Asia swing exposes game's great rift
Players torn between mandatory events of the cash-rich Far East and tiredness after a long season
The irony could not be clearer. The game's leading players are discussing a number of their concerns, mostly centred around the gruelling demands of the tennis schedule, here at this week's Shanghai Rolex Masters. The issues are still on the agenda, but it remains to be seen whether the players will come to any major decisions – mainly because so many of the top men will be absent through illness and injury.
Seven of the world's top 20 have handed in sick notes. Novak Djokovic, the world No 1, has a back injury he suffered in winning the recent US Open. Roger Federer, the president of the players' council at the Association of Tennis Professionals, cites niggling injuries and the need to recuperate after a demanding summer. Robin Soderling has glandular fever, Gaël Monfils and John Isner made early exits last week from the China Open with injury and illness respectively, Richard Gasquet has an elbow problem and Juan Martin del Potro is concentrating on Argentina's forthcoming Davis Cup final.
The current Asia swing, which reaches a climax here, has become an important part of the calendar. However, the dilemma for tennis is that while this part of the world is its biggest growth market, the Far East circuit coincides with a time when some top players are all but burnt out after eight months of competition.
When last month's US Open brought the Grand Slam season to an end, the men's season still had another 11 weeks to run. Although the Japan Open rubbed its hands last week at the health and form of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the China Open in Beijing had to put on a brave face. Djokovic, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova withdrew, and Ana Ivanovic and Victoria Azarenka were injured.
The men's season will be cut by two weeks from next year, but the mandatory tournaments, particularly in the latter part of the campaign, remain an issue. Under the rankings system, the leading men are obliged to play in the four Grand Slam tournaments and eight in the Masters Series, including Shanghai and next month's Paris event. They must also play four second-tier "500" tournaments, at least one of them after the US Open.
Non-appearance at a mandatory tournament can lead to suspension and counts as a "zero-pointer" in the world rankings, which determine players' tournament seedings and eligibility for byes. Rankings can also affect players' appearance fees and commercial deals.
Although the system ensures that the top men play each other regularly and has contributed to the sport's continuing growth, Murray in particular argues for fewer mandatory events, on the basis that enabling the players to be more selective would help them nurse their bodies through the season. Nadal, meanwhile, advocates a rankings system based on performances over two years rather than one, Andy Roddick would like to see better rewards for lower-ranked players and nearly all the top players agree the season is too long.
The Davis Cup also remains controversial. Nadal has been particularly critical of its place in the calendar, with three of the dates coming immediately after Grand Slams. Some players would like to see the Davis Cup played every other year and there is support for changing to best-of-three-set matches.
When players' frustrations boiled over at last month's US Open, where long-standing complaints about the scheduling of matches came to the fore, there was renewed talk of the need for a players' union. However, even some of those within the game who champion the players' cause have told them that airing their complaints so publicly may not have helped them.
Nadal, who as vice-president of the players' council has been canvassing the opinions of his fellow professionals, said yesterday that now was "not the right time" to discuss the issues in the media. Murray, who begins the defence of his title against Russia's Dmitry Tursunov today, was reluctant to comment until there was consent over a plan of action.
Murray said he had been disappointed by what he called the "massive hoopla" that followed his comments last month, when he agreed there was a possibility that players would be prepared to go on strike. "I think the players are maybe coming across as being spoilt when I don't think that is the case," he said. "We make a lot of money and we're very lucky."
Roddick believes that the absence of Federer and Djokovic from this week's talks means that nothing can be resolved and all the players acknowledge that unanimity is vital. For example, while most of the top men think the season is too long, there was by no means unanimity over next year's changes, let alone any further reductions. Indeed, many of those lower-ranked players who do not usually feature in the latter stages of the biggest events would like to carry on competing – and earning – for as long as possible.
Nadal believes that the players will find common ground. "Like this we have power," he said. "Now we'll have to keep finding what we really want and make that happen."
Murray added: "I think it's basically just a matter of ... two or three weeks in the year that really need to change. It's not really a huge thing, but it's been made into the biggest disaster in tennis. I don't think it needs to be."
Meanwhile, the ATP, run jointly by the players and tournaments, has to find a way of keeping both its wings happy, particularly at this time of the year. The Asian swing is seen by many as crucial to the game's future.
Brad Drewett, chief executive officer of the ATP's International Group, said: "For any global company, Asia is the area of the world which has the greatest potential growth. It's no different for the ATP. It's important that we put over the tennis message. We want to have an impact in terms of the numbers of people playing. Every major company in the world is trying to establish itself in this market place. Along with Formula One, our two events here are among the biggest international sporting events in China."
Interest in tennis here is growing rapidly. The Chinese authorities say that 10m people, including 1,000 full-time players, play the game regularly, while the number of courts (currently about 10,000) is rising by up to eight per cent every year.
Both sponsors and local and national governments have shown their willingness to invest in the sport. The Qi Zhong complex here has 25 courts and seating for 13,500 in the impressive main stadium. Twelve months ago the players voted Shanghai their Masters Series tournament of the year.
In Beijing a new tennis centre, featuring three show courts with capacities of 10,000, 4,000 and 2,000, was built for the 2008 Olympics. Since then an extra 15,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof has been added.
"China has the potential to hold a Grand Slam tournament," Charles Hsiung, the China Open's co-tournament director, said. "Tennis is exploding here. I believe it will happen. It's just a question of how long it takes. We already have everything here at this facility that a Grand Slam has."
Week beginning 19 September:
Guangzhou ($220,000 prize money; women) Champion: Chanelle Scheepers; Seoul ($220,000; women) Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez
Week beginning 26 September:
Bangkok ($551,000; men) Andy Murray; Kuala Lumpur ($850,000; men) Janko Tipsarevic; Tokyo ($2m; women) Agnieszka Radwanska.
Beijing ($2.1m; men) Tomas Berdych; Beijing ($4.5m; women) Agnieszka Radwanska; Tokyo ($1.1m; men) Murray
Shanghai ($3.2m; men).
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