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Game, set and strike: Has men's tennis reached burn-out?

By Greg Duke, CNN
updated 7:04 PM EDT, Thu October 20, 2011
World number one Novak Djokovic feels the pain of his long season during Serbia's Davis Cup semifinal with Argentina. Andy Murray and Andy Roddick are amongst those who believe top players are becoming injured more frequently because of the amount of matches they play. World number one Novak Djokovic feels the pain of his long season during Serbia's Davis Cup semifinal with Argentina. Andy Murray and Andy Roddick are amongst those who believe top players are becoming injured more frequently because of the amount of matches they play.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The ATP Tour tennis schedule is coming under fierce scrutiny once again
  • Andy Murray and Andy Roddick are among the players who want a reduction in tournaments
  • Mark Woodforde believes more big-money exhibitions will be played if the schedule is reduced

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part feature assessing the growth and greater demands of the ATP and WTA world tours.

(CNN) -- Are the world's top male players playing too much tennis? It is a question that has been asked frequently over the years, but recent comments from world number three Andy Murray, and former world number one Andy Roddick, have indicated the matter could be coming to a head.

With a schedule that runs from the beginning of January to the end of November, taking in 65 singles tournaments, the ATP World Tour came under scrutiny like never before when Murray hinted that the world's top players were prepared to take strike action in an attempt to modify the calendar.

"We're only proposing small changes, a few less mandatory events and some more rest periods," said Murray. "Tennis is in a great place right now but there are just a few minor things we'd like to see changed and we hope to sit with the ATP and other officials and discuss them. Two or three more weeks off a season is really what we are thinking of."

And Murray's comments were backed up by Roddick, who told reporters: "It's a more physical game than it used to be, but the season is longer than ever.

We're only proposing small changes, a few less mandatory events and some more rest periods
Andy Murray

"I don't think we're storming offices, but I think the sentiment is still there. We need to be smart about it and take our time and make sure that it's well thought out and not be kind of reactionary. But, you know, there is a discussion going on."

The absence of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic from the recent Shanghai Masters indicates, in Roddick's opinion, that the demands are too harsh on the top players. "They don't get their money this week. If they were feeling well and they weren't worn down, then they would be here," he continued.

"We're not getting away with anything by pulling out of tournaments. I feel like that's the way it's presented sometimes. That's just not the case," he added.

The lowdown

Yet, despite the claims of both Murray and Roddick, the facts show that the number of singles tournaments has actually fallen over the last 11 years.

In year 2000 there were 69 ATP Tour singles events, however, that figure steadily decreased during the last decade and since 2007 it has remained static on its current number.

And, for those 65 events, there has been a significant increase in the prize money on offer from the ATP Tour, with prize funds set to exceed $90 million for the first time by 2014.

So why are is there a perception that players are playing more tournaments, than ever before?

Somebody who knows all about the rigors of the ATP Tour is Australian Mark Woodforde. The 46-year-old won a remarkable 67 doubles titles, many alongside compatriot Todd Woodbridge, with the duo completing the grand slam of all four major doubles titles.

In addition to this, Woodforde also managed to win four singles titles, reaching a career-high 19th in the world in 1996, and has first hand knowledge of how demanding the circuit can be.

"When I was playing and performing well in both singles and doubles, the calendar issue was raised even then," Woodforde told CNN. "What with Davis Cup ties, the Olympics etc, you never felt like there was any time to take a breather, it was full on.

"The weeks off were cherished. As an aspiring player, you play to gain experience -- and since you may not survive through to the end of a tournament, the toll is not as great on you physically or mentally. Losing first and second round matches can be replaced by simply entering another event to compensate," added Woodforde.

"Yet as a top player, you end up playing many more matches, the pressures are greater, you try to strike a healthy balance to prepare for excellence at the grand slams and it's a continual mounting of pressures."

The reaction

Perhaps there should a total blackout of all exhibition matches for a period of say four weeks
Mark Woodforde

Woodforde also believes it a positive thing that today's players are campaigning together, although he does not necessarily believe reducing the calendar is the way forward.

"There is a fear that by shortening the calendar to accommodate players requests of resting at the end of each season -- their agents will slot exhibition matches in their place, which will be worth more financially to the player (and their agent!)," Woodforde added.

"Perhaps there should a total blackout of all exhibition matches for a period of say four weeks -- and if the players are in need of some competition, they can go back and play some club tennis."

Another former player, and now commentator, Andrew Castle also believes the schedule is fine as it is.

In his column in British newspaper Metro, Castle said: "Players are obliged to play eight mandatory Masters 1000 tournaments, four 500 ATP events and the four majors, plus the World Tour Finals if they qualify.

"With pre-grand slam events thrown in, we are looking at a commitment of 30-34 weeks of the year. I am looking at it and thinking there isn't a lot to moan about.

"The players are under a lot of strain and the tour takes its toll -- but if your body is telling you something, listen to it and withdraw from the odd tournament."

The future

Since his initial comments, Murray has seemingly backtracked on any talk of strike action, telling reporters: "When I said a strike was a possibility, I didn't expect that to be such a massive issue.

"It's so far away from being at that level. None of the players want to strike and I think we are maybe coming across as being a bit spoiled when I don't think that is the case."

We have regular discussions with the players, including very recently, and are always receptive to their input
ATP spokesman Simon Higson

The ATP politely turned down CNN's request for an interview regarding a proposed players' meeting, although ATP Tour spokesman Simon Higson said: "The players should and do have a major say in how the game is run, which is one of the key reasons the ATP Tour was formed as an equal partnership between players and tournaments.

"We have regular discussions with the players, including very recently, and are always receptive to their input. It's important to let them have time to discuss and focus on which topics are most important to them and then we can work together on next steps and solutions."

Sporting strikes are not a new phenomena. In the last year alone there have been disputes in both Major League Baseball and NBA basketball in the United States, as well as the top soccer leagues in Spain and Italy, which have resulted in a cessation of play.

Whether such extreme measures will eventually happen in tennis would appear unlikely at this stage, but what is clear is that some high-profile players are unhappy with their work-load and unless administrators, players and sponsors alike are all singing from the same hymn sheet, the current rumbles of discontent could become louder and louder in the weeks and months ahead.

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