Friday, August 4, 2017

Is the ATP schedule too taxing?

The ATP World Tour continues next week with a Masters 1000 tournament in Montreal. Of the top six in the ATP ranking, four players will be missing from Montreal. Of those, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic will be aside for the rest of the season.

Wawrinka and Djokovic are in a similar situation as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal last year as those missed the US Open and the rest of the season. Yet this year, those two have swept the Grand Slam titles and Nadal, followed by Federer, leads the Race to London ranking.

At the age of 35, Federer needs smart scheduling to allow his body more years on the top of the game. This year he skipped the entire clay season, including the French Open, to be fresh for the grass season. That worked for him as he won the record eighth Wimbledon title. Yet the cost of missing the clay season was three zero-pointers for his ranking.

Tennis has a short offseason. The season ends in late November and the new season begins at the beginning of January with the Australian Open starting in the third week of the season. In that one month of offseason, players play in the IPTL and exhibitions.

Once the season has started, it is hard for the players to have a longer break from the tour without compromising their ranking. February and April are the only months without mandatory events. As most of the Masters 1000s are back-to-back events, it's hard to have a longer break from the tour without multiple zero-pointers for the ranking.

I think the ATP World Tour schedule is too taxing for the players. The rankings should show who can play the best, not who can play the most. I would give the players more freedom in making their schedules and reduce the number of mandatory tournaments. Most top players would probably still play the Masters 1000s in Montreal and Cincinnati as a preparation for the US Open even if those were not mandatory.

I'd leave only the Grand Slam tournaments and some selected Masters 1000s as mandatory events. Indian Wells is a special Masters 1000 event. It's not preceding a bigger tournament, instead it's over a month after the Australian Open and over two months before the French Open. Given it's considered to be the biggest non-major, it could be mandatory. The following Masters 1000 event in Miami gets overshadowed by Indian Wells and I don't think it should be mandatory. Shanghai is another Masters 1000 I think should be mandatory. It may have the shortest history but is important for the ATP to attract new fans in Asia.

Making most of the Masters 1000s non-mandatory wouldn't probably change players' schedules a lot, players would still play them to prepare for the following Grand Slam tournaments. In addition to reducing mandatory events, I think the season needs to allow a longer offseason. Apart from the ranking points available, the European late-season indoor events serve little purpose. I think the ATP Finals could take place right after the Shanghai Masters 1000. As the season would be shorter, the number of tournaments included in the ranking should be reduced by one or two from the current 18.

Davis Cup suffers from the heavy season

The Davis Cup suffers from the absence of star players, especially in the early rounds. In a season that takes players to their physical limits, the star players are not particularly willing to play anything additional, possibly involving a transition to another surface for a single weekend and traveling to another continent.

The ITF Board proposed a switch from best-of-five to best-of-three in Davis Cup singles. The proposal got the support from the majority in the ITF annual general meeting but not the required majority of two thirds. However, the AGM gave the Board the authority to change the Davis Cup format without AGM voting. So the Davis Cup may still eventually become best-of-three in singles.

One must not underestimate the physical demands of Davis Cup ties. A Davis Cup tie with best-of-five singles means six to ten sets in singles, comparable to three or four best-of-three matches. Add to that possibly playing a best-of-five doubles match. A Davis Cup tie is comparable to playing a regular tournament, and away from playing elsewhere. But even with best-of-three singles, a Davis Cup tie would still be away from playing elsewhere. And you can't play more than your body allows to.

I doubt a change from best-of-five to best-of-three would bring the big names into Davis Cup ties. The traveling and the surface transitions are the problem. To make the Davis Cup flourish again, the ITF and the ATP need to find weeks where the ties are not too close to important tournaments. That's important especially for the early rounds; the chance of the title motivates the players more in the semifinal and final stages.

I'd also re-introduce the ranking points for the Davis Cup World Group. Winning two singles rubbers is comparable to making the semifinals or the final in a 250- or 500-point tournament, it should also be rewarded respectively. That was very much the case with the points system from 2009 to 2015 when there were 80 to 275 points available in World Group ties depending on the round.

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