In For The Long Haul

by: Peter Bodo | March 18, 2010

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By TennisWorld Contributing Editor Andrew Burton

Morning, all.

We're close to the half way point of the first Masters 1000 tournament, and already players are fielding a lot of questions about the length of the season, and the physical and mental pressure it exerts on them.

This was Murray's response to a question on Tuesday:

Q.  You've had your share of injuries at a young age, so has Rafa.  Do you attribute that to his style of play or your style of play or just the rigors of the tour?  Maybe a little bit of both?


ANDY MURRAY:  I don't think I have really had many injuries, you know.  You know, I had one wrist injury when I came on the tour, but nothing that's kept me out for more than sort of three or four months.


You know, the tour is tough now.  If you look at the start of this year, for example, you know, a lot of guys would be withdrawing.  You know, sometimes it's freak injuries, but I don't think it's ?? you know, it's not so much the game style.  It's more how long the season is now and the little rest time.


You know, Del Potro's, hurting just now; you know, and I know Davydenko has been hurting, as well.  Roger was sick after the Aussie Open.  You know, a lot of guys were struggling.

The primary candidate for burn out at the top of the ATP is Novak Djokovic, who took my advice in a prior column and finished his next match in straight sets.  However, I thought it was implicit in my recommendation that he should win both, but Djokovic instead chose to lose both.  (This reminds me of the old joke by Max Boyce of an English rugby supporter at Twickenham praying to God "could we have a try, oh Lord, that would be terrific," whereupon the Welsh score and God responds "you should have been more specific.")

Djokovic, seeded 2, went out the day after the number 1 seed, but their moods couldn't have been more different.  I had a conversation with Steve Tignor about whether Federer was merely annoyed, or whether he was angry about his loss to Baghdatis (my wife, Sylvia, will recognize my occasionally obsessive attempts to distinguish between fine states of disgruntlement - "I wasn't frustrated! I was just a bit irritated....").

Djokovic, in contrast, seemed almost relieved to be done here; he spoke of wanting to spend some time in LA, which he'd never visited.  He even joshed with the reporters about the private, secret things he'd be doing.  But he admitted that he'd never felt comfortable on the court throughout the tournament, and blamed the let down from an emotional two weeks surrounding the Davis Cup.

Djokovic sees no wiggle room in his clay court schedule - he lives in Monte Carlo, and he has his own tournament to promote.  So it's Monte Carlo, Rome, Belgrade, Madrid, then Paris.  I can see a similar scenario unfolding this year to what we saw in 2009: Djokovic will likely go deep in some of the early clay court tournaments, but then he'll face a choice - keep pushing hard and face the possibility of having nothing in the tank when Roland Garros (and Wimbledon) come around, or exit early from Madrid to keep something in reserve?

You can see Djokovic turning thoughts over in his head yesterday as he addressed the way that the top players are asked to squeeze a quart into a pint jar:

Q.  Talking about schedule, I mean, can you just talk about your thoughts about the Davis Cup scheduling?  Putting it so close to a big tournament like this and having you have to make that decision or push to prioritize?


NOVAK DJOKOVIC:  Well, I wish some things could have gone a different way.  If I could change something, I would.  But it's not that easy, you know, obviously.

It's my individual opinion that, you know, I wish, you know, I could have a bit more time between surface changing, you know, so I can adjust a bit slowly without any pressure.  But this is the way that tennis is, and it's been already like that for many years.

I mean, I'm not going to be the black sheep, the one who is gonna, you know, be the stubborn one and say, you know, this is not right.  We are working towards some issues, and the guys agree definitely there are some periods in the year that we want to work on and make the schedule work better for us, for our health, and that's the main priority.


I mean, you don't want to risk your health for ?? I mean, tennis is our life and it's something we do and we love to do, but, again, health is the most important.

Ljuby1 About half an hour later, Djokovic got a vote of confidence from the man who beat him, Ivan Ljubicic.  I always make a point of attending Ljubicic's press conferences - when I mentioned this to Jane (jb) yesterday, she said "he's a grown up," and that's bang on the money.  Ljubicic exudes a sense of knowing exactly who he is, what he can (and can't) do, and being completely at peace with both.  He's friendly, but serious.

Ljubicic's solution to the long haul in the season would be to follow the WTA lead and cut back on the number of mandatory tournaments.  He suggested that putting in longer breaks or shortening the season, the conventional solution, would create its own problems - in his case, a niggling shoulder, and in general, lack of match practice.

We've had a lot of discussions on these pages about how the top players find the balance between furthering their individual career and giving their country a shot at winning a Davis Cup.  Ljubicic reflected on Djokovic's predicament (and by extension, Nadal's and others' predicaments):

Q.  Novak said he's still a little bit drained from Davis Cup last week.


IVAN LJUBICIC:  I'm sure he is.

Q.  Can you sympathize with what he went through?


IVAN LJUBICIC:  No, but this is exactly the reason why I'm not playing Davis Cup.  You just can't.  I mean, he played best?of?five sets on clay, five setter against John Isner on Sunday.  You know, you have to travel all the way here, different surface, different balls, different ?? everything totally different.


And, yes, he can win first round, second round.  But he has to aim to be 100% fit if he wants to win this tournament, and he wasn't.  If I didn't get him, somebody would on the way.


He was already struggling in Dubai.  He played long matches there, and after that he went to Serbia, played Davis Cup, and then traveled here.


I mean, it's just something that you just can't do.  That's it.  Physically you can't ?? you know, it's impossible.  I mean, he almost can do it now because he's 20 something, 2 or 3.  But if he's 29, 30, it would be even worse.  He probably wouldn't win that match against Kohlschreiber two days ago.

When Steve Tignor talked with Marcos Baghdatis earlier this week, Baghdatis said something that made my eyebrows go up.  “Since 2006, the tour has changed so much,” [Baghdatis] says, referring to his breakthrough season. “Players are so much stronger, the style is much tougher, the courts are slower, nothing is easy.”

So you have something of a consensus: an arms race among the players has now reached the point where players have to push themselves in each point, each set, match and tournament harder than they did even a few years back.  An exquisite balancing act is required - show up to play in tournament after tournament, while preserving the future.

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