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September 22 • 05:06
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Sniping Broadens to Davis Cup, Tournament Schedules

September 20, 2011
2011 could become a pivotal year in men's tennis, the kind Billie Jean hatched 40 years ago. Or not.

(I apologize for this making this sound like politics and world events, and for using the overused pivotal.)

There are macro as well as micro scheduling issues a plenty on the tour - I won't repeat the coverage here that you may reading in mainstream media like the NYT today or online. While none of the myriad solutions floated is but an idea at this point, the game's top stars seem aligned to take on the ATP and the ITF, assuming #1 Joker signs on to the campaign. While he managed to win throughout the season, his dramatic Davis Cup collapse Sunday on court in the critical rubber against Del Potro is prima facie evidence of the scheduling insanity in what has become an increasingly brutal sport for the top players - 'inhuman' is Rafa's word for it, who also refers frequently to pro tennis as 'unhealthy' (this from the man who's self-professed mantra is 'endure').

There isn't a regular top 10 player who hasn't been injured or hasn't withdrawn from a competition during recent calendar years. While Davis Cup has been the most frequent victim of withdrawals, the ATP 250 events suffer regularly. Retirements at the Majors became a very public topic during the recent Open when a record 17 were reported in the first week. Evidence isn't lacking that the problem exists at all levels of the game, perhaps for different reasons. The top stars may travel in relative comfort with a team of people to handle logistics and provide ice baths, massage and medical attention to revive them from the near-dead after 3.5 hour battles, but they also play deep into almost every tournament. The lower players don't often play as deep, but they don't have the benefit of a team of experts as the stars do.

Perhaps the current Musketeers (Rafa, Roger, Murray and Roddick) don't need #1 Joker or a BJK-like leader to take the lead. They seem poised to take a first step in concert with each other at the next ATP 1000 event in Shanghai when they'll all be in the same place again, barring injury... But none of them can afford to take on a time-consuming political campaign while the others pour their energies into training and playing.

Rafa is the most passionate of the quartet, Murray the most apt to set the bar high, and Federer is a golden-throated elder statesman, but Roddick, though lacking the star power of the others and claiming to lack the resume of a leader, may be most likely to inherit the mantle of leader. His career seems closer to over than Federer's, and his less elite ranking and accomplishments broaden his ability to represent more lower ranked players. This could be an asset as change in any part of the schedule will affect all the players and involve the ATP, which represents both players and the ATP event owners. His intelligence and interest in fairness contribute to his redoubtable ability as a debater - his post match interviews are full of his challenging and often entertaining answers and his rhetorical replies to questioners. It doesn't hurt that English is his native tongue. He's no BJK, but he may be the best bet available, and it could help his reputation and standing in the tennis community if he could at least win a Major political battle.

After the initial discussions in Shanghai, if there is to be player-organized action, I look for Roddick to take the helm. Andy might make even the USTA listen to him. The question is whether serious discussions about schedule changes will result from anything short of a strike or boycott. Remember Wimbledon '71? It would be ironic if there was a new Major winner in Paris because Rafa stayed home in Mallorca or played clay exhibitions with Roger, Joker and Murray during the French Open.

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