not outside the locker room. But following the Davis Cup loss, he said his injury "deserves rest," and added that he might have to skip Shanghai.

"I hope I will recover by then," he told reporters after the match. "Anyway, I won't risk worsening the injury and that's why it is hard to predict how long I will rest."

Too much tennis -- without a chance for players to recuperate, re-energize and re-build their bodies -- is hurting the sport. At the least, it's diminishing its top ranks. Already we've seen many talented women burn out too early, though a few have returned after as much as a year-long respite.

I really wonder if Federer, now 30, might be the last long-time champion standing.

"The complaint is legitimate," says Katrina Adams, a former player and current television analyst. "If the amount of tournaments isn't addressed, careers might be shortened a year or two."

A solution isn't simple. Dropping tournaments, for example, might mean less overall prize money, which the players certainly won't support. And squeezing tournaments closer to each other to create gaps in the schedule might not offer the kind of extended rest players in other sports use to revive and rebuild their bodies.

There's also the decision regarding which tournaments to cut. Events located in the U.S., where the sport is somnambulant (only one American is ranked in the world's top 10, and just four are in the top 50)? In some other country, where the sport may be more popular but is lacking in corporate promise?

[+] EnlargeDjokovic
Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe long season caught up with Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open, where he needed treatment during the final against Nadal.

And as is often the case, scheduling might only be the launching pad for a larger debate that threatens to make the current complaints look like a debate over a foot fault. (Well, maybe not a foot fault involving Serena.)

Unlike athletes in major sports such the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, tennis players aren't unionized; they certainly aren't represented by the likes of a DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL players' union, who stood brow-to-brow with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement that saved the season and gain some concessions for his players in the midst of a protracted lockout.

Tennis players have talked about unionizing before; now, with the rise in player salaries in other sports, new rumblings are emerging.

"The men," says Adams, "want to separate themselves for a bigger say in what's going on."

Especially when it comes to money. It has long been the case that tennis players, especially the top-ranked ones, earn extensively more income off the court (endorsements and exhibitions) than they do in tournament winnings.

Djokovic, for example, has earned $10,609,318 in tournament winnings thus far in 2011. By contrast, the top-paid players in the NFL (Peyton Manning, $23 million) and NBA (Kobe Bryant, $25 million) earn more than double that amount from their contracts with their teams, as well as hefty endorsement incomes.

Reading the daily headlines as the NFL and its players arm-wrestled over the league's $9 billion pot, and as the NBA and its players' union tussle over its bounty now, could place revenue sharing on that players' list in Shanghai.

If that happens, then the debate over the length of the tennis season might just be a strong first serve in a long five-set battle.

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com