Seasons in all sports can be very long (just ask Seattle Mariners or Philadelphia 76ers fans). As LeBron James said last June of the 82-game schedule that preceded the NBA's two-month postseason: "It's too long. There are too many games, too many road trips."
Yeah, well, try tennis, LeBron.
While the NBA joins other sports with particularly long seasons (including spring training, there's an 8½ month slog for the World Series teams in baseball and a September-to-June stretch for NHL Cup-winning teams), professional tennis schedules can span from January through November.
The first matches of the 2015 season were the first full week of January in Australia, India, China, New Zealand and Qatar. The last match wasn't until the Davis Cup finals last week. Nor does it include training periods. Portugal's Joao Sousa played 34 tournaments in 18 countries, competing in Miami and St. Petersburg, Russia, along with Auckland, Dubai; Shanghai; and Mason, Ohio.
Worn-out players can only hope Antarctica never hosts a tournament in December.
"Sousa is not playing well this match."
"No surprise there. Ice is not his favorite surface. And I think he just wants to get off the court and into the locker room to warm up."
Is a 10- to 11-month season too long for athletes? Does it allow for enough rest? Does it take too much of a toll, physically and mentally? These aren't new questions for debate. As Martina Navratilova said during a news conference at the WTA Finals in Singapore that ended Nov. 1, "I was talking about that 35, 30 years ago. The season is too long."
"You have to push yourself," said former pro player and current ESPN television analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. "It's inevitable that we'll see these women at the end of the year and they'll have tape everywhere. It is important to take one or two breaks within the season."
And to think that some people criticized Serena Williams for calling it a season after the US Open, especially when her coach said there is almost no cartilage left in her knees. And if LeBron thinks the NBA season is too draining, he should consider the additional stress tennis players cope with when booking all their own flights and lodging just to arrive at an event.
"LeBron and players are some of the finest athletes that we have, and you think about what they're asked to do -- they're asked to play 82 games, and they average 36-40 minutes a game. And they struggle sometimes playing back to back," Women's Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon recently told ESPN.com. "And we're asking the tennis players to play three weeks on and a week off or two weeks on. And if they're a good player of LeBron's caliber, within our tournaments, that means they will play 15 nights out of 21, playing 2½ hours a night, at the highest level, without any substitutions. Think of the effect on the athlete's body every day without any substitutes.
"It can definitely be very challenging on an athlete's body, and it shows the wear and tear and why appropriate rest is a very important element that we have to create a structure that provides for it."
Not all players play an entire tournament -- half are knocked out in the first round. But that doesn't always mean the rest of the tournament is free. Many play doubles, which extends the workload.
Lucie Safarova played almost every day of this year's French Open, reaching the finals in singles and winning the doubles title (her partner, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, won the mixed doubles title, as well). Safarova said she enjoyed it immensely. But after having won doubles at the first two Grand Slams of the year, plus in Stuttgart, Germany, she won only one more doubles title the rest of the season (in Toronto) and reached the singles final at only one more tournament. That was in New Haven, Connecticut, where she also developed an injury. She lost in the first round of singles play at the US Open and withdrew from doubles competition.
How much of that was simply a case of injuries happening as they do in life and sports, and how much of it might have been influenced by the long season? Difficult to say, but there were an alarming number of retirements on the WTA circuit this fall. Jeff Sackmann of TennisAbstract.com says that over the past decade, retirements from WTA events have averaged around 3 percent post-US Open. That might not sound like a lot, but it's 25 percent higher than the rate before the US Open. Sackmann also noted that retirement rates are about double what they were in the 1990s.
"I think what we have to look at is not necessarily the length [of the season] but how do we structure [it] ... I don't have the answer today, but we're going to get right after it, because it's not something that should drag on." Women's Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon
"I think that some players, in an effort to gain as many points as they can, enter more tournaments than they probably should and do suffer minor injuries as a result," he said. "However, a huge factor is that, as the game has become more and more competitive, players are training harder than ever before, pushing their bodies to the edge just to keep pace with the field. Whether someone plays 15 tournaments or 30, that sort of aggressive training regimen is going to result in more midmatch retirements."
That last stretch of schedule to Singapore can be a long one -- Kristina Mladenovic followed the Open with a tournament in Tokyo, three in China and one in Moscow before arriving at the WTA Finals. On the men's side, Sousa followed the US Open with seven tournaments -- two in Russia, plus one each in Portugal, Malaysia, Japan, China and Spain.
One change Simon says he would like to quickly pursue for 2016 is flopping the WTA Finals and the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, China -- thereby holding the Finals after Zhuhai so players qualifying late for the Finals would have an extra week to rest, recover or get treatment, if needed.
While Simon doesn't think it will be possible to shorten the season, he says officials can potentially rework the schedule so players will have more added time to rest in between some tournaments.
Whatever the season schedule, ESPN analyst and coach Brad Gilbert says another key is for players to pace themselves throughout the year.
"Andre [Agassi] is the one who really started it, and [Roger Federer] has taken it to a new level," he said. "It's figuring out during the year how to pace yourself, which helps your longevity."
Of course, that's easier to do when you're winning a lot. When you're not, there is a need to play more and give yourself more chances to win. The ranking system also encourages players to keep playing as much as possible, Fernandez says, adding that the top players average more tournaments now.
Look at Sousa. After competing in 34 tournaments in 18 countries and four continents, Sousa finally won a tournament by beating Roberto Bautista Agut 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 at the Valencia Open in November. It was his first title in two years. Although his final match victory might have been due in part to Bautista Agut playing an exhausting match the night before when he beat Steve Johnson 4-6. 6-3, 7-6 (8).
"The match last night finished very late, and that affected me physically," Bautista Agut told reporters after the final match. "It's been a very long season, and by the last set, I was dead."
Bautista Agut then traveled to Paris for his opening match in the Paribas Masters two days later.
The question is what can be done. As Gilbert points out, unlike in most other sports, there is no league commissioner overseeing everything in tennis. There is the ATP, WTA, ITF, plus the Grand Slams, Fed Cup and Davis Cup. And just to make things more complicated, in 2016, there are the Olympics in Brazil. And with tennis being a global sport, there are many cities in many countries hosting tournaments.
That's a lot to coordinate.
"I think what we have to look at is not necessarily the length [of the season] but how do we structure [it] so that there is appropriate rest during the course of it," Simon said. "The players want to play the number of tournaments they play, but we have to look at it where the season becomes compressed and they don't have proper rest, which obviously leads to injury.
"It's an open book right now. That's one of my challenges here, to get in and look at it. I don't have the answer today, but we're going to get right after it because it's not something that should drag on."