To Play Or Not To Play ……………… Injury or Litigation!


Hopefully it was with a strong sense of irony that the ATP/WTA noticed that whilst the tennis ‘story’ of the second half of last year was Rafa Nadal’s serious knee injuries, through years of wear and tear on the Tour, that was simply the tip of the iceberg when considering the full list of injuries and withdrawals from last year’s main tour events.

This has been further highlighted by Andy Murray’s absence from the French Open, and Venus Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova having already pulled out of this year’s Wimbledon through injury before a ball has been hit! How many more will follow or retire in a match during the event?

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, knees and abdominal), Andy Murray (wrist, back and legs) and Roger Federer (back and groin).

The undeniable conclusion is that everyone is playing too much, there is a Grand Slam event in the first month of the year (Australia), and the end of year, the World Tour Finals, is almost in December.  In no other sport do players play like this.  The numbers of injured players continue to grow, with the guys playing well here or there, and then maybe having one or two months off.

Until recent setbacks for the Williams sisters, women’s injuries have been less conspicuous than mens’ and the WTA Tour hold the year-end WTA Championships in the middle of November to allow almost two months of rest and recovery. However 2012 saw a significant increase in the women’s game.

Former World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has expressed her frustration with WTA rules that demands top players compete in almost all of the tour’s biggest events.

Azarenka wrote on Twitter. “If WTA rules were different then I could  focus on getting healthy but I could not afford another zero pointer on my ranking. Hopefully in the future there will be more protection for players’ rights.”

However the WTA have countered: “The WTA’s Roadmap—created and supported by our WTA players and tournaments—is designed to protect the health of our players and to ensure that fans are able to see their favourite players more often at their favourite events. Key elements of the Roadmap introduced to protect player health include a longer off-season, more in-season breaks and a significantly reduced commitment requirement for top players. Since it was introduced in 2009, player injuries and withdrawals are down 33% and top player participation at our top events is up 28%. We think the Roadmap is working.”

This view does not however seem to tally with the Montreal Gazette, which monitors WTA main-draw injury retirements, walkovers, and withdrawals in both singles and doubles, says that at the time by May, the total number in 2012 had risen to 97, or 40 more than the previous year’s total at the same time.

Top 10 players must commit to specific WTA tournaments, exclusive of the Grand Slams and the year-end WTA Championships, which include the four Premier Mandatory tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, and Beijing), four of the Premier 5’s (Dubai, Rome, Canada, Cincinnati, and Tokyo) and at least two 700-level tournaments. A player has the option of skipping one of the Premier 5s annually, but must enter the one she skipped in the next year.

In Azarenka’s case, she played all five Premier 5s in 2011, and in fact according to the WTA, she did not have to enter 2012 Rome. Instead, she decided not to enter 2012 Cincinnati.

In 2010 and 2011, Azarenka retired in 10 singles matches, pulled out of 2011 Beijing after her first match and she and her partner pulled out of four doubles matches. This year she pulled out of the Dubai singles, Indian Wells doubles and then pulled out of Rome.

She has said in the past that one of things that upset her most is that she has developed a reputation of a player who is not willing to play slightly hurt.

Maria Sharapova’s view is that if she is injured, however big or small the fine is, and if it is the tournament where you have to participate or get zero points, her overriding view will always be that health is the most important thing. Sometimes all the top players are not able to play the mandatory WTA Tournaments because some players get injured but sometimes they have to pay a little out of your pocket and not play or they do a little more media for the tournament but if you are not healthy then you are not going to play.

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.
Over recent months due to weather, TV, and sponsors this pressure has been highlighted in Monte Carlo, Rome and Queens (London) with regard to playing conditions and injuries.
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. One source that keeps track of such numbers says the number of main draw withdrawals in 2011 totalled 168. This was up about 80% from 2010.

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 common view of Sports orthopaedic and medical specialists is that the surge in injury-related retirements during play is the result in players entering too many tournaments. The problem is not that they play too much; it’s the way the schedule is set up. Players frequently go through long stints, six weeks or more without a break. Often the tournament play, coupled with the rigors of travel and practicing every day can be too much and most players could benefit from some time off.

The ATP and WTA claim that they have addressed the problem.  Both have education programmes emphasising the need for planning a schedule and preparation.   The ATP provides full-time trainers for which demand has markedly increased, as do the WTA for the women, though there are many more personal trainers on the men’s tour.

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, matches are tougher on the body and there are few easy ones any more. Players are learning about the balance of preparation, prevention and recovery and rehab. The ATP and WTA would argue that stats don’t show there are more injuries than before; it’s that several high-profile players have had injuries.  This catches people’s attention.

The WTA stats over the last five years indicate a doubling of on-site withdrawals.  More injuries have been caused by changes in the modern game.  There is a need to rationalise the calendar better around the Grand Slams, with constant changes of surface, culture and of time zones influence the body a lot more than is realised.

In addition players are playing a lot more tennis and it’s a 12 – month sport now.  The technology is such that they are more prone to injuries and the majority of injuries seem to be over-use problems.

Similarly, the elite junior players from pre-puberty to late teens seem to pick up the same kind of injuries as the elite groups.  There are often changes in the dominant shoulders, with a reduced range of movement.  There can be an asymmetry problem and postural changes.

That’s a warning for the professional tours if they allow undue pressure on players to compete.  It is a difficult dilemma, but if an authority sets up a new system which penalises a player for not turning up, you have to wonder whether it is better.

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