On eve of Australian Open, tennis finds itself at a crossroads
With big crowd-pullers pulling out due to injury, is the modern sport too demanding?
The 2018 Australian Open is not the ultimate tennis reunion it could have been. Long-absent luminaries Serena Williams, Andy Murray, Victoria Azarenka and Kei Nishikori remain absent, and Murray will be out for at least several months more after hip surgery. Other stars may join the list before getting the chance to play in Melbourne, or perhaps even after they start their opening-round matches, and discover their bodies are not truly ready for the grind. Even one of the key ceremonial figures is expected to skip the tennis festivities: Margaret Court, long retired but still in the headlines, says she will go crab fishing instead this year as the debate continues about whether the Australian Open’s third-biggest show court should continue to bear her name.
Tennis, a game played on intersecting lines, is at a crossroads and not just in terms of how it responds to its latest surge in injuries. There is the issue of its structure, which, with multiple governing bodies and no final arbiter, severely limits its ability to make calendar changes.
“In my opinion, it’s not about the crazy calendar,” Rafael Nadal, back at No 1, said in a recent interview. “For me it’s about how long the calendar is in terms of mandatory events for the top players. For me, that’s more the issue.”
With the Australian Open in January and the Paris Masters and World Tour Finals ending in November, it is a marathon for the elite – an ultramarathon if they play in the Davis Cup final, too.
Chris Kermode, executive chairman and president of the ATP Tour, says tour studies show there has not been a rise in injury rates overall but only among the highest-ranked players, most of whom are now 30 or older, and most of whom already have earned exemptions from some of their tour commitments. Still, the bottom line is that these are the athletes, with their collective drawing power, who need to be preserved to protect the economic model.
Are modern tennis’s demands simply too great?
‘Variables in conditions’
“You see how physical it is on the court, and then you see the travelling and the challenge of our sport versus others in terms of time zone changes and the variables in conditions,” said Justin Gimelstob, an ATP board member and former player and coach. “Tennis is full of variables every single week: temperature, humidity, racket tension, balls, court surface, court speed, and then because the sport is so much more physical, you have to train harder. You’re not just breaking down the body during matches; you’re breaking it down during training.
“That’s a huge factor that doesn’t get addressed: the exponential effect of the physicality. And yet you have players playing longer and later into careers and, as a byproduct, them taking more time off and not playing as consistently throughout the year. I think the reality of where we’re at is that the game is over-designed.”
There is also the question of the sport’s ability to police itself credibly, which will soon be back in the spotlight with the lengthy and costly Independent Review of Integrity, created to investigate potential match-fixing and corruption, expected to recommend this year that the game combine its anti-doping and anti-corruption organisations into a single independent entity.
Then there is the more cyclical matter of whether a new ruling class is at last prepared to take power on the court. There were hints last year: 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko’s free-swinging, risk-embracing run to the French Open women’s title; Garbiñe Muguruza’s brilliant play down the stretch at Wimbledon; Grigor Dimitrov’s bravura performance in London at the ATP World Tour Finals as he won his first big title.
But for now, no younger woman has demonstrated the ability to dominate in the absence of Williams and no younger man has demonstrated the ability to handle Grand Slam occasions anywhere near as well as Nadal, Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic. If healthy this season – a big if for Djokovic and Nadal as it begins – they still look like the stars around which others will orbit.
Fresh and sharp
Federer, even at 36, is the rightful Australian Open favourite after appearing fresh and sharp in the Hopman Cup team event. The odds are particularly in his favour if the playing conditions in Melbourne are quick, as they were last year when he won the title by surprise after a six-month layoff.
He was 32-3 on outdoor hard courts in 2017, with his only losses coming against Evgeny Donskoy in the second round in Dubai, Alexander Zverev in the final in Montreal and Juan Martín del Potro in the quarter-finals of the US Open.
Nadal won that US Open to claim his first hardcourt singles title in nearly four years. But Nadal has never won a Grand Slam tournament without playing in an official event at least three weeks before it, and has rarely won a Grand Slam tournament without winning a lead-in tournament.
This year, ongoing pain in his right knee forced him to withdraw from his planned warm-up tournament in Brisbane. Despite being No 1, Nadal is thus an outsider in Melbourne. So of course is Djokovic, a six-time Australian Open champion who has not played an official match since retiring at Wimbledon in July against Tomás Berdych because of a damaged right elbow that is still a concern and was encased in a sleeve during exhibition play on Wednesday.
There is ample room for an ambush in the men’s draw with a gifted, unpredictable outsider like Australia’s Nick Kyrgios in fine form and talents like Zverev, Del Potro, Dimitrov and David Goffin lurking. There is even more room on the women’s side with the 2016 champion Angelique Kerber back on target and with a new coach, Wim Fissette, after slumping in 2017.
Unseeded women have won two of the last three majors: Ostapenko at the French Open and Sloane Stephens at the US Open. An extension of the trend is not out of the question, with Maria Sharapova unseeded in Melbourne. But it seems more likely that the winner will come out of the Top 10, seven of whom have yet to win a major singles title: Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Karolína Plísková, Caroline Garcia, Johanna Konta and CoCo Vandeweghe.
Williams remains, at 23 Grand Slam singles titles, one short of Court’s record. But their mutual absences in Melbourne do not remove Court from the conversation in Melbourne. Court, a Pentecostal pastor, has strong views on homosexuality. Her public stance against same-sex marriage, which is now legal in Australia after a vote last year, has led to renewed calls that Margaret Court Arena should be renamed. Martina Navratilova, who, like Court, is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, is one of the more prominent figures who have called for a change.
“You keep her in the Hall of Fame,” said Navratilova, an activist and one of the first prominent athletes to come out as a lesbian. “That Margaret has definitely homophobic views does not take away those accomplishments, no doubt about that. But you do not name a building after her. Would you be naming a new building after her now? No, there’s no chance.”
Tennis Australia thus far has remained resistant to such demands, and though Navratilova said she would refuse to play on the court if she were still an active player, she considers it unlikely any of today’s players will take that strong a stance.
If they do, Court, one of many Australian Open absentees this year, will not be there to witness it. – New York Times