For WTA and its players, less is more
The world's No.1 player is nursing a sore knee and the highest-profile star in the women's game is out with an elbow injury, but if tennis fans think the absence of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova from this week's Sony Ericsson Open is evidence of an understrength line-up, the numbers suggest they're sorely mistaken.
In fact, the players on show in Miami are arguably the strongest in the history of the women's game.
Trainers from the WTA Tour delivered a report at the beginning of this year which found that the sport's top players have never been in such excellent physical shape, the result of a radical strategy hatched five years ago by tennis officials to improve the sport's commercial prospects.
To grow the game, they needed to play fewer matches.
"We needed to give fans and sponsors healthy athletes on a consistent basis," WTA Tour chief executive Stacey Allaster said. "When you look at a movie billboard, you're going to see the lead actors being showcased and driving that film, and in tennis it's the same thing."
So far, the plan appears to be working: Last year, the WTA Tour scrapped a quarter of its premier events and cut the number of mandatory appearances for the world's top-10 players. In the same period, attendances are up by 11 percent and prize money on the Tour has increased by a third.
Last week, a record crowd at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. saw Jelena Jankovic clinch the trophy after recapturing the form that briefly led her to the top of the world rankings in 2008.
"Now there's a good schedule, I feel like I'm in the best possible shape," Jankovic said. "I don't feel burned out or like I don't want to play."
It wasn't always like this. Until recently, the women's tennis circuit was a year-long grind for the world's best players, an endless series of forgettable stops and far-flung tournaments which valued stamina and durability over skill. On top of the four Grand Slams and the annual Fed Cup tournament, the WTA had 26 premier events, of which half were mandatory for top-ranked players.
Even players way down the world rankings came under pressure to keep playing all year round, passing up any kind of off-season in order to increase their earnings during the exhibition season in November and December.
Making matters worse, the current generation of players are starting younger and playing harder, while the majority of tournaments and tennis academies favor hard courts, as opposed to clay, grass or carpet. In short, even before they join the Tour, modern players had put their bodies through an unprecedented pounding.
The pro circuit's punishing schedule took such a toll that injuries became commonplace and careers were cut short: In May, 2008, the world no.1, Justine Henin decided that the effort of getting there had exhausted her physically and mentally, announcing her retirement at the age of 25.
"Tennis was a sport where you played this insane schedule from 14 years old and by 26, it was over," Venus Williams told reporters in Miami this week.
In 2006, WTA Tour officials decided this situation was absurd. In an effort to protect the Tour’s biggest asset—the world's best players—they ripped up the tennis calendar and devised a new schedule intended to protect players from burnout, while also delivering a consistent supply of fit, focused stars to event organizers and sponsors.
To reshape the season, the organization turned to its in-house group of sports scientists and statisticians. The Tour’s sports science and medicine department, established in 1994, monitors the preparation and performances of the world's top players. Fifteen years of data was analyzed to gauge the effect of the workload on women who can begin playing professionally as young as 15.
The results confirmed that the Tour was simply too tough.
"We looked at five years of data for the top-10 players and asked when did they play? Where did they play? How many events did they play? When did they get injured?" Allaster said.
"It showed us the top players can't play 13 Tour events, plus the (Grand) Slams, plus Fed Cup. They just can't do that. So by default we had a schedule which we already knew we couldn't deliver."
The WTA unveiled its solution after months of planning in 2008: the Road Map - a new calendar that aims to deliver more good tennis more of the time across the year. It dropped the number of premier events to 20 from 26, while requiring top-10 players to appear in just 10 tournaments each year.
It also includes a three-week break between Wimbledon in July and the start of the U.S. Open Series in August and an earlier climax to the season in the first week of November as opposed to an extra month for the men's ATP Tour.
Players are also prevented from practising too hard. Now, they must run their proposed schedules through a Web-based program designed to minimize the risk of overtraining. Play too often, or leave yourself with insufficient recovery time between matches, and a warning sign on your computer screen demands you change your routine.
"It's hard when they're so young because they want to play, play, play and they want to build up confidence, but all of the data shows that when you overplay, you don't have the longevity," Allaster said.
In 2009, the first year of the WTA's new Road Map, instances of players pulling out of WTA Tour events declined by 25 percent, while court-calls - requests for treament by the courtside trainers - were cut by 28 percent.
With three months and 13 tournaments completed this season, there has been an 11 percent decrease in the number of mid-match retirements, as women's tennis learns to embrace the theory that less is more.
"I'm one of the players that likes to compete, I like to play matches so I stay as fit as possible, but there have been some changes and I think my game had improved," Jankovic said. "I think I'm a much better player now.”