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Are off-season exhibitions the new tennis pre-season? Is February the new December?
Novak Djokovic and Aryna Sabalenka hardly hung up their racquets after the 2022 season ended, and played straight through to Grand Slam victories in Melbourne.
Published Feb 03, 2023
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December has become the lone month of the year without significant tennis tournaments, but an ever-encroaching exhibition schedule has begun luring the game’s top players into an endless season, with fewer opportunities for extended time off.
Novak Djokovic and Aryna Sabalenka used this modified schedule to their advantages, rolling to respective victories at the 2023 Australian Open, but others looked hampered by the lack of an official off-season. How will the game cope with the latest change to the tennis calendar? David Kane and Stephanie Livaudais volley it out:
David Kane: G’day, Steph! I’m quickly losing whatever Aussie accent I accrued from a two weeks spent Down Under-adjacent, but I still feel very amped from an exciting first major tournament of 2023. In a way, it feels like 2022 never quite ended, certainly for Australian Open champions Novak Djokovic and Aryna Sabalenka. That’s no metaphor; the two literally played through what typically constitutes their off-season, even sharing a bench at the inaugural World Tennis League in Dubai. I can’t say I expected those results to be nearly as predictive of 2023 fortunes—Sabalenka and Djokovic both shines at the season-ending championships—but for many of the AO’s standout performers, that appeared to be the case, for better and for worse.
Stephanie Livaudais: Doing the Aussie Swing from the East Coast has me needing a bit of a February “off-season” myself—sort of like what Casper Ruud is reportedly planning to do, after trading his own December for an exo tour of Latin America with Rafael Nadal.
It’s a move that we’re increasingly seeing from many top-ranked players in recent years, as they swap out a traditional conditioning and training bloc at a home base or academy with an on-the-road approach—allowing them to play for millions in prize money in the process. That’s including players who probably don’t need more prize money or match play, like world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who joined the pros in Dubai. She was famously routed by reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, 6-3, 6-1—a match that telegraphed the Kazakh’s eventual surge in Melbourne.
But are the results predictive for all? After all, Ruud’s own sprawling off-season didn’t exactly translate to rapid success in January.
DK: Hence “for better or worse.” It felt as though the game’s most public exo players either went big or went home—early. Swiatek played solid enough to start 2023 at United Cup, but was emotional in her loss to Jessica Pegula and unforgivably flat in her rematch against Rybakina, who made the nigh unbeatable No. 1 look like old news in a comprehensive straight-setter.
Ruud was clearly the flattest of all, looking flummoxed against Jenson Brooksby over four brutal sets, and while he was reticent to blame the busy winter schedule for his second-round exit, one can’t say he didn’t see the need for a make-up training bloc coming: the Norwegian was openly discussing his plans to make February his new pre-season back in December—a move others may follow, both this year and in the future.
But can February be an effective substitute for bodies playing 12 straight months? And is it worth it for someone like Ruud, who has historically enjoyed a full slate of clay-court matches through that month’s annual South American Golden Swing?
SL: Meanwhile, former world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz has effectively turned January into his own delayed off-season, after trying to have it both ways in November and December. The 19-year-old played two matches in Abu Dhabi, and also locked into a traditional training bloc—only to injure himself during a pre-season practice.
Alcaraz will start the season in Buenos Aires in February, but he had to miss the first Grand Slam tournament of the year as a result. It’s similar to what happened to Nick Kyrgios, who battled soreness in his left knee throughout the off-season, competed at the Diriyah Tennis Cup, and was ultimately forced out of the AO with an injury that needed arthroscopic surgery.
Which raises another question: What kind of effect is this type of off-season having on the players and tours during the regular calendar?
DK: I’m dying to know what the tours think of players giving up their off-season to play an increasingly more serious swing of exhibition tournaments. These aren’t your parent’s one-night-only affairs: the World Tennis League and the Mubadala World Tennis Championships were week-long events with essentially traditional scoring systems. Swiatek played four full matches in Dubai while Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev played three each in Abu Dhabi.
Is there a scenario in which the ATP and WTA tour respond to this interest in December tennis by staging events of their own? For as many as the extra tennis appeared to hurt, one can argue it helped enough players avoid the dreaded January rust that they could justify 32-draw tournaments that extend the calendar into December—especially with Davis Cup up in the air.
But even for those that made short-term gains, will we see an inevitable lull and more players running on fumes later this spring? Djokovic reportedly played through a three-centimeter hamstring tear, while Sabalenka will see her unbeaten start to 2023 immediately under threat when she arrives in the Middle East.
For all of the talk about shortening the tennis season, we seem closer than ever to an infinite loop.
SL: Another major question that the tours should be asking is: ‘Why has it become more profitable for players to skip February than it is to play through the existing 250 and 500 tournaments?’
We’ve seen a lot of top ATP players give the Golden Swing a pass—would rearranging the calendar to fit a Masters 1000 here make playing these events more appealing? One of the biggest criticisms for this part of the season is that tournaments struggle to attract talent due to the relatively low payoff. And, side note, where is the Masters 1000 on grass?
DK: Something to beat the Boodles!
SL: The tennis calendar as a whole is due for an overhaul—especially as players end their seasons later and later. Spreading out the big-money tournaments could build more consistency, commitment, and disincentivize players from looking for paydays elsewhere.
DK: While we wait for that overdue circuit (re)structure, this feels like a fair story to continue monitoring, both for how the exo crew fares over the next few months—and where/how often they play as a result of their holiday grab bag.