Monthly Archives: December 2012

Known Unknowns for Rafael Nadal

When Rafael Nadal returns to the tour–very soon, we hope–he will be entering uncharted territory.  Plenty of players miss time to injury, but it is rare for a top player to miss anywhere near this much time.

In fact, only three top 10-ranked players have ever left the tour and returned after a layoff of six months or longer.

Only one of those three–Juan Martin del Potro, in 2010–was forced to rest due to injury.  John McEnroe twice left the tour for stretches of several months, and Tommy Haas took time off in 2002 to take care of his family.  Haas’s layoff turned into something a bit more relevant, as his sabbatical was extended by a shoulder injury he suffered in preparation for a comeback.

While del Potro’s future is still unclear, the precedent for Nadal is concerning.  None of those players ever returned to their pre-layoff rankings.

Del Potro’s story, in fact, is the most encouraging.  When he suffered his shoulder injury, he had recently won the US Open and reached the final of the World Tour Finals, reaching a career-high ranking of #5.  With the exception of a brief return in October of 2010, he missed almost exactly one year.  While he didn’t return to the top 10 for another year, he won two small tournaments early on and reached the semifinals of Indian Wells barely two months into his comeback.  Two years later, his ranking is up to #7, still short of his pre-injury peak.

When Haas left the tour at the end of 2002, he had just recently fallen from his career-high ranking of #2.  When he returned more than a year later, he had early success similar to Del Potro’s, reaching the 4th round at Indian Wells and winning two events in his first six months.  Yet he didn’t return to the top 10 for nearly three years.

McEnroe is the enigma of this bunch.  Ranked #2 in the world at the beginning of 1986, he needed a break from the tour.  Seven months later, he began a comeback at Stratton Mountain, where he reached the semis and lost to Boris Becker.  After a clunker of a first-round loss at the US Open, he reeled off 18 consecutive wins, including three over top-10 players.  That put him back in the top 10, but it was two years into the comeback that he regained a position in the top 5–in part due to another six-month layoff beginning in September 1987.

Aging patterns

What the recaps of Haas’s and McEnroe’s layoffs hide is that, while they weren’t playing, they were headed into an age range where most pros start declining.  At the time of their returns, McEnroe was 26, Haas 25–a typical player’s peak age, at least before today’s new era of indestructible 30-somethings.

While McEnroe has shown astonishing longevity, his years as a contender for world #1 were probably about over when he took his sabbaticals.  And Haas missed the year in which he might have played his very best tennis.

Neither player is a clear precedent for a clay court genius with knee problems, but the age factor is tough to ignore.  Nadal turned 26 in June, putting him right in between Haas and McEnroe at the times of their departures from the tour.

Assuming Rafa is healthy, there’s little doubt he’ll maintain his position in the top 10.  I’d be surprised if he didn’t win at least a couple of clay court events this year, even if he maintains a much-reduced schedule.  But if history is any indication, he has seen the last of the top two.


Filed under Injuries

A Quarter of Missing Challengers

The ATP Challenger calendar (PDF) has been released for the first quarter of 2013, and it looks mighty thin.

In the next three months, we can expect 21 challenger events, compared to 30 in Q1 2012 and 33 in Q1 2011.  (Thanks to Foot Soldiers of Tennis for raising the issue.)  For those challenger fans among us, that’s clearly bad news.  Less competitive tennis always is.  It could also hurt many up-and-coming players, which means it should concern all fans of men’s tennis.

For the last twenty years, challenger tennis has generally been on the rise, with 147 tournaments at that level last year compared to only 88 in 1992.  The number peaked in 2007 and 2008 with 173 and 175 challenger events, respectively.

Challenger tournaments per year, 1991-2013

However, while the challenger circuit has grown in size and importance, the ATP tour has shrunk.  Most of that movement occurred more than a decade ago.  The tour has remained steady with between 65 and 67 events each year since 2002.  As recently as 1994, though, there were 90 ATP events, which offered 36% more main draw places than did 2012’s 65 tournaments.

In other words, the growth of the challenger tour hasn’t substantially expanded opportunities for players outside the sport’s elite, it has simply filled the gap left by all those missing ATP events.  The number of challengers increased by 35% from 1992 to 2002, but the number of main draw places in ATP and challenger tourneys combined rose by only 6%.  Account for the reduction of tour-level qualifying events, and you probably have a net loss in point- and money-earning opportunities for tour pros.

The following five years brought the explosion of challengers noted above, but the pullback to 2012’s level of 65 ATP and 147 challenger events has reduced the field to only 7432 total main draw places, a 9.5% increase over ten years earlier.

A 10% jump over the course of a decade may be enough to keep pace with the global spread of tennis, but it won’t be if the current downward trend persists.

That’s the reason for concern.  21 first-quarter challengers represents a 30% decrease from 2012.  Drop 30% of the challenger events from the entire 2012 calendar, and you have only 103 events, the lowest number since 1996, where there were 97 challengers but a whopping 84 tour-level tournaments.

The ripple effect

So, when the size of the top-tier tennis world shrinks, who suffers?

Small as these paydays are, when the number of challenger-tour paydays drops, some fringe-level players earn fewer of them.  The relevant “fringe” here is the ranking range between 200 and 300, the guys who often make the main draw cut of a challenger when there were two or three in one week, but are relegated to a futures or (unpaid) qualifying draw when there is only one.

Less obvious is that even the top-ranked challenger-level contenders suffer.  Fewer tournaments generally means more travel–that is, greater travel expenses.  For Roger Federer, that’s just a different balance on his NetJets account.  For Diego Schwartzman, it means more weeks where he loses money playing competitive tennis, and fewer upper-level events that are feasible opportunities for him.

Needless to say, there are far more Schwartzmans than there are Federers.

And that brings us to the groups that really get hurt when the tennis calendar shrinks: Those who pay many of their own costs and those who don’t live in hotbeds of tennis.

Players who are heavily supported by the USTA might object to additional flight time, but they don’t feel the pain of travel expenses.  Someone who can easily reach the plethora of challenger events in Western Europe will find it easy to reach plenty of playing opportunities.  An up-and-comer in the the US and Australia will get just as many wild cards as he would have five or ten years ago.

But competitors from much of South America, the Balkans, and the former USSR often do not have any of those things going for them.  With every loss of a net-profitable playing opportunity, those guys are a little less likely to stick with professional tennis.  If Gregoire Burquier decided to pack it in, most tennis fans wouldn’t notice.  But what about the next Radek Stepanek, who ten years ago was within a whisker of running out of money and hanging up the racquet?

Let’s hope the decrease in challengers early in 2013 is a blip, not a trend.  It isn’t something anyone will talk about in the next big debate about prize money, but the quality of tennis and all professional levels depends on it.


Filed under Challengers, Prize money