Hot young talent (and world No. 2) Rafael Nadal,
missing. Defending champion Marat Safin, missing. Crowd favourite Andre
Agassi, missing. World No. 1 Roger Federer, here on one leg. Glamorous
former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova, here but under an injury cloud.
Lleyton Hewitt under sickness cloud. We could go on.

If you didn’t think tennis was a physically tough sport, look at the
casualty rate heading into the Australian Open, the first major of a
new year, when you would expect the game’s biggest stars to be fresh,
fit and ready to fire after a Christmas break.

At the end of the day, this is a sport that is based on the four Grand
Slam events, as well as Davis Cup and Federation Cup team glory.
Unlike, say, Formula One, the tennis calendar does not appear to place
much importance on making sure every competitor gets to the starting
line for the signature events.

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Which results in Grand Slams, in particular next week’s Open, looking
like a mouth missing several key teeth. Or last year’s supposedly
weighty season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai pitting the
best-performing eight players for the year against one another. Except
that almost everybody was hobbling or missing (with apologies to David
Nalbandian who won the event).

You’ve got to feel for the players. Sure, they make a lot of money but
by the time you throw in the remorseless travel, practice sessions and
variations in surfaces, night matches or morning matches, temperatures,
indoor and outdoor venues and other such variables, a full year on the
men’s or women’s pro circuit is a grind. Yes, they could enter fewer
events but how long can a player be confident that he or she will be in
their tennis-earning prime? They grab it while they can.

There were only a handful of weeks last year when professional male
tennis players were not on court in official events. This year, the men
will be on-court from 2 January to 30 November, more or less without a
break and not counting unofficial events like the Hopman Cup. The
women’s tour runs from 2 January to 12 November.

So as fans, would we rather tune in to watch the very best less often?
And is this yet another reminder that tennis’s overlong calendar of
events is putting too much strain on its biggest drawcards?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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