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The NBA adjusted its schedule to protect its athletes; tennis can do the same

Matt Zemek

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Bob Donnan - USA TODAY Sports

Scheduling is a slippery and elusive topic. It is not necessarily easy, but it is not necessarily difficult, either.

What do I mean when I say that? Scheduling becomes complicated when trying to juggle various competing needs, such as television, ticket sales, limited windows of availability for venues or players, and special demands made by other parties. If multiple tennis players want a Wednesday start at a tournament, not all of them will (normally) get what they want. Scheduling is difficult in the sense that it won’t satisfy everyone.

Yet, scheduling is not that difficult in a number of specific circumstances. It is plainly obvious in many situations that Match A should be scheduled first and Match B should be scheduled third.

A great example of this is Manic Monday at Wimbledon. With the women playing quarterfinals the next day — Tuesday — and the men not playing their quarterfinals until Wednesday, all women’s matches on Manic Monday have to be scheduled before any men’s matches. The men can start only after all the other women’s matches have started. If a men’s match precedes a women’s match on a specific court on Manic Monday, it is scheduling malpractice in the extreme… and it has happened in recent years, most prominently with a Roger Federer match being first on Centre Court on Monday instead of a women’s match.

Another way in which scheduling is not difficult: Don’t create huge imbalances between or among players in the latter stages of tournaments.

Remember: Not only did Novak Djokovic not finish his quarterfinal against Juan Martin del Potro until nearly 1 a.m. on Saturday morning; Schwartzman played the first ATP quarterfinal on Friday and was done before 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. That’s a difference of nearly nine hours. That difference certainly enabled Schwartzman to play Djokovic in the semis on more favorable terms, which consequently enabled him to push Djokovic to three sets, which extended Djokovic’s Saturday night, which left Djokovic with less turnaround time for Sunday’s 4:10 p.m. final against Nadal, whose Saturday semifinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas ended before dinnertime:

Yes, it is true that Djokovic played much longer matches than Nadal did, but the instructive point to make is that against Schwartzman, a long match was partly the product of bad scheduling in the first place. That bad scheduling hurt him against Diego, and it carried into (and through) Sunday’s final.

Djokovic was put in a bad position by tournament schedulers.

This should never happen.

It is one thing for a match to run long — that isn’t the fault of schedulers — but it is quite another thing for Djokovic to have faced such a large disparity in preparation time for both his semifinal and final, relative to his opponents in those two matches.

Scheduling CAN be difficult, but these were unforced scheduling errors.

A sport — if governed well — would take the time and energy to do something about this. Consider the NBA as an example.

Yes, tennis lacks a commissioner. This is something the sport really needs to think about, because empowering a commissioner-like figure to act in the broader interests of the sport could achieve far-reaching reforms and improvements. The current “system” of tennis governance does not have this level of nimbleness or responsiveness.

Yet, regardless of whether tennis adopts a commissioner-based system, the sport can still show that it cares about force-marching athletes through unnecessarily grueling schedules such as the one Djokovic had to endure in Rome. This simply does not have to happen.

The NBA had a bad scheduling problem in which its players were wearing down and becoming more vulnerable to injury. This piece from February of 2016 documents as much. Read it.

The NBA listened to its players. It listened to the teams who pay players large sums of money.

The past two regular-season schedules have weeded out stretches of play in which teams play four games in five nights. Games on consecutive nights — referred to as “back-to-backs” — have been significantly reduced. The NBA started its season two weeks earlier so that its athletes wouldn’t play nearly as many games in a 5.5-month time frame. Now, the 82 regular-season games fit into a six-month window. The schedule is spread out so that players can get adequate rest before and after each game.

The concept is so simple, but beyond being simple, it is hugely important: The players in any sport ARE the product. Fans pay to see specific players. They pay to see specific matches. It should be the first priority of any sport, not just tennis, to make sure the players are not placed in disadvantageous or vulnerable positions.

The problem is not that Novak Djokovic played nine sets over the weekend. The problem is that he played nine sets in a period of under 45 hours — 10 p.m. Friday night through 7 p.m. Sunday evening. The final six sets out of those nine (three against Schwartzman, three against Nadal) were played against opponents who had five to nine more hours of rest.

Scheduling can be complicated, especially when mapping out a full tournament or a full sports league’s regular season… but it should not be hard when scheduling matches at the very end of a tournament.

What makes Rome’s scheduling even worse is that two Friday matches became walkovers. It’s not as though orders of play were pushed back by a full amount of matches. No, there were gaps in the schedule. Rome still wound up putting Djokovic on court not until 10 p.m. for a Masters quarterfinal, knowing this could compromise him for Saturday and Sunday… which it did.

If a sport is really committed to putting its athletes in more protected positions, it will follow through.

Commissioner or not, the NBA did this.

There is no good reason tennis can’t do the same, regardless of its leadership structure, such as it is.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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