When the ATP Tour were discussing how to knock off a few weeks of the calendar a few years ago, one of the options they considered was finding a way to prevent players then going off to play exhibitions anyway. In the end, it was something they were not able to do – restriction of trade laws would have something to say on it – or not willing to try.
This weekend’s Davis Cup final is the last official event of the year, a few days after the end of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Of the eight singles players who played in London, only David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych are present so for the other six, their season ended in mid-November. The bulk of the Tour were finished a week before that.
But the bone of contention is that over the next few weeks, the world’s top players – Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray – will all be involved in exhibition matches of one kind or another, extending their seasons, if you like. Over the course of a year, it is the top few who often point out that the schedule needs shortening but after getting their way, they go and compound matters by adding on a couple of extra matches, often in far-flung parts of the world demanding more travel and more of their time, time that could be spent resting.
It was interesting to hear Federer last week get pretty defensive when someone asked about the delicate balance of asking for more time off and then playing exhibitions. “That’s the beauty of an off‑season, you’re allowed to do whatever the hell you want,” Federer said. “I think that’s what’s nice, instead of having such a congested space where you just can barely take enough rest.
“Now if players want to play some matches, wherever it may be, that’s their choice. If you want to rest for six weeks, just don’t do anything, you can do that as well, which was not possible in the past. I think it’s definitely good. Now obviously it’s the responsibility of the players to not make errors and keep on playing, never to rest, all those things. But at least it’s their choice, which is a good thing.”
Now the reason the top players want a shorter calendar, or perhaps fewer mandatory events, or both, is because they are the ones playing the most matches. Nine of the top 11-ranked players contested the most matches in 2012, with No 5 David Ferrer top of the pile on 89, not including this weekend’s Davis Cup final.
It’s a subject that’s been discussed a lot lately but the top players are victims of their own success. The better they do in a tournament, the more matches they play and if they’re reaching the weekend in each event, then they are going to stack up wins. As they tire through a season, they often say they would like a thinned-out schedule, which seems fair enough, for them. But for others who don’t get to the semis each week, they need to play more tournaments to get their ranking points and prize money. It is, by nature, a two-tier Tour.
Now Federer drew the distinction between players who moan about it and those who manage their schedule well, like him. That’s fair, too. Also, it is hard to criticise players who are playing the majority of their exhibitions for their respective charities, rather than just racking up the cash. Murray, for example, is taking part in Andy Roddick’s charity event in mid-December but that also makes sense, since Murray is training in Florida anyway so he will be doing some good without any adverse effect on his body that could affect things in 2013.
In many ways, it’s not so much the exhibitions in December that are an issue; it’s the ones that pop up during the already congested season. The BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden, which features four players, all of whom have been world No 1 or won a grand slam, is too tempting for players to turn down. Rafa Nadal is reportedly being paid $1.5 million to play in 2013, but when you think it’s between tournaments in Europe and the start of the US hard-court swing in Indian Wells, just how sensible is it?
You can’t begrudge players making the most of what can often be short careers and I doubt many players would turn down the kind of money that Nadal is reportedly being offered. As John Isner said when the figures were reported, only a few players can command such a fee and good luck to them. Think Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and on the women’s side, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
So if the Tour can’t stop players doing exhibitions, perhaps it has to be smarter in educating them about how to talk about them, and the schedule itself. Thinning out the schedule, in terms of mandatory events, would allow them to take more breaks during the year and stay on Tour longer. They would doubtless play more exhibitions as well, but then they would not be moaning about how much they have to play and how little flexibility they have.
As Federer continued: “I know I’m playing exhibitions but I think my situation is pretty unique. I’ve never been to South America as a professional tennis player. Couldn’t be more excited right now for that trip. But I made sure I have a two‑week vacation before that and the preparation for South America.
So for me that is even the beginning of the buildup and the workouts. And on top of it, it’s a lot of fun. Plus I’m not playing any exhibitions after that, like I have in the past. I’m not playing the first week of the year either. Basically I’ve given myself enough space. It’s about just making sure you manage your schedule correctly.”