My co-writer Pat Davis weighed in on the changes she would like to see in tennis and now it’s my turn. Pat was quite sedate in her defense of the serve and volley. Though she didn’t say it, I happen to know that she wants to install a system that uses a cattle prod on reluctant volleyers to force them to the net.
If I wer President of the WTA or CEO of the ATP, I would shorten the tennis season. The year-end championships conclude by the third week in November and tuneups for the Australian Open start the first week of January. That gives tour players a five week offseason.
Professional baseball and football players have an offseason that is almost four months long. Basketball players get three and a half months off. Even NASCAR drivers gets a three month rest.
Andy Roddick fired Brad Gilbert as his coach, in part, because Gilbert had a conflict with Roddick’s father, Jerry, who is responsible for Roddick’s schedule. Because Roddick was so busy, Gilbert would have had only four days to work with him in the offseason at the end of 2004.
If you play too much, you will get injuries. Tournaments in the 2005 US Open Series, the tournaments leading up to the US Open, lost many of its seeded women players to injury. Roger Federer has been injured twice for an extended period this year and also missed tournaments running up to the year-end championship last year. Andre Agassi and Mary Pierce are old fogies who still play but, remember, both players took significant time off in the middle of their careers; Pierce for injuries and Agassi to asses his mental state. Nineteen-year-old Rafael Nadal already has sore knees.
In his book, The Courts of Babylon, Peter Bodo writes that Pete Sampras would get an appearance fee for entering a tournament in a far away place then arrive at the tournament the day before his match. He’d lose in the first round, collect his appearance fee and be on his way. It’s not like that now. There are a lot more far away places as the tour expands to Asia. The competition is so high that players enter tournaments all over the globe to pile up computer points and earn one of the coveted eight spots in the year-end championships.
The French Open and Wimbledon are each more than one hundred years old. Tinkering with them would be hard enough but there is an even bigger problem.
How would I shorten the season? Shorten the US Open Series, the set of tournaments leading up the US Open, from six weeks to four. Start the the Australian Open in the first week in February at the earliest. Cut the fall indoor season, the tournaments that follow the US Open and lead up to the year-end championship, in half to make it one month long. This would give players a three month off-season.
Injury is only one problem with the long schedule. Players also get mentally exhausted from the incessant travel to the ends of the earth. At least baseball players have a limited number of cities they visit within a season. To give the tour players a mental break, absorb World Team Tennis into the WTA and ATP and provide one month in the middle of the summer for tour players to join a team that plays in their country or local area. Travel would be reduced and players could see familiar surroundings and familiar faces for at least a short while.
To allow the team tennis break, move the French Open to the beginning of April and move Wimbledon to the third week in May. As it is now, players have two weeks to recover from long grueling rallies on clay and prepare for the other extreme in court surfaces: grass.
The French Open and Wimbledon are each more than one hundred years old. Tinkering with them would be hard enough but there is an even bigger problem. If I am president of the WTA or the ATP, I am not going to shorten the season because there is an important contradiction in the structure of my organization: it represents both the players and the tournament directors. There are three representatives of tournament directors on the ATP board of directors. They will not vote to undercut their constituents by closing down profit making tournaments.
The most effective way to force an employer to change labor conditions is to go on strike. The top players would have to strike otherwise tournament income would not be affected. You can see how much influence the doubles players have. They sued the ATP for eliminating their jobs, so far, unsuccessfully. Tournament directors are only too happy to drop doubles. Master Series Madrid announced that they were dropping the doubles competition until the the ATP convinced them to change their mind. The ATP wasn’t going to battle for their players, they were only delaying the inevitable. After 2008, there will be only two spots for doubles specialists in the draw.
But the top players have no reason to strike. They are making tons of money. Unless there is an epidemic of injuries that affects the tournament directors’ income, we are unlikely to see change until the players have an independent union. Looking at the players today, I don’t see too many rabble-rousing Billie Jean Kings. We may have to wait a long time for a shorter season.