To play or withdraw? Playing games with injuries

Stephen Lownsbrough

Stephen Lownsbrough

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 main tour events. Notably the high number of withdrawals, retirements and injuries cited at this year’s Wimbledon.

To emphasise the point, you need to look no further than this week’s Rogers Cup events in Montreal (Men) and Toronto (Women).  A whole host of top players have withdrawn before a racket has even been swung, including Roger Federer and Victoria Azarenka.

Federer’s withdrawal comes as no real surprise; he has been battling a back injury since he embarked on a rare post-Wimbledon clay season. Azarenka’s abrupt announcement, one day prior to the start of the Cup, was due to injury following a beating by Samantha Stosur in the Californian Open final. British No1, Laura Robson has also had to withdraw with a wrist injury.

While Federer’s absence from the Rogers Cup may be the biggest blow to the tournament, it is not an exception. On Wednesday, tournament director Eugène Lapierre announced the withdrawal of world No8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, citing that Tsonga needed to continue to rehabilitate the knee he injured at Wimbledon. Other men on the casualty list are Americans Mardy Fish, who cited personal reasons and the No22-ranked Sam Querrey. Juan Monaco, the world No31 Argentinian and Spaniard Tommy Robredo, back to No23 in the rankings, also joined this list.

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 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 avoid injury. After Murray’s grand slam win he admitted: ‘I didn’t pick up a racket for two weeks so the first couple of practices were tough.’

Players frequently go through long stints of playing, 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 now that it is a 12 month sport.

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!

Stephen J Lownsbrough
Sports Law Department
0113 207 0000

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