Fall tennis gets the Heisman -- again

One of the more persistent criticisms of tennis is that the game has no real offseason, but the lengthy calendar doesn’t really stop tennis from going over a cliff in the fall -- loaded ATP and WTA schedule or not.

In just the past few days, WTA No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 3 Maria Sharapova officially pulled the plug on upcoming commitments to the Asian tour. British insiders are reporting that Andy Murray is about to withdraw from his own Asian commitments. Heck, even Martina “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Hingis is fed up. The 32-year-old who can’t seem to get enough of this game just canceled the rest of yet another comeback tour. Did she really have to add insult to injury by pulling out of Tokyo, the same event Williams and Sharapova are snubbing?

Sharapova continues to struggle with bursitis in her right racket shoulder; she’s skipping the entire Asian swing and says she hopes to be back for the year-end championships. I’m not sure I’d count on that. Williams withdrew from Tokyo, declaring that she’s still exhausted from the effort that earned her the US Open title. She may even expect that someone, if not anyone, will take this as a reasonable excuse three weeks after she played her last tennis match. The smart money is speculating that it’s going to take a prize as juicy and glittery as the year-end championships in Istanbul to lure Serena off the chaise lounge by the pool and back into fighting trim. And why not? She’s the hardest-working woman in the tennis business.

Murray is said to be pulling out of three Asian tournaments (Thailand, Tokyo and the Shanghai Masters) and may even be done for the year. But at least you can’t second-guess his reasons if this news -- still fresh and unconfirmed by the Murray camp -- is true. The British press keeps a close watch over its overnight icon, generally with his blessing. So the tweets breaking this news are as close to bankable as you can get without actually swiping your ATM card. Clearly someone broke an embargo, probably requested by Murray himself, on this intelligence.

And troubling intelligence it is. When you say “back surgery” you think of names such as Miloslav Mecir (who underwent it and was never the same player) or former No. 1 Marcelo Rios (who didn’t have surgery but was never the same player as in his halcyon days, either). He was forced out of the game by back pain by age 27.

If Murray does have back surgery, it’s going to present him with an interesting dilemma, for he already has qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals, which will be held again in London’s spectacular 02 Arena.

As the Wimbledon champ, Murray would certainly be the hottest ticket in London, and thanks to the hybrid round-robin/knockout format, spectators could buy tickets well in advance, assured that they will see him through at least three nights of play. But would it be wise (or even possible) for Murray to prepare for, and compete in, the WTF so soon after surgery?

Is there any such thing as “minor” surgery for a tennis player?

Veteran British journalist Simon Cambers already has tweeted that Murray plans to have a full training block this winter and hopes to travel to Australia fully fit to compete, and that sure makes it sound as if Murray is done for the year.

Thankfully, Rafael Nadal -- once a chronic complainer about the fall schedule -- has fish to fry on the Asian tour. He’s in the process of overtaking Novak Djokovic in the race for the year-end No. 1 ranking. And No. 5 Roger Federer could use a few wins himself to shore up that crumbling ranking. That’s the opportunity presented by Murray’s situation, and a good reason for Federer to be one of the few elite players who actually welcomes the fall tournaments.