After seven weeks away, Milos Raonic returned to action at the Japan Open Tuesday.
And after a surprisingly routine 6-3, 6-4 win over Viktor Troicki of Serbia (his fifth in six career meetings), the 26-year-old Canadian called for a shorter season to stem the tide of injuries at the top of the game.
The five top-ranked players at the end of 2016 – in order, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori – all missed the US Open because of various injuries.
And, as Raonic accurately pointed out in his post-match press conference, he’s the only one who hasn’t shut down his 2017 season completely.
“Maybe it’s a testament to some kind of reform being needed for the sake of players’ careers, and being able to provide a certain caliber of tennis for spectators,” Raonic told the media in Tokyo. “Scheduling, the length of the year and how spread out – geographically and throughout the year – the tournaments are, especially the top tournaments for the top players, is something that deserves a second look. It’s hard to peak four times of the year for Grand Slams, let alone for other tournaments.”
Seven-month season for peak performance
From the sound of it, Raonic was calling for a seven-month season for the top players.
“Give the players that really stand out mandatory events … so they can really focus on themselves health-wise, but also on improving, because you need that time,” Raonic said.
At Wimbledon, after losing to Roger Federer, Raonic expressed somewhat contradictory feelings on the subject, saying that the rules should be the same for everyone.
“I find myself in that sort of situation right now, where I do have to find a 500 to squeeze into my schedule so I don’t sit with a zero (pointer) for 52 weeks. Sitting with a zero for 52 weeks is something else. I sat with a zero because of Indian Wells for 52 weeks,” he said then.
“I guess that’s the only thing. And I think it should be the same rule for everybody. As long as you’re playing on tour, for obvious equality, everybody should be expected to show up at each and every tournament if that’s the standard, or nobody should have to have it as a mandatory event. I don’t think there should be any differential, which there is at this moment.”
The Canadian ended up having to take a wild card into the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., to get that ATP Tour 500 event on his resumé – or sit with a zero-pointer for the next year.
Not all players created equal
There is a range of different scenarios among the top-five players Raonic referenced.
Roger Federer, Nadal and Wawrinka meet all three criteria for an exemption from mandatory participation in all the Masters 1000 events: they’re over 30, have more than 600 matches and have 12 years of active service.
Djokovic and Murray, who turned 30 during the course of this season, will see that full exemption kick in on Jan. 1, 2018.
There isn’t anything they are required to play. Although, of course, missing those big events costs them both money and ranking points.
For the younger Raonic and the equally oft-injured Nishikori, the circumstances are quite different.
They haven’t yet reached those thresholds. And both have dealt with numerous injuries during their careers, despite having been able to maintain their rankings in the top 10 for the most part.
Raonic through with one arm
Raonic got through the match with Troicki hitting almost exclusively with a one-handed slice from the backhand side. He underwent surgery on his left wrist just before the US Open.
As a result, he tried to keep the points very short and didn’t get involved in extended rallies. He even attempted a couple of one-handed topspin backhands, although that didn’t work out too well. The Canadian approached the net quite a lot. In the second set Troicki tried to do the same, but he couldn’t find a solution.
Raonic got the all-clear from the medical side to compete. While he has plenty of experience coming back to play after injury layoffs – and typically has always played well – he was going to be without a fairly crucial weapon this time around.
He could have chosen to just end his season, of course. But in the end, he was probably confident he could still win some matches with a good draw. And if nothing else, it is giving him valuable in-match experience to sharpen up his forecourt game.
He plays Yuichi Sugita of Japan in the second round.