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Gladiator revolt or. . . tennis revolution?

Few professional sports are as successful across both the men’s and women’s game as tennis. Regular combined events in some of the world’s most famous sporting arenas provide a unique package for spectators, sponsors and broadcasters.

The complex issues that a global, multi-stakeholder sport such as tennis faces, coupled with the lessons learned from other sports have enabled improvements in both operational and financial performance in the sport. At a worldwide level, consultations with stakeholders, tournament financial analysis and calendar restructuring work with the ATP has helped the world governing body of men’s tennis drive through several changes to the competition format for the men’s professional tour. However the development of the “business” of tennis over the last twenty years has also had a detrimental effect on the pressures applied on the “Gladiators” of the game – the players – who are an essential part of the business of tennis, as without them there would be no game, no business!

The chaos which ensued at the US Open 2011 regarding playing conditions, injuries and withdrawals, has brought into sharp focus the need for a radical re think of the game and the running of the modern game so that players as well as fans are protected, with the quality of the “product” beneficial to all.

Let us look at the US Open particularly to understand the concerns and issues more closely.

Over the course of the two week period there were over 18 singles player who pull out of the tournament as a result of injury or illness. The high number of withdrawals have been a major talking point of the tournament, with two players pulling out before the start, two more choosing not to play their matches – including Venus Williams – and 14 more retiring mid-match. Many of the players have been strong critics of the length of the tennis season which has been swirling for years , and Andy Murray weighed into the debate on Twitter, echoing what many players and fans feel, saying: “is the 18th pull out in the us open telling the tennis authorities anything?? No?? Thought not….”

There needs to be something done about the length of the Tennis season. Tennis has no off-season like many other professional sports. Maybe more so for those in the top 20 but a lot of the players are still grinding it out in tournaments till the end of November and maybe they get three weeks off to prepare for the Australian summer. Professional tennis players are not machines and should not be expected to perform as such. Even the fittest Tennis player is going to wear down their body in this week in week out grind.  The player’s body suffers and, in this case, the US Open suffers.  The previous record for retirements during the US Open was 10! Is more proof needed that the gruelling ATP schedule is taking its toll on the players?

Murray is united with Nadal in another battle the players are about to wage off the court – they are determined to revolutionise tennis.
After two weeks’ farce at Flushing Meadows, when the second-largest court became unfit for play, and the match scheduling became so congested at one of the game’s major championships, due to rain and poor planning, that the organisers of the US Open had no option other than to delay the men’s final 24 hours until the third Monday, Murray is keen to be at the forefront of a player-driven overhaul of tennis regarding the things that the players want and the things the players want to improve.

The US Open may well turn out to be a pivotal point in the future direction of professional tennis. The players are serious about change – whereas in the past when ideas were rejected the players just shrugged and accepted they had gone away. It is understood that a players’ charter is going to be drawn up to demand a shorter season, less mandatory tournaments and a two-year ranking system. In addition it is planned to come up with a list of requirements that will help prolong careers.

The document will be put to the best players on tour at the Shanghai tournament in mid-October for them to sign acceptance of the proposals placed before them. It is clear players are taking more interest in how tennis is run, not just the top guys, but the whole tour.
Andy Roddick says he is happy to step forward and front a players’ union in a bid to head off such problems in the future. The reasoning for Roddick’s willingness is that he feels that he is the right person to be involved and understands the business side of the sport, as well as, the chance to leave the sport in a better position for the players moving forward. As the players point out, the problem is not the organisation but more particularly the players don’t have enough power, which has to change.

The biggest issue for players during the US Open was the conditions they were being ask to play in without due regard to injury of the players, against a back drop of TV and media pressures. “It’s dangerous, the lines get really slippy,” Murray told ESPN. “Players want to play more than anyone, but not when it’s dangerous.”

Defending champion Nadal said: “Grand Slams are about a lot of money. They’re just working for that, not for us. They know it’s still raining and call us onto the court. That’s not possible. I understand the fans want to see tennis but the health of the players is the most important and we do not feel protected. We want to feel good when we are playing a tournament and we cannot accept these things. We have to fight to change things, to have enough power that we don’t have to go on court when it’s raining. If I have to go on court, I’ll go on court, but I don’t think it’s fair.”

On one day, play was possible for about 15 minutes on the three main show courts before the predicted rain returned. Nadal said on TV that players need to be protected.“We are part of the show as well,” he said in a subtle dig at the USTA. Yes, the tournament was playing catch-up and needed to get matches done, but the panic decision to send out the players for such a short period of time, against their wishes, was a misguided one.

Whilst players understand the need to put tennis on TV, as well as the financial and business aspects, players need to feel comfortable and safe. Andy Murray was amazed to discover towels being used to soak up standing water at the back of the Grandstand court just as he was being told it was fit to play. No wonder there was a behind-closed-doors meeting between players and officials after a brief period of play. The official line was that a two-hour window of dry weather had been forecast. It turned out to be just 15 minutes!

Murray was told to warm up four times between 4.30pm and 5.30pm local time before his match was finally called off for the day at 5.45pm. All the exertion and adrenalin meant he felt more drained than if he had played. The night session was even more chaotic. Officials somehow imagined the women’s quarter-finals could be played, calling the competitors to court at 7.30pm only to send everyone home after the knock-ups.

For over 25 years, the US Open has promoted ‘Super Saturday’ hosting the men’s semi-finals one day before the final. Often, the winner of the second semi-final gets to bed so late that he barely has time to prepare for what should be one of the most important matches of his life.
In 1985, McEnroe took over five hours to beat Mats Wilander, a former world No 1, in five sets in the second semi-final. The next day he was beaten in straight sets by Ivan Lendl. Other stars down the years could conceivably plead that their hopes of winning this title had been ruined by the effort they had been required to expend the day before the final.

The reasoning for such ridiculous scheduling is purely down to money and business where tennis becomes the byproduct! CBS television pays hundreds of millions of dollars to have a controlling stake in the schedule. But this year’s fiasco embarrassed officials of the USTA who have been cowered into re-addressing their thinking for the future. An insider said, ‘Perhaps, the penny has dropped that this isn’t the CBS Open.’ Events at the US Open have galvanised their minds.

The chaos and frustrations surrounding the players and playing schedules was further heightened with the Davis Cup semi finals following on less than four days after the US Open final with some players having to travel half way around the world. In particular Nadal was not impressed!

Rafael Nadal helped Spain to a 2-0 lead over France in their Davis Cup semi-final but was angry about the tie coming so soon after the US Open final.  Nadal lost to Novak Djokovic in an epic contest in New York on the Monday but beat Richard Gasquet in straight sets on Friday, in Spain, in baking conditions.

Nadal said: “It is unacceptable that two big events like a Grand Slam and a Davis Cup semi-final are so close.” He intimated that leading players could strike if the tennis calendar was not changed to give players more rest periods.

“I rule out nothing,” said Nadal. “I wouldn’t like to go as far as a strike because playing is what I like to do. But something has to happen. As the International Tennis Federation doesn’t want to listen, it would seem that the only way to get things moving is to act in the strongest manner.” Nadal added: “If this continues, the best players in the world will stop playing in this competition.”

In the other semi-final, between Argentina and Serbia, Djokovic, had to withdraw from the first singles rubber with a back problem.

Whilst in Sydney,  Roger Federer made a sluggish start before beating Lleyton Hewitt 5-7  7-6  6-2  6-3 playing for Switzerland against Australia in a World Group playoff. Federer said he was feeling the effects of his five-set loss to Djokovic in the US Open semi-finals.

Tennis has come a long way since “Open Tennis” began in 1968 and the ATP’s been part of the history. As we could be on the verge of another player revolution, it may be worthwhile to reflect on the similarities and feelings that caused “change” before.

The Grand Slam tournaments and all other national championships were open to amateur competitors only prior to 1968. Two years later tournaments around the world formed a unified circuit, which became the Grand Prix. In 1972, the leading professionals joined forces to create the Association of Tennis Professionals.

This direction marked another defining moment in the history of the ATP, when a handful of the game’s leading players met in a secluded stairwell at the US Open to discuss the need for a players’ association. Under the leadership of Jack Kramer and Cliff Drysdale, the ATP came to life with a goal of changing the game for the better.

One of the initial acts of the organisation was the establishment of a computer ranking system that provided fair analysis of a player’s performance as well as an objective means to determine entries into tournaments. The ATP Rankings began on Aug.  23, 1973 and has continued as the official ranking system in men’s professional tennis.

From 1974 to 1989, the men’s circuit was administered by the Men’s Tennis Council (MTC), made up of representatives of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the ATP and tournament directors from around the world.

Although the period during which the MTC guided the game was one of tremendous progress and improvement, players began to feel more and more that they should have a greater voice in their sport. Players had realised the time had come for them to take more control over the game . . . . . . . . . .  is history now going to repeat itself?

At the 1988 US Open, ATP CEO Hamilton Jordan, surrounded by many of the top players in the game, held the now-famous “press conference in the parking lot.” The ATP released “Tennis at the Crossroads,” outlining the problems and opportunities facing men’s tennis.

One of the options available to the ATP was the formation of a new circuit, the ATP Tour. The players, under Hamilton Jordan, held a press conference in the US Open parking lot to announce that they will assume more control of the game. “Tennis at the Crossroads” outlined a plan for players to form a new tour in which they would play a major role and bear greater responsibility for the future of the sport. The idea was quickly embraced by the membership. Eighty-five of the Top 100 ranked players sign a letter of support for a new tour within weeks of the news conference. Tournament directors representing many of the world’s leading events voice their support for the players and join them in what was to become a partnership unique in professional sports; players and tournaments each with an equal voice in how the circuit is run.

The 2011 season marks the 22nd year the ATP has administered the worldwide circuit of men’s professional tennis. However in view of recent events and the increasing voices of descent from the players are we about to witness a new dawn?

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