ABUNDANT POVERTY?Team of mavericks? Boneless ribs? As oxymora go, they have nothing on"tennis off-season." The sport has never been more physicallydemanding, the players more in need of repose. Yet the 2008 campaign that beganthe first week in January came to a close only last week with the ATP MastersCup in Shanghai. Most players now have barely a month to regroup before the2009 season commences.
One result of solittle downtime: The tennis workforce has become the walking wounded. RafaelNadal, the indefatigable Spaniard, is suffering from tendinitis in his rightknee, which forced him to forgo the Masters Cup as well as next weekend's DavisCup final against Argentina. (See, even when the season's over, it's not over.)Having already missed a big chunk of 2008 with neck and back injuries, AndyRoddick withdrew in Shanghai after spraining his right ankle during practice.Roger Federer slogged through his matches last week, slowed noticeably by backtrouble as he bowed out in the quarterfinals.
The women's starssuffered too. The WTA's year-end championship, in Doha, Qatar, was won by avaliant Venus Williams—who prevailed over Vera Zvonareva in a third-settiebreaker—but was marred by the withdrawals of Serena Williams (stomach musclestrain) and Ana Ivanovic (virus). Maria Sharapova, the leading light in the WTAcast, was a nonstarter, out since August with a rotator-cuff injury. "Ithink too much is asked of us, playing 11 months of the year," saysRoddick. "At a certain point you would hope [the ATP] would startrespecting [the players'] opinions a little bit more."
Both the ATP andthe WTA have made changes, but they don't figure to be helpful. The number ofrequired tournaments has been reduced by three, but the ranking system has beenaltered so that players are all but forced to enter more high-tier events. Andif the on-court demands weren't onerous enough, tennis's global naturecompounds the problem. As any business traveler knows, working in, say,Amsterdam one week, Dubai the next and Palm Springs the week after that exactsa physical price.
"I respectAndy's view," says Brad Drewett, the ATP International CEO. "But theboard decided, [after] taking into account everyone's perspective, that thiswould be the best way forward."
Best for whom? Therash of injuries brought an anticlimactic end to an otherwise fine year for thesport. In 2008 Nadal proved he was no longer Salieri to Federer's Mozart andovertook the Swiss maestro in a spellbinding Wimbledon final to become theworld's No. 1 player. Showing mettle he hadn't previously been called upon todemonstrate, Federer recovered to win the U.S. Open, continuing his assault onMount Sampras with his 13th major title. The Nadal-Federer rivalry, arguablythe most stirring in all of sports, still goes strong. The Williams sisterseach won a Grand Slam title in 2008, confirming that—rankings be damned—even intheir late 20s they are still the best in the business.
A number of otherpromising talents took star turns as well, not the least Andy Murray, a solemnScot who wins with clever shot making rather than might-makes-right power, andthird-ranked Novak Djokovic, a capricious Serb who relied mostly on accuracy towin the Masters Cup. Those two, both 21, threaten to turn Nadal-Federer into aGang of Four in 2009. Provided, of course, all remain healthy—no smallcondition these days.
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1 In the future the ATP should make sure that analternate is on hand for the Masters Cup. When Andy Roddick pulled out of theeight-man field last week, 27th-ranked Radek Stepanek was hastily summoned as astand-in. Why Stepanek? Because he was vacationing in Thailand and could get toShanghai within a day. (He lost immediately.)
2 Was the Russian Revolution a one-generationphenomenon? There are five Russians ranked in the WTA's top 10—but none amongthe top 10 junior girls.
3 Player to watch in 2009: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The23-year-old Frenchman (above) has won twice since the U.S. Open and finishedthe year ranked a career-high No. 7.
ALY SONG/REUTERS (DJOKOVIC)
WIN-WIN Djokovic bagged a major and the Masters in 2008, while Williams took the WTA and Wimbledon titles.
KAMRAN JEBREILI/AP (WILLIAMS)
[See caption above]
JESSICA KLUETMEIER (TSONGA)