Roger Federer sticks to schedule while fellow tennis rivals complain
In slack moments at press conferences involving elite tennis players this year, a favoured line of questioning has been to inquire about the schedule.
It is a topic nearly certain to get a rise out of players who otherwise are plodding through another media session.
The schedule! Endless. Pitiless. Destructive. Certain to end more careers than tennis elbow.
In the past six months, Novak Djokovic has questioned the current calendar. Rafael Nadal deemed it "crazy" and "not possible", and predicted that "because of it, we will all have to retire when we are young". Andy Roddick suggested that players might need to form a union to stand up to exploitative tennis officials and tournament organisers. Andy Murray declared the schedule "messed up, and we need to change it".
Absent from the chorus of critics? Roger Federer, arguably the greatest - as well as most durable - player in tennis history.
On Friday, the Swiss for the fourth time plays in the semi-finals of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi.
In an electronic question-and-answer exchange with The National,he seemed to suggest that the schedule 'twas ever thus and that players control their own destinies.
"We have to remember that the season has always been long and gruelling," Federer said. "That's what makes tennis so amazing.
"Just imagine, in the old days most of the top players were also playing doubles."
He said the tennis calendar is not designed as an instrument of torture for elite players.
"I have always tried to make sure people realise that there are many players who are playing tennis and it's not just the top guys," he said. "There are other players who don't win every week and want the tournaments and need the jobs."
Players are obliged to play 16 tournaments (the four majors, the eight Masters-level tournaments and four of their choosing), and if they play fewer than 18 tournaments in a year they lose rankings points.
Certainly, Djokovic's schedule through the US Open, coinciding with his surge to the No 1 world ranking, was extremely rigorous (76 matches). But welcome to Federer's world: the 16-time slam champion has played at least 70 matches for 11 consecutive years, including 76 in 2011, when he turned age 30.
"I think the biggest challenge for the top players is managing our own schedules and not overplaying," he said. "This is key to health and long-term success."
He concedes that the issue warrants continued study, but said that some improvements already have been made. "We now have many 28 [player] draws in the ATP 250 events, we don't play three-out-of-five-set matches in the ATP Tour anymore and we will end the season earlier next year.
"We need to see what happens as a result of these changes before making any new changes."
He added that "we need to do what is right not just for the players but also for our tournaments, who are our partners in the management of the game".
He acknowledges changes in the game since his 1999 debut as a full-time player. "The slowing of the court surfaces, the string technology and the evolution of today's modern athlete has contributed to making tennis … more challenging for the athlete," Federer said.
As for his own longevity? "My passion for competition and my love for tennis has a lot to do with it."
His passion and love bring him back to Abu Dhabi for the fourth edition of the Mubadala tournament, for which he expressed fondness despite never having won it.
"It is an amazing way to start the year," he said. "Abu Dhabi does a great job of welcoming us players to the area, the fans are amazing, the crowds are great, the hospitality is perfect and you are almost guaranteed to have nice weather and competitive matches, which helps you get a jump start to the year."
He will be hoping to open the 2012 season at the same level he ended 2011. He won 15 consecutive matches and three tournaments - including the Paris Masters and the ATP World Tour Finals in London - to conclude the year as the man to beat.
The Federer who will play in the capital is one who continues to look forward, intending to be a better player tomorrow than he was yesterday.
"I have always said that the minute you decide or think that you cannot improve is the time that you should stop playing," he said. "The good news for me is that I feel like I still have things to learn and parts of my game to improve, so I am excited for the future."
Updated: December 26, 2011 04:00 AM