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Kelly: With Federer and other big names cutting back, change threatens the tennis status quo

Every once in a while, it's delightful to hear an elite sportsperson speak forthrightly about why they bother.

On Saturday, American journeywoman Sloane Stephens won her first Grand Slam. Pressed afterward to talk about "feelings" – something most pros prefer to push off until retirement – Stephens showed us a little of the pragmatist that inhabits every high achiever.

"Did you see that cheque that that lady handed me?" she said. "If that doesn't make you want to play tennis, I don't know what will."

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Presumably, she didn't mean that the U.S. Open's $3.7-million (U.S.) first prize would allow her to buy groceries and pay her car insurance. Though she has won sparingly as a professional and was unranked in New York, Stephens has already made enough from tennis to last a lifetime.

What the money represents is achievement. More than trophies – which every player of her calibre has a roomful of – it is the indisputable evidence that you got, however briefly, to the very top.

That cheque at a major is her peak. Everything else is mountain climbing.

What tennis should fear now is that everyone starts to talk this way.

The 2017 tennis season (unofficially) ended on Sunday. Rafael Nadal won his third U.S. Open in unspectacular fashion, brushing aside South African robot prototype Kevin Anderson 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. Nadal and Roger Federer split the year's Slams between them.

On its surface, the year had no themes. Many of the bold-face names were AWOL for much of it. No truly new newcomers stepped in to the vacant space they'd left behind.

Aside from Federer at Wimbledon, nothing that happened over the past eight months will be celebrated – or remembered – in five years time. It all felt like a pause.

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But perhaps it was more a portent of what's to come.

Federer defined the year. He's done that often before, but not this way. His breakthrough was in choosing to approach the tennis season as an excuse to play very little tennis.

Two years ago, Federer played in 18 tournaments. This year? Eight.

Though fully healthy, he skipped Slams (the French) and the high-profile lead-ins to Slams. He skipped the small, contrived tournaments. He didn't play for his country. He gave a pass to a lot of tennis he used to play as a matter of course.

Federer decided what he wanted to win and let all the rest go. He chose life over career, and in so doing chose career as well. That's his pragmatism showing.

The idea appears to be spreading.

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After two years spent banging his head against a performance wall, Novak Djokovic gave up in July. Serena Williams decided to take most of the year off to have a kid.

Andy Murray skipped the U.S. Open with an injury he's had forever and said he will take the next four months off. Maria Sharapova missed 15 months after a drug ban and returned looking as comfortable as anyone else out there.

There are reasons top pros play all the time – ranking points; many smaller tournaments are less competitive, but still rich; sponsors all want to see you at 'their' tournament; and practice, they keep telling us, makes perfect.

Those are reasons, but not necessarily good ones.

Federer doesn't need the sponsors – they need him. He doesn't need the money. He doesn't need the ranking points, because he doesn't care about seeding. He'll play anyone at any time and believe he can beat them. And once you have reached a certain level, being fully fit is more important than being well practised.

Federer decided he has only one priority – playing well at majors he has a chance at winning. The relentless grind of tennis and its demands on time and body were sublimated to that goal.

After clearly wearing down at Flushing Meadows, Federer may want to go further next season. Why not? Federer is Federer. He can do what he wants.

As in any other pack, every competitor in every sport takes their cues from the alpha. Until Federer arrived, men's tennis had a louche, bro culture that emanated from the likes of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Once he'd arrived, Federer's suavity spread like a contagion. Every one of the top men's players now emulates his sanguine, sport-as-art brand of sophistication (or tries to).

What if they copied him in this as well?

What if Nadal – who has spent years breaking down and being built back up – makes the French Open his entire yearly focus? What if Serena Williams returns as an opportunistic part-timer? What if Murray begins to wonder, "Why the hell does a guy who's made $60-million play so much?" (19 tourneys last year).

It would be a disaster for tennis. We're not talking about the majors, but everyone else who makes money from this human economy.

There is a vast sub-system of tournaments that have grown wealthy by attaching themselves to the glamour of the Slams, and then convincing the cogs in the machine that they must be turning all the time, whether that's good for the cogs or not.

Federer is the first high-profile cog to opt out. The question is whether more will follow, or be allowed to.

The tennis economy is more than the tournaments themselves – each player is his/her own ecosystem of paid hangers-on. They won't like the enforced time off. You still have to think about those sponsors, and the broadcasters who chase after them.

Also, a great wealthy horde nibbles on the edges of this thing, if only as customers. They would rebel if they were forced to suffer through Diego Schwartzman v. Pablo Carreno Busta in perpetuity.

There are many more people invested in year-round tennis than aren't. So it's unlikely the whole edifice will tip over.

But maybe. It does have the advantage of being a smart idea, if not a profitable one.

In the end, it could be another of Federer's many legacies – that he made the institution of professional tennis much better by making it a little smaller.

Video: Denis Shapovalov on how people mispronounce his name (The Canadian Press)
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