For a guy who seemed ready to storm the ramparts back in September in order to get some changes made in the ATP's long, annual calendar, Andy Murray has been curiously silent lately.
Could it be because, until he lost to Tomas Berdych in the Paris Masters quarterfinals today, he won everything in sight (including an Asian trifecta), roared past Roger Federer in the rankings, and built a 17-match winning streak?
Not half bad for a guy who sounded like he was on his last legs two months ago.
Once more, the fall season has proven to be the portion of the calendar during which the men who feasted during the first nine months of the year spend a fair amount of time grousing about the ATP grind, while those who need to make up lost ground suck it up and make a push. It's funny how, tired as those opportunistic fall warriors may be, they seem to find the energy and motivation to finish strong.
I'm not being cynical here either, it's just human nature—and one of the unheralded but genuine benefits of the long calendar. It tends to level the playing field, expand opportunity, and create new story lines. If this tennis year ended with the U.S. Open, guys like Rafael Nadal and Federer could be forgiven for busting up their racquets and flinging them in the ocean, what with Novak Djokovic losing all of two matches over eight-plus months.
Instead, the fall has revealed Djokovic as a broken and hurt champ crawling toward the finish line (luckily for him, he's played so well in 2011 that he'll still cross it first—even if it's on his belly). Meanwhile, Murray, and to some extent Federer, appear to be surging again. Only Nadal remains a big question mark, to be answered at the ATP World Tour Finals in two weeks. Is this all really so horrible?
And then there's "the other Andy," Roddick. He's not one given to going out with a whimper, so it's not surprising that after his 2011 campaign ended with a painful 6-2, 6-2 loss to Murray the other day in Paris, he took some parting shots at the "system" on his way home for the holidays. The money quote: “Listen, you don’t go into negotiation and have someone represent both sides. It just doesn’t happen in any business transaction or negotiation. I don’t think it’s the (ATP) CEO’s fault. It’s an impossible situation. I think the system is suspect.”
Roddick was talking about the partnership between the ATP and the tournaments, in which the CEO—currently, lame duck Adam Helfant—answers to a six-man board representing both players and tournaments. Of course, this was the system created by the players themselves, on the heels of that now famous "Parking Lot Press Conference" during the 1988 U.S. Open. At that impromptu job action, the players declared that they were taking control of their own destiny.
The big mistake the players subsequently made was to allow tournament directors—many of them former players and tennis insiders—tremendous leeway in designing the new tour. Every person engaged in the tennis business was hellbent on getting his share of the new pie, and who can blame them? As Ion Tiriac observed at the time, "The players' union did not grow stronger with the revolution. It ceased to exist."
Tiriac was right and so is Roddick. There is no de facto players' union, and the ATP CEO can't effectively represent both players and tournaments. But I also have yet to hear of a plan by which a strong, independent player's union would solve this fundamental problem: The needs and desires of the handful of top players are very different from those of the rank-and-file.
If No. 3 Murray—undoubtedly one of the "haves"—can stop complaining about the length of the season and jump all over the opportunities offered by the fall, how do you think a Marcos Baghdatis, Janko Tipsarevic, or Gael Monfils must feel? Did you see that hand gesture Tomas Berdych made toward his coach after he knocked off Tipsarevic the other day, indicating the number 50—signifying his 50 wins on the tour this year? That was a goal of Berdych's for 2011. Somehow I don't think he's complaining about the fall season, although in all fairness perhaps he would be happy to trade 10 of those wins for an extra month off.
I see only one way the system can be changed, instead of merely complained about. The top players would have to get together to impose their will, regardless of what the tournament promoters/owners and rank-and-file may want. That could get ugly, although anti-trust laws suggest that you couldn't stop the top guys from going off to start a different tour—or from refusing to play in what ATP events currently exist (therefore destroying those events). The bottom line is that the top four or five players can do something no number of journeymen can: Ensure the success of a tournament.
One of the main reasons we have this mess—if that's what it is—is because the top players way back in '88 acted in good faith. They wanted to create a tour that would create opportunities for all, and grow the base of the game. They acted in the true "union" spirit, and were actually extremely successful. So much so that they created the "crowded calendar" problem some feel we have today.
I don't know how you fix this, but it would certainly give Roddick a good project to contemplate as he passes the milestone of age 30 next August. The first thing he must do, though, is decide whether he wants to be a true union man, or merely an agent for the kind of change a select handful of players hope to see. Given his populist inclinations, this could be a very difficult decision for Roddick.