The Lame and the ... Lame

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If you didn’t know better and just feasted on the headlines, you might decide that the only trouble with tennis players is that, with the possible exceptions of Bethanie Mattek-Sands and David Ferrer, they don’t want to play much tennis. 

Here we are, a full eight days into the season, and pros are dropping like flies, or Maria Kirilenko service games. You’d think it was the end of 2013 rather than the beginning of 2014 judging from the casualty reports:

—Venus Williams, a finalist a few days ago in Auckland, wrote herself out of Hobart—a straightforward withdrawal.

Sloane Stephens, fresh off celebrating the New Year with a few sets of mixed doubles at the Hopman Cup, withdrew from Sydney with a bad wrist.

John Isner, Stephens’ partner on team USA at the Hopman Cup, pulled out of that event with an ankle injury and put the promoters in Auckland on hold, saying he’d get back to them about playing this week. (Thus far, he’s still in the draw, with a No. 3 seed and first-round bye.)

Gael Monfils reached the final at Doha, losing a three-setter to top-seeded Rafael Nadal. He then withdrew from Auckland, citing “fatigue.” 

—Caroline Wozniacki withdrew from Brisbane with a bad shoulder (hurt in practice), but played two rounds in Sydney.

—Kevin Anderson came down with a virus and Andy Murray came down with an allergy to match play. After winning a laughter of a match against a wild card in Doha, Murray was upset by Florian Mayer. 

You’d think Murray, who spent part of the fall flat on his back following surgery and missed almost the entire fall segment (including the ATP World Tour Finals), would be eager to get some matches before the Australian Open begins. Not so—he turned down wild cards offers from Sydney and Auckland. 

In explaining his decision to refuse the wild cards, Murray inadvertently cited a few reasons for why he should have accepted one:

“The way I was playing for half the match against Mayer I would be very happy with, but being able to maintain that for five sets is tricky. Having a day off between matches would help me and also I'm going to get fitter by playing matches, so there's a possibility that if I can get through a couple of rounds I'll start to feel better as the tournament goes on. My body will start to feel better."

Forgive me if I think this sounds like a guy who could use some matches—especially in light of how fresh and rested he must be.

Each of these cases is different, and some of them tell us something about the game today. The gut reaction of some will be to wonder how so many of these pros can pull up lame when they’ve had as much as two months off to rest and train for the new year. A dewy-eyed fan might put that down to how taxing the game is today, as if all players of the past were practicing patty-cakes, not tennis. 

A skeptic, though, might find a more complex and perhaps less romantic explanation, especially in the case of the ATP (the men’s season is a few weeks longer). It’s possible that the short off-season barely allows players to rest, never mind do a lot of serious training, or hit the requisite intensity level to remain in competitive shape. Thus, players hit the panic button as the first tournaments in January approach, push themselves too hard, and something goes kaput. 

Why do I think that Isner or Stephens can think of lots of things they’d rather do in late December than hit tennis balls for four hours a day?

It’s also true that all sports these days are essentially year-round enterprises: Fall out of shape and there’s a guy running out of the gym to take your job. But unlike other athletic activities, tennis is an interval sport, not a seasonal one. The year is broken up into blocks, and the players can individually tailor their schedules to allow for rest, as well as to peak for different portions of the year. So who’s going to want to peak for Melbourne?

Let’s face it, the year-end break is different from any other one. It’s a time to shut down, kick back, hit the reset button—and maybe monkey around a little with the service toss, or slice approach. Andre Agassi was a striking exception—he became famous during his spectacular second career for the intensity of his December training block. Hence, his three consecutive Australian Open title wins (2000 through 2003; he was unable to play and defend in 2002).

That brings us to a factor that may be the key to all these puzzling withdrawals. Like Novak Djokovic today, Agassi didn’t play any official tune-up tournaments. The long layoff before the first major and the often brutal conditions under which the Australian Open is usually played makes many pros leery of overplaying—or sustaining niggling injuries that might balloon into real problems once the main event gets underway.

Monfils’ decision to skip Auckland seems to be a perfect illustration of the weakness of the Australian “summer of tennis.” Would Monfils skip the Rome Masters if he did well in Madrid? It’s hard to imagine. But the demands Down Under are different, even taking into account that Rome is a Masters event, while Auckland is a dispensable ATP 250. The events before the big clash in Melbourne are “warm-up” events to a much greater degree than any others on the calendar, thus it’s that much easier to skip them—or enter them at the last moment, if things haven’t really been working out as planned.

But one thing that really bothers me about Monfils’ decision is that it’s a real blow to the tournament and the fans. You assume a certain obligation when you enter a tournament, and it’s just plain wrong to back out of that commitment just because it no longer suits your needs. Setting aside the question of whether or not “fatigue” is a legitimate excuse, Monfils didn’t lose a set en route to the final in Doha, and that match lasted under two hours. 

I guess Monfils is in even poorer physical condition than I thought.

In that regard, Monfils’ decision to pull out of Auckland was lame as well as unprofessional, and I wish the tours would take a good, hard look at this issue. Should players pick and choose as they wish, should how they “feel” be the end all and be-all of a system that relies on their commitments? 

Thankfully, the top players generally have enough professional pride and/or an adequate sense of responsibility to keep this trend from doing too much damage. I can’t imagine Nadal pulling out of Rome when he’s just won Madrid, but that’s one of the reasons he has 13 majors and Monfils has none.

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