Tie Breaker; Will Tennis finally face up to the reality that the sport must protect it’s stars

Whilst the tennis ‘story’ is Rafa Nadal’s wrist injury preventing him defend his US Open title, that is simply the tip of the iceberg when considering the full list of injuries and withdrawals from main tour events.


Most notably the high number of withdrawals, retirements and injuries cited at the Grand Slams this year.

To reemphasise the point, you need to look no further than Juan Martin Del Potro, who continues a difficult recovery from wrist surgery that has see him miss most of the season. There is similar concern surrounding Britain’s Laura Robson and her continued wrist injury, as well as, Li Na who has pulled out of US Open with knee injury. It is likely a host of other players will withdraw from the final Grand Slam of the year before a racket has even been swung.

While Nadal’s absence from the US Open may be the biggest blow to the tournament, it is not likely to be the last.The story is a grim one.  The top four men’s players have all suffered significant injuries – Novak Djokovic (back, hip and shoulder). Rafael Nadal (shoulder, groin, knee, wrist and abdominal), Andy Murray (wrist, back and legs) and Roger Federer (back and groin). It is now almost unavoidable for the world’s best to dodge injury.

Players frequently go through long stints, six weeks or more without a break. Most would agree that two weeks off after winning a grand slam, comprising of 7 extensive matches, probably isn’t long enough to rest any impending injuries. There are the added issues that players hit the ball so hard, the rackets have had such an effect and there is now so much “strength in depth” in both the men’s and women’s games. In addition players are playing a lot more tennis and it’s a 12 – month sport now.

Looking back at the US Open 2011 particularly one may understand the concerns and issues more closely.

Over the course of the two-week period there were over 18 singles player who pull out of the tournament as a result of injury or illness. The high number of withdrawals became the major talking point of the tournament. With two players pulling out before the start, two more choosing not to play their matches – including Venus Williams – and 14 more retiring mid-match.

Many of the players had been, and still are strong critics of the length of the tennis season which has been swirling for years. Andy Murray weighed into the debate on Twitter, echoing what many players and fans feel, saying: “is the 18th pull out in the us open telling the tennis authorities anything?? No?? Thought not….”

The length of the Tennis season is still the subject of much debate as it has no real off-season like many other professional sports. Maybe more so for those in the top 20 but a lot of the players are still grinding it out in tournaments till the end of November and maybe they get three weeks off to prepare for the Australian summer.

Professional Tennis players are not machines and should not be expected to perform as such. Even the fittest tennis player is going to wear down their body in this week in week out grind. The player’s body suffers and, in this case, the US Open suffers. The previous record for retirements during the US Open was 10! Is this more proof needed that the grueling ATP schedule is taking its toll on the players?

Looking at the men’s game, some think that big money is distorting the men’s priorities and helping to damage players’ bodies. The sport’s administration has to take some blame for setting up that sort of system.

It is not surprising that if players are flying around the world and playing a huge number of tournaments, then those in good form getting minimum rest are pushed to play because big money is at stake. They can make the difference between a full house and a half house. So they have pressure.

The lure of money and keeping sponsors happy puts pressure on the majority of players to play 20 or more tournaments in a calendar year.

So far as sponsors are concerned, particularly in the case of Nadal’s latest injury,Nike will not be so happy with the news, especially as it had planned to send Nadal out in a sleeveless top next week for the first time in six years. His new kit would have recalled the days when his distinctive look – all muscle vests and pirate pants – set off scores of imitators on tennis courts around the world.

The system is set up to make money at tournaments; there is a conflict between players being pushed to make it for themselves and for others and having enough time to rest. It’s an important problem which has not been addressed properly.

The pressure to satisfy tournament sponsors, TV and Media schedules, as well as, to win prize money and ranking points is making players compete too much and run a far greater risk of getting injured. Will the time come when the players start taking the administrators to court?

The ATP/WTA  need to take responsibility and put players’ health high on the agenda. Otherwise the situation might give way to litigation, as we have seen in football.

There could be specialists who would come forward and say “This guy should rest”. You can speculate how long it will be before a player who feels forced into playing might turn round and sue. It might sound farfetched, but you can imagine it happening!

Adrian Rattenbury – Sports Consultant