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ATP and WTA walking wounded in run-up to the Australian Open

Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the USA receives attention for a back injury (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Bandaged legs and strapped shoulders are a familiar sight in tennis, but not even two full weeks into the 2014 tennis season, the ATP and WTA tours are starting to resemble casualty wards as players withdraw or are forced to retire mid-tournament.

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The worst sufferer in week one, the Aircel Chennai Open in India, saw a total of six walkovers and mid-match retirements. At the Brisbane International, Caroline Wozniacki, Nick Kyrgios and Kevin Anderson all withdrew with injuries before the tournament began and there were two walkovers and one mid-match retirement. Both the Shenzen Open and the ASB Classic saw a mid-match retirement and a walkover given at a crucial stage of the tournament; Vania King was unable to contest her quarter-final in China and the eagerly-anticipated all-American semi-final in Auckland never came to pass as Jamie Hampton gave a walkover to Venus Williams. Only the Qatar Open in Doha remained unscathed.  

Sloane Stephens of the US receives medical attention and retires with a wrist injury on day seven of the Hopman Cup (TONY ASHBY/AFP/Getty Images)

The second week is not going much better. So far the men’s draw at the Apia International Sydney has suffered the pre-tournament withdrawal of Vasek Pospisil and the mid-match retirement of Chennai finalist Edouard Roger-Vasselin after nine games in the first round. On the women’s side, Sloane Stephens and Jamie Hampton withdrew before the tournament and Bethanie Mattek-Sands had to throw in the towel after just five games against Madison Keys. Another of last week’s finalists, Gael Monfils, withdrew from Auckland’s Heineken Open, citing fatigue. In Hobart, Flavia Pennetta and Venus Williams withdrew before the tournament began and there have been three mid-match retirements so far (Laura Robson, Yanina Wickmayer and defending champion Elena Vesnina). 

Laura Robson of Great Britain is treated by a trainer for a wrist injury during day two of the Moorilla Hobart International (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

And withdrawals from the Australian Open are already stacking up: Jurgen Melzer and Nicholas Almagro are both suffering from shoulder injuries, and Maria Kirilenko is out with an ankle injury. All would have been seeded.

Those retirements and withdrawals from players listed as suffering from viral illness – six in total – can also probably be discounted as evidence of any trend; anyone can catch a bug. Most understandable are those players suffering from long-term health problems, such as Venus Williams, who has to manage her schedule carefully to husband her physical resources. But it’s still an awfully long casualty list for the second week of a new season, a time when players should be at the peak of physical fitness after the off-season.

Preventive withdrawals are one thing, but it’s hard to believe that players who have scored big upsets – such as Vania King (d. Errani in Shenzen), Barty (d. Hantuchova in Brisbane) and Mattek-Sands (d. Radwanska in Sydney) – would miss out on the chance to capitalize on the momentum such wins bring unless they were physically utterly unable to compete. 

Most worrying of all, perhaps, are those retirements and withdrawals coming from young players. With both tours increasingly ageing and dominated by veterans, fans and pundits are watching anxiously for younger players to make their mark in the top echelons. Ashleigh Barty (17), Nick Kyrgios (18), Laura Robson (19) and Sloane Stephens (20) are all bright hopes for the future, at or near the beginning of their careers and yet already struggling to stay fit enough to compete. Vasek Pospisil (23) and Jamie Hampton (24) are a little older, but both are at or near career-high rankings with Pospisil anticipating his first Grand Slam as a seed – if he is well enough to play. 

Andy Murray (MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

With only two weeks of tour play before the Australian Open starts, many players trying to recover from injuries may be rushing themselves back on to court in an attempt to get some matches before the first Grand Slam of the year – the alternative being to enter the AO dangerously unprepared, an option taken by Andy Murray, who turned down an Auckland wildcard after an early exit in Doha and will go into the Open having only played two competitive matches since a back injury and consequent surgery forced him off the tour last September. 

Some pundits blame the preponderance of physically punishing hard courts throughout the year; others advances in technology which tend towards protracted, grinding points and matches that get longer and longer. But at this point of the year, it’s hard to avoid looking at the length of the off-season. The WTA season wraps up at the end of October, the ATP in early November, but the increased emphasis on physical conditioning and stamina work means that these 6-8 weeks are more of an intensive training bloc than a holiday. 

While some play lucrative exhibitions, the probable victims of the short off-season are those who cannot necessarily afford the extensive entourages of physios and trainers that work to keep the top players fit throughout the year and may exhaust themselves and overwhelm their bodies racing to be fit as possible for the new season, a tactic that often backfires.

Whether this retirement-riddled fortnight is just an unlucky confluence of events or evidence of a worrying trend remains to be seen, but there’s strong reason to believe that even as tennis is lauded for reaching new heights of excellence, the bodies that sustain the sport are increasingly breaking down.

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ATP and WTA walking wounded in run-up to the Australian Open

In the first two weeks of the 2014 season, an alarming number of withdrawals and retirements batter tournaments Down Under.

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