Tennis hits the pain barrier

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The professional tennis caravan rolls into New York this weekend having popped a few tyres en route. The lead-up to this year’s US Open, which begins on Monday, has been a bumpy one for both the men’s and women’s tours.

With the exception of last week’s ATP Masters Series tournament in Cincinnati, the warm-up events for the Open have been plagued by player withdrawals, most of them due to niggling injuries of one sort or another. It is generally agreed that the length of the tennis season – it is now effectively endless – is at least partly to blame for the rash of sore feet and aching backs. Less clear is what can be done to solve the problem.

The summer’s body count has been little short of remarkable. Twelve of the top 20 women’s players either pulled out or retired from last week’s Rogers Cup in Toronto. Among the casualties were both Williams sisters and the new world number one Maria Sharapova, who also bailed out of tournaments in Palo Alto, San Diego and Los Angeles on account of a strained chest muscle.

The woman she replaced at the top, Lindsay Davenport, was forced to retire from a match in Palo Alto and subsequently pulled out of the San Diego and Los Angeles events. Davenport played this week in New Haven, but two of that tournament’s other top seeds, defending US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Myskina, both withdrew citing injuries suffered in Toronto.

The men have fared only slightly better. Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt were no-shows in Los Angeles. Andre Agassi did take the court and ended up winning the title, but he then withdrew from Cincinnati and from a tournament in Washington.

Marat Safin made the quarter-finals in Cincinnati but pulled out from the men’s event in New Haven on account of a knee injury. New Haven had earlier lost another headliner, former French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, who called in sick because of a dodgy hip.

Needless to say, this coast-to-coast epidemic has disappointed thousands of tennis fans and more than a few tournament directors. It has also come as a hard blow to the United States Tennis Association. In an effort to whip up additional excitement about the Open, the USTA has gathered the 10 warm-up events under one banner and called the entire package the US Open Series, offering bonus money to the players who accumulate the most points.

Suffice it to say, the competition has been something less than electric this summer. While there is no reason to think most of the injuries were not legitimate, it is probably also safe to assume most of them were decidedly minor injuries and perhaps not entirely unwelcome ones. Given the length of the season and the rigours of hard-court tennis, particularly in the late-summer heat, players have good reason to want to conserve their energy.

For a cautionary tale, one need only look back to 1999 and what happened to Pete Sampras and Pat Rafter. Both played a trio of US Open tune-up events (Rafter also threw in a Davis Cup tie), treating fans in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Montreal to some scintillating tennis. Both were also dead on arrival in New York: Sampras was forced to pull out of the Open with a herniated disc and Rafter, the defending champion, ended up retiring from his first-round match with a shoulder injury.

It is a lesson that has not been lost on world number one Roger Federer. During a press conference in Cincinnati, Federer defended his decision to make Cincinnati his lone US appearance before the Open: “I believe that I should follow a smart schedule throughout my career so I can hopefully play injury-free as long as possible,” he said. “That’s my mind-set I have on picking tournaments.”

Federer did acknowledge that he has the luxury of being selective – he is the top-ranked player and has no pressure to collect additional points or pay cheques. Only a handful of other men and women’s players can make the same claim but they, along with Federer, happen to be the players that spectators are most eager to see. And therein lies the dilemma: what is good for the top players is not always so good for the sport. Federer, Roddick, Sharapova and the Williams sisters may be well tanned and rested for the Open, but they have left a trail of disgruntled fans en route to New York.

It is a problem with no obvious and immediate solution. Former world number one Jim Courier cautions against reading too much into this summer’s casualty list – “It is just a bad coincidence; nothing like this happened last year” – and says there is no quick fix that can perfectly align the interests of fans and tournament directors with the interests of the players.

Courier thinks turning the Davis and Fed Cups into biannual competitions rather than yearly ones would help. He also suggests bringing the tennis season to an earlier close in October rather than November.

The ideal long-term solution, he says, would be for tennis to find a “big capital partner” who could buy out tournament contracts and compress the yearly schedule into perhaps 12 to 15 events (including the Grand Slams) worldwide. This would presumably result in fewer injured players and fewer weakened draws. But Courier readily concedes that his dream scenario is mostly just wishful thinking: “Could it happen? Yeah. Would it take forever? Probably.”

FEDERER FAVOURED TO RETAIN HIS US TITLE

Barring injury, food poisoning or a runaway truck, Roger Federer looks certain to defend successfully his US Open title. The only real question, it would seem, is whether the world number one, poised to capture the sixth Grand-Slam title of his career, can sweep through the men’s draw without so much as surrendering a set.

Certainly, he has little to fear from either Andy Roddick, his victim the past two years at Wimbledon, or Lleyton Hewitt, whom he humiliated in last year’s US Open final.

The fifth seed, Marat Safin, knows what it takes to beat Federer (he did it in the semi-finals at this year’s Australian) and to win the US Open (he captured it in 2000), but the combustible Russian is nursing a knee injury and seems to be on one of his periodic mental holidays.

Perhaps the most intriguing presence in the draw is the second seed, Rafael Nadal. The Spanish teenager beat Federer on the way to the French Open title this spring and has shown he can also play on hard courts, most recently winning in Montreal.

Things are far less predictable among the women. The only top player arriving in New York with any momentum is the fourth seed Kim Clijsters, who has won three events over the last month. The Belgian’s most recent victory came last week in Toronto, where she handily beat compatriot and longtime nemesis Justine Henin-Hardenne. But Clijsters is without a win in four major finals and has shown a tendency to buckle under pressure, so she can hardly be called an outright favourite (see column right).

Maria Sharapova just laid claim to the world number one ranking, which only ratchets up the pressure on her to win to second Grand Slam. Apart from the debut of their new reality show, the Williams sisters have had a quiet July and August, which should worry the competition. Little was heard of the sisters during the spring before Venus ended up winning Wimbledon.

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