After succumbing to yet another injury, this time a strained calf, suffered in Tokyo last week, Milos Raonic suggested that the pro tennis calendar ought to be revamped. “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,” Raonic told reporters. “It’s hard to peak four times of the year for the Grand Slams, let alone the other tournaments.” That last sentence probably didn’t come out quite as he intended; yes, tennis can be tough on the body, but it shouldn’t be that hard to peak for the majors plus a couple of other big events.
But Raonic’s larger point—that the tennis calendar is not optimally designed—is a valid one. The season is too long, and the travel is probably more burdensome than it should be. There seems little doubt that the success that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have enjoyed this year is due in no small part to the fact that both ended their 2016 campaigns early and were thus fresher than most of their rivals coming into 2017. So what can be done to make the tennis calendar more player friendly, which would also serve to make it more fan-friendly (after all, it is the fans who are the real losers when players pull out or retire because of injuries)? Well, since you asked….Indulging my inner tennis geek, I’ve occasionally thought about how the pro calendar might be reconfigured, and with Raonic having now initiated a conversation (perhaps) about the schedule, I’m going to seize this opportunity to talk about the changes I’d like to see.
The most glaring flaw on the tennis calendar is the Australian Open: it comes way too early in the New Year. Much as I love the warm glow of Melbourne radiating from my television on frigid January nights, the Australian is poorly timed. It should be played in March, as the culmination of the winter hard court season. Rather than starting the year in the Antipodes, I would extend the off-season to mid-January and kick things off with the Miami Open. It’s a big, popular tournament and as such would be an excellent curtain-raiser. Moreover, with so many players training in Florida in December, Miami would be a logical place to start the season. Miami would be followed by Indian Wells—the Sunshine Double, but in reverse. After Indian Wells, the men and women would head to Australia for tune-up events leading into Melbourne, which would be played maybe the first two weeks of March.
The clay court season would begin in early April as it always does, but with a twist: I’d move the South American clay court swing from February to April. Holding the clay court events in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Quito in February just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. The players will have spent January on hard courts in Australia and will be spending March on hard courts in the United States; why sandwich four clay court events in between? I think it would be better to hold at least two of those tournaments, Rio and Buenos Aires, in April, during the clay court season. Moving them to April would make them tune-up events for the French Open, which would probably help pull in more big names and would elevate the status of the tour’s South American sojourn.
The schedule from the French Open through the US Open is fine as is. Putting an extra week between the end of Roland Garros and the start of Wimbledon, a change that took effect two years ago, was a smart and necessary move. (The only additional tweak I’d make is to promote the Queens Club tournament to a Masters 1000 event; there ought to be at least one grass court championship with that designation, and Queens is the obvious choice.) The Asia swing that follows the US Open is great, and an integral part of the sport’s growth strategy. But I’d follow the Shanghai tournament with another big change: I’d merge the ATP and WTA year-end championships into a single tournament, to be held in late October or early November. I’d also hold the tournament outdoors. Tennis is an outdoor sport—its season finales should be outside. I’ll even suggest a site: Indian Wells. It’s an amazing venue, the players adore it and surely wouldn’t complain about a return visit to the California desert, and between the setting and the co-ed field, fan interest would be enormous.
This change would obviously come at the expense of the ATP’s European indoor season, which fills the gap between the Asia swing and the year-end tournament in London and which includes events in Paris, Basel, Vienna, Moscow, Stockholm, and Antwerp. I personally don’t think those events add much to the season—yes, I know that they can determine who qualifies for the last spot or two in London, but I kind of doubt that even hardcore tennis junkies find much drama in the battle to be the eighth man. The indoor tournaments wouldn’t have to be eliminated; instead, they could be held after the tour final. If they were still sufficiently lucrative, they would likely continue to draw marquee names, and the points they award could count towards the following year’s totals.
So that’s my reimagined calendar, the changes that I would make if I were tennis’s scheduling czar (and, yes, I am available for the job). True, there is more to the injury epidemic than the length of the season. Equipment—in particular, polyester strings—could be a factor. Match length is unquestionably one, as is the attritional style that currently prevails. But Raonic was certainly correct in suggesting that the season is too long and that players spend too much time hopscotching from continent to continent. And of all the ways that might possibly help reduce the injury count, adjusting the schedule to give players a slightly longer off-season and to make the travel demands a little less onerous is surely the easiest to implement.