The latter half of the 2017 season of men’s tennis can only be described in one word: underwhelming. Granted it was nice to see fresh faces like Alexander Zverev, Pablo Carreno Busta, and Jack Sock make runs at the top tournaments and crack the top ten of the rankings list, but there was a lack of competition due countless numbers of the top players ending their seasons because of injuries. At the end of the 2016 season, there were similar sentiments with 20 time grand slam winner Roger Federer off the tour for six months due to a nagging back injury. However, Federer made a miraculous return to the tour at the start of the 2017 season as he captured his 18th grand slam title at the Australian Open. It was a sweet victory for Fed and an expected climax to the 2017 season; how could it get better for him? It still defies logic, but Federer continued his perfect form, taking home a total of seven titles, including three Masters titles and two Grand Slams.
Unfortunately, as Federer galloped through his fairytale year, his competitors experienced the same unfortunate circumstances as he did during the middle of the 2016 season. None of the top 5 in the final 2016 rankings made it to the 2017 U.S. Open. Furthermore, Djokovic, Murray, Berdych, and Wawrinka all withdrew from the season-ending Paris Masters along with Nick Kyrgios, Milos Raonic, and Kei Nishikori, all due to injuries. Injuries are not unfamiliar to sports and especially tennis, but players are becoming more injury prone than ever. Is this injury trend due to lack of adequate training or the demanding season schedule?
Tennis is a demanding sport with a high attrition rate. There is no official off-season, and an off-season usually consists of only two weeks of rest and then two weeks of brutal training to prepare the upcoming season. This intense training can only take place during the off-season, players are constantly traveling throughout the year since they wish to compete in all of the top tournaments; this situation is even worse for players outside the top 100. Players outside the top 100 are required to play even more tournaments than an elite player in the top 20 because they need to rack up as many points as possible in order to qualify for prestigious tournaments like Grand Slam events. For example, Noah Rubin, a professional player who grew up in Rockville Centre, started his 2018 season playing a Challenger event in New Caledonia, a French territory. After winning the tournament, Rubin played the qualifying of the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the year; Rubin lost in the first round, but he also only had two days of rest. Two weeks later, Rubin played another Challenger in Newport Beach, California. Rubin was defeated in the quarter-finals at Newport Beach, after winning two rounds. In total, Rubin played three tournaments with a total of 10 matches in the month of January, one of which was doubles. For a professional player, this is an extraordinarily high number of tournaments. However, for Rubin, ranked 186 in the world, this is an average month.
Players like Noah Rubin are constantly on the run, playing many more matches than the any top 20 player. Thus, when seven members of the top 20 ended their seasons in 2016, there should be grave concern. 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic has criticized the ATP tour, saying in an interview last year, “Maybe it’s a testament to some kind of reform being needed for the sake of players’ careers, and being able to provide a certain calibre of tennis for spectators. Scheduling, the length of the year and how spread out — geographically and throughout the year — the tournaments are, especially the top tournaments for the top players, is something that deserves a second look.” After retiring with an injury in the 5th set against Cilic in the quarter-finals at this year’s Australian Open, world number 1 Rafael Nadal told reporters, “Another thing is that there is too many injuries on the tour. I am not the one to say, but somebody have to look about what’s going on.” The players aren’t the only ones voicing their concerns. The American surgeon Dr Richard Berger, who has operated on Del Potro and Laura Robson, says: “There are too many events, and on both the WTA and ATP tours there’s very little down time. There’s not enough healing time because of the intensity of the matches, and in most tournaments outside the slams there’s not even a day’s rest. Players need to have superhuman abilities to stay fit.”
The only solution is to reduce the number of matches and tournaments. The current ATP schedule is too demanding, and the increasing number of injuries is stunting the sport’s growth. In addition, the players are also suggesting for reform, so it’s now up to the ATP board of directors; their decision will affect the well-being of players and the future of the sport.