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|Rafael Nadal did not take a week off during last season's clay-court circuit.|
Tennis players manage pressure, expectations and scheduling in many ways. The same day he cracked his racket to the ground, Roger Federer expressed relief that the hard-court season was over. This from a man who as recently as 2006 swept through Australia, Indian Wells, Calif., and Key Biscayne, Fla.
While Federer was eager to head to clay because he's been frustrated this year on hard courts, no doubt Rafael Nadal is amped up for the European clay-court season because it's the spot where he's always excelled.
Andy Roddick, though, is perhaps thinking more about peaking for Wimbledon and carrying any grass-court momentum into the North American summer hard-court season that culminates at the U.S. Open.
It will be interesting to see how focused Novak Djokovic is in the coming weeks as he juggles competing with working with his family to run a new ATP stop this coming May in Belgrade. Said Djokovic, "I'm happy that my family is directly involved in it. We are working hard already on the site for five, six months already."
Enthused as Venus and Serena Williams were to excel in Australia and Key Biscayne, it's always uncertain how committed each is to the European clay-court season.
Maria Sharapova's return is uncertain, but at best, she won't be in peak form until summer.
Kim Clijsters is back, with hopes of playing her best at the U.S. Open. Two years ago when she announced her immediate retirement, she was quite emphatic: "Time to marry. Children? Time for cooking and playing with my dogs. And particularly a lot of time with my friends and family. No more traveling. No more stepping in and out of planes. No more having to read gossip or lies in the papers." But fair enough. A highly likeable former No. 1 is returning, albeit with far lower expectations than she had in those bygone days.
This is a total contrast to the forthcoming spring of Dinara Safina, who has just become No. 1 by dint of 12 months of sustained high quality play -- but is now about to face the daunting challenge of defending all those points. As Martina Hingis once said in a quote that's endured longer than her career, "It's not easy going from being the hunter to the hunted."
On the one hand, the tennis season is never-ending. On the other, the planned peaks and valleys of the year-long narrative vary greatly among top players. Save for the four majors, it's not often that the game's very best are marching in lockstep throughout the year the way baseball teams jockey back and forth in division races -- or even the way golfers go at one another in a fairly tidy circuit of North American events. Leave it to tennis, for example, to kick off its women's clay-court swing in the same week with one event in Florida and another in Spain.
Does this scattered scheduling and planning process on the part of players and tours hurt the overall quality of the overall product? Perhaps. As ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said, "The majors are where the players really try and focus themselves to do the best. Regular tour events are merely there to set the table for their preparation."
"I still consider every tournament important to me," said Federer in Miami. "I don't like to say it's all about the majors. Of course it's there where the history books are written for me. I'm aware of that. Of course I use the schedule trying to peak for the majors."
It wasn't always this sobering. In the first two decades of the Open era, from 1968 to '88, the Australian Open was hardly taken seriously by dozens of players, particularly on the men's side. For a good deal of the '70s and '80s, a winter event held in Philadelphia carried far more weight among men than the Australian Open. Philadelphia's significance in turn nurtured an active North American and European indoor circuit. Among the women, Roland Garros took a backseat for much of the '70s to the Family Circle Cup, a major clay-court tournament then held in Hilton Head, S.C. For both genders, a wide range of political factors and the exceptional popularity of World Team Tennis kept the French Open from being fully regarded as a first-tier major until 1979.
Priorities were different, and perhaps in some ways fans across the world benefited in ways not quite as prevalent these days. Said Shriver, "The loyalty to the tour and to regular tour events still carried weight that made the champions of that era roll up their sleeves and be a little more workmanlike. Their job wasn't just the majors. That's lost a little bit today."But even in those days, top players began to manage schedules judiciously. On several occasions, Chris Evert eschewed competing on the winter indoor circuit, hoping to keep herself fresh for the spring and summer. During Shriver's many years as a top-five player, knowing her net-rushing game would not be particularly effective on red clay, she cared most of all during that time of year about playing good doubles at the French Open (a title she and Martina Navratilova won four times).
Then again, other players know there are times when tournaments can be used more as low-pressure electives than core courses. As Andy Murray said in Miami in describing his clay-court approach, "There's only two mandatory tournaments this year before the French. I'm planning on playing Monte-Carlo, and I can use that. There's not as much pressure playing there as, you know, there was before, because it doesn't have to go toward your ranking."
And so, in the absence of a significant offseason that permits much downtime, in a global sport where there's always another event to be played, players build their own offseasons within the season. For Nadal, that will likely come in July after Wimbledon. That same month, Serena Williams will play a few matches for World Team Tennis and compete at the WTA's event in Stanford, Calif.
Exile can also be another way to diffuse pressure. Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and now Clijsters each were certain they were quitting. Ditto for Justine Henin. And though each is, of course, free to speak as she wishes, might it have helped the tour better if they'd only called their departures sabbaticals? Said Shriver, "I've never trusted a retirement. It's easy to get burned out, but it's hard to walk away from."
As former pro and psychologist Allen Fox pointed out, "Scheduling is a way of dealing with pressure. If you're at the top, you're in tournaments longer; the season is year-round; the pressure is cumulative and incessant. High levels of this kind of stress for too long are hard to take for anyone no matter how good the player is."
So while certainly players are highly competitive once on the court, in mapping out their years and careers, each is pursuing a slightly different calendar, each managing his or her own personal pennant race. Still, as you might expect from someone who's reached the semis or better in a staggering 19 straight majors, Federer grasps the whole picture. "But at the same time, there's enough other tournaments where I can do well and want to do well," he said. "I have too much respect for tournament directors and fans and media, and I will always give it my best every tournament I play, otherwise I would rather stay at home."Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.