Game, set and too many matches: Murray ready to lead strike action
World No 4 believes the season is too long and the demands on top players excessive. Paul Newman examines his grievances
The debate does not quite date back to the days of wooden rackets and white balls, but the grievances over which Andy Murray says players are ready to go on strike will sound familiar to any long-term aficionado of men's tennis. Ever since the sport went Open in 1968 – and especially since the Association of Tennis Professionals launched its world tour in 1990 – there has always been a fundamental conflict between the players and the tournaments.
On the one side the players want to maximise their earnings and gear their seasons around the most important tournaments. On the other, tournament organisers around the world want the best players to take part in as many of their events as possible, ensuring both the success of those competitions and, as a consequence, generating more prize money for those who take part in them.
Many of the leading men – especially Murray and Rafael Nadal, who led the player protests at the recent US Open – believe the balance has swung too far and that the demands on the players have become too great. Murray says that some players are "not afraid" to consider a strike, which could be on the agenda when they discuss their grievances at next month's Shanghai Masters.
The record number of retirements and withdrawals at the US Open underlined the sport's growing physical demands. The length of the season has long been a bone of contention for leading players, who complain the winter break is not long enough to enable them to recover and prepare for the new season. This year's season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals finish in London on 27 November; the 2012 campaign will start just 36 days later, with the first Grand Slam tournament of the year beginning in Melbourne a fortnight later.
The off season has been extended by a further two weeks from next year, but that is by no means the end to the argument. The number of mandatory tournaments is still a particular source of concern for Murray, while the dates for Davis Cup ties are also contentious.
Players ranked in the world's top 30 are required to play in all four Grand Slam tournaments plus eight of the nine Masters Series events. The world rankings – which can be crucial to players' contractual arrangements and have a direct effect on their seedings in tournaments – are based on points earned in 18 different competitions: four Grand Slam events (2,000 points for the winner), eight in the Masters Series (1,000 points), four of the 11 World Tour 500 tournaments (500 points) and two World Tour 250 events (250 points) or Challengers. The top eight players also compete in the World Tour Finals.
The first Masters Series events are in March and they continue through the year, with the last two in Shanghai in October and in Paris in November, giving few opportunities to take a break. One of the four mandatory World Tour 500 tournaments has to be in Asia after the US Open, after which some players would like to wind their seasons down.
Players can be penalised with fines or even suspensions for pulling out of mandatory tournaments without a valid reason. They can also be given "zero-pointers", meaning they receive no ranking points for the tournament and are not allowed to replace them with points earned from other events. The top players can also command big appearance fees at tournaments below Masters Series level but do not get to play in many because of the number of mandatory events.
While the rules ensure that the best players compete in the best tournaments, Murray believes there are too many mandatory events. "I just think there should be way fewer mandatory tournaments," he said.
"I just think guys should be able to pick and choose their tournaments, particularly if they have injuries or need surgery. It can make a huge difference to rankings and points. The difference between finishing between, say, No 4 and No 8 in the world could be a huge amount, a lot of money as well, in terms of contracts. I just think if the players are protected a little bit more, then you'd have more guys playing for longer."
There are usually three Davis Cup dates just a week after the end of Grand Slam tournaments, when the top players are often exhausted. Last weekend a jaded Murray played for Britain in Glasgow, while Novak Djokovic pulled out of his first rubber for Serbia in Belgrade and had to retire in the second set of the second. Roger Federer flew to Australia to play for Switzerland, while Nadal represented Spain in Cordoba.
During the current debate there have been renewed calls for the players to form their own union, but the ATP – an alliance of players and tournaments which runs nearly all events other than the Grand Slam tournaments and Davis Cup – says it is committed to finding a solution. The ATP board comprises three representatives of the players, three from the tournaments and the executive chairman, Adam Helfant, who is leaving at the end of the year and has yet to be replaced. His successor will need to be a true diplomat.
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