The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) World Tour is facing somewhat of a crisis. For over a decade it has rejoiced in the exploits of the so-called ‘golden generation’ (comprising of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Stanislas Wawrinka, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) and reaped the rewards that this outstanding group of players have generated.  Viewing figures have risen exponentially in the last ten years, whilst attendances at tournaments have reached record levels. However, in the last couple of years, cracks have emerged within the tennis community that threaten to burst the ATP Tour’s bubble. These cracks stem from fundamental flaws within the ATP’s structures and evidence of its detrimental effects has already become apparent in recent events.

The main problem lies in the fact that the ATP Tour schedule contains too many events, whilst its ranking system favours quantity over quality. The ATP Tour has events running almost every week from New Years’ Day right up until the end of November. Given the highly taxing nature of the modern game, this is grossly excessive.  In a desperate pursuit of ranking points and prize-money, too many players play through the pain barrier and put their bodies through physical torment.

Ultimately, they pick up new injuries or worsen existing ones, and end up side-lined for lengthy periods. This grim reality is best seen in the case of Andy Murray. Murray’s inhumane efforts to keep up pace with the ATP’s schedule and reach top spot in the rankings appear to have brought his career to a premature end.  Between 2015 and 2016, Murray played a total of 35 tournaments, as well as 6 gruelling Davis Cup ties. In over 80% of these tournaments, Murray reached at least the semi-finals meaning that he played, on average, four matches over six days in a typical event.

Murray has subsequently revealed that he played consistently with an underlying hip injury, having already undergone back surgery in Autumn 2013. Whilst Murray would go on to achieve the number one ranking, his exertions in doing so have dramatically taken its toll. Since becoming number one in the world, Murray’s form has plummeted, his injuries deteriorated and his longevity effectively rendered non-existent.  As a result of their ludicrous tournament schedule, the ATP appear to have abruptly lost one of their star players.

Murray does not stand alone in falling victim to tennis’ punishing schedule.  Former world number four Kei Nishikori remains absent from the tour due to ongoing injury issues, whilst Stanislas Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Novak Djokovic are gingerly returning from lengthy spells out of the game. Last year, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal returned from injury-enforced lay-offs extending up to six months.  All of these absentees can be attributed to the incredible strain that the gruelling player schedule places on its star performers. Moreover, slower courts and longer baseline rallies have merely compounded the wear and tear inflicted on the professionals.

Ultimately, the ATP’s reluctance to shorten match formats or reduce its quantity of tournament offerings is rapidly diminishing its end-product. The now seemingly prevalent absences of top players has made tennis’ biggest and best events much less interesting.  For example, Rafael Nadal steam-rolled his way to US Open victory last September without having to beat a top twenty opponent, owing to the widespread absence of the game’s elite (including Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray).  Further the supposed flagship event of the ATP Tour, the ‘Nitto ATP World Tour Finals’, was hindered greatly by injuries to Nadal, Murray, Djokovic, Raonic, Nishikori and Wawrinka. In essence, the somewhat farcical ATP schedule is gradually reducing the appeal of tennis’ leading tournaments and ultimately depriving viewers of the high calibre match-ups they crave.

Major restructuring is necessary to save the game from plunging into a crisis whereby its leading players are forced into early retirement.  Shortening the Davis Cup format in 2018 is a step in the right direction, but this should be extended to other tournaments urgently. ATP officials must seriously consider reducing sets to winning four games instead of the traditional six. Also, introducing ‘first point after deuce’ in smaller ranking tournaments must be considered as a viable alternative. Crucially, the tennis ‘off season’ should be extended from the current four-week period by at least a fortnight.  Failure to implement such reforms and consider change will only lead to an escalation of the injury trends witnessed in the last few years. Unless the ATP moves quickly to protect player welfare and longevity, its future success and attraction appears vulnerable at best.

Jack Stokes – Sports Writer