Viewpoint: Precautionary retirements hurting sport
If you've been following the ATP action over the past few weeks, you might be forgiven for thinking that we now have an entirely new category of result—the precautionary retirement. Not quite two weeks ago in Montreal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, complaining of a sore arm, abandoned his semifinal with Novak Djokovic while trailing 6-4, 3-0. He justified the decision on the grounds that that his arm had been aching for three days, the pain growing worse daily. "I don't have the pretension to try to beat Novak without my arm," he rather cavalierly concluded.
Subsequent tests turned up no sign of an injury, which doesn't mean that Tsonga's arm didn't hurt like hail and impair his performance. But it suggests that he could have finished the match and decided not to more or less as a matter of convenience. Just days later, he roared out of the blocks in Cincinnati, beating up on Marin Cilic—not bad for a guy with a bad arm.
Just two days ago, Djokovic abandoned his final with Andy Murray in the selfsame Cincinnati Masters, due to a combination of fatigue and a sore shoulder. He also said he could have played on, but decided against it. In fact, he justified quitting with words so close to those spoken by Tsonga a week earlier that he might have borrowed them: "I could have maybe played another couple of games, but what for? I cannot beat a player like Murray today with one stroke."
|Tsonga walked away from his Montreal semifinal with Djokovic, then won his Cincinnati opener a few days later. (AP Photo)|
It's pretty obvious that Djokovic's decision to retire was a matter of calculation, or precaution. For some reason, he must have felt that playing another half-dozen games might somehow hurt his ability to perform at peak level in New York next week, or he decided that trying to halt the the Murray juggernaut just wasn't worth the effort—Masters status nonwithstanding. No matter how you cut it, though, his actions, and those of Tsonga, are disturbing.
Time was, a player retired during a match not because he didn't want to go on, but because he couldn't go on. Or, in trying to continue, he or she ran risk of incurring a serious, career-ending injury. There's a certain amount of gray area when it comes to determining just how grave or threatening an injury is, but there's little indication that fear of incurring serious damage played much of a role in the decisions by Tsonga and Djokovic. Tsonga would play—and win—just a few days later. Djokovic didn't seem to fret over the state of his shoulder.
The two men set a really unwise precedent with their actions. Invariably, some of you will jump up and say that the pro tennis player's first—and only—obligation is to himself, and that anything he chooses to do (within the rules) to advance his chances at a Grand Slam is not only fair game, but intelligent career management. In some ways, that's the sacred dogma in a sport driven by naked self-interest and played by fiercely mercenary privateers.
I don't buy that. By entering into what we'll call the ATP system and culture, a player assumes certain obligations and responsibilities, and reaps certain rewards. One of those obligations is to give a full and honest effort every time he or she sets foot on a court. The players have a contractual obligation to give the ticket-buying public its money's worth, in terms of effort expended if not necessarily time spent. And they also owe their opponents the right to get a win that ends with a numeral, not the abbreviation "RET."
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal may not be at their best these days, but give them credit—they almost always show up and take their lickings right to the bitter end. On the rare occasions when Nadal has retired from a match, he promptly vanished from the game to take care of what must have been a serious injury.
It will be a terrible blow to the game if these precautionary retirements become a habit, if players begin to feel justified in pulling out when the going gets tough, in order to conserve their strength and/or fitness for the future. We all know that the Grand Slam events are preeminent, and that players try—rightly—to give themselves the best chance to win the majors.
But when doing so violates their covenant with the tour and the public, it begins to look like they're welshing on a contract.
Peter Bodo is a senior editor at TENNIS.com.