Yesterday, there was no women’s singles at Indian Wells. Both Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur pulled out of their quarterfinal matches, presenting a very obvious target for anyone concerned about an injury bug in women’s tennis.
Last year, WTA retirements hit an all-time high of 4.8% of tour-level matches, almost a full percentage point above the 3.9% of matches that were not completed in 2006. While part of the injury total was due to stomach bugs in China and food poisoning at Indian Wells, the overall trend has been upward for about 30 years:
While it’s less clear that players are any more likely to pull out of Grand Slam matches (the dark red line in the graph above), there’s no doubt that more WTA matches are ending due to injury than they did 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
In a moment, I’ll explain why this is happening, and why the trend is unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon. But first, some perspective on yesterday’s programming disaster.
Since there was nothing else to talk about yesterday in the world of women’s tennis, it was inevitable that the subject of injuries dominated. (Thanks to Federer vs. Nadal on the card, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.) Taking a tournament-wide view, though, this year’s Indian Wells WTA event has been a positive on the health front.
Women’s tennis has seen more than 1 in 50 tour-level matches end with W/O or RET in the score for more than 15 years. Yesterday’s two withdrawals were the first two incomplete matches of the entire event–including qualifying! Assuming we get through the semifinals and final without any further problems, that’s 93 of 95 (97.9%) of main draw matches complete, and 129 of 131 (98.5%) of main draw and qualifying matches complete. Last year, while food poisoning dominated the headlines, there were at least three injury-related retirements from the singles draw, and two years ago, there were five.
These two quarterfinal withdrawals were bad news for television and fans, but they don’t represent a trend.
High stakes, high risk
While Indian Wells has been mostly injury-free, it also shouldn’t be seen as a trend in the positive direction. WTA players (and ATPers, for the same reasons) are going to keep showing up at tournaments less than 100%, developing health problems midway through tournaments, and generally not finishing all the matches they start.
This isn’t because of too many hard courts, slower balls, mandatory events, doping, or even runaway racquet technology. It’s because the financial stakes in tennis–and with it, severe inequality in the ranks–are climbing even faster than the injury rate. The level of fitness required to compete at the highest level is always increasing, and players are forced to choose between trying to keep up or probably falling away.
A simpler example of this phenomenon, and one that makes it easier to illustrate the point, is in competitive distance running. Marathoners rarely run more than two marathons per year, and there is very little room at the top. Run a marathon in 2:04 and you’re a superstar. 2:05 or 2:06 and the sponsors will keep supporting you. If you can’t break 2:10, you’re probably working full-time at a local shoe store.
The most straightforward way to improve your marathon time is to train harder, whether that means more mileage over a several-month training period or more aggressive workouts. When the choice is between 2:05 and oblivion, the incentives are heavily structured toward overly aggressive training. There’s not much difference between finishing with a 2:10 compared to overtraining, getting injured, and not finishing at all.
Tennis, of course, is a bit more forgiving. You don’t need to be one of the top 10 in the world to make a decent living, but then again, to remain in the top 10, you must consistently beat players on the fringes of the top 100, where the incentives are not that different from those in distance running.
As the stakes increase, players are more willing to skirt the edge between hard training and over training. And while players are getting closer to that line, they are hardly going too far–at least according to their own incentives. Sure, we’d like to have seen Vika play yesterday, but a few retirements over the course of the year isn’t going to stop her from regaining the #1 ranking. Two years ago, she pulled out of her quarterfinal with Caroline Wozniacki after only three games–and then started a twelve-match winning streak the following week.
If there were more matches on clay, players would simply push themselves harder on clay courts. (Anyway, there is almost exactly the same percentage of WTA retirements on clay as there are on hard.) Same thing if the balls played faster. If there were fewer mandatory events, we’d see top players engaging in longer periods of hard training. Probably more exhibitions, too.
There are no incentives–nor should there be–for players to stay healthy for the duration of 100% of their matches. If we want the best players in the world to entertain us with the best possible tennis they can play, retirements and withdrawals are something we’ll have to learn to accept. We won’t get one without the other.