Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Strange Goings On In Women’s Tennis

Last week Zürich, Switzerland, hosted a medium-sized women’s tennis tournament, the Zürich Open. The number one player in the world, Justin Henin, was there. Former number one Serena Williams was there. My favorite tennis player, Elena Dementieva, was there, fresh from beating Serena Williams the previous week in the final of the Kremlin Cup in Moscow.

In the very first round at the Zürich Open, however, odd events upstaged the tennis.

Serena Williams played Swiss veteran Patty Schnyder and Schnyder pulled out the upset victory. But it wasn’t what fans call a ‘clean’ victory—Schnyder won the first set 6-3 and then went up a break 3-0 in the second set and Williams quit.

In tennis jargon when a player stops play with an injury or other issue he or she is said to have ‘retired’ from the match.

Serena Williams retired with an adductor strain. That’s sports jargon for a sore leg. (More colorful sports jargon calls it a ‘groin pull.’)

I thought, well, it’s a great victory for the old Swiss player, but it’s too bad Williams didn’t stick it out for three more games to give her opponent a regular win. But the year-end championships are coming up and it’s always possible Williams didn’t want to risk a serious injury.

Later in the first round, Elena Dementieva played Italian veteran Francesca Schiavone. They split the first two sets and when Schiavone went up 4-2 in the deciding set, Dementieva quit.

Elena Dementieva retired with an adductor strain also. (Williams hurt her right leg, Dementieva hurt her left leg.) And Dementieva wouldn’t be appearing in the year-end championships so she couldn’t really say she was being extra careful.

I thought, just damn.

Throughout most of my tennis watching—and tennis playing—life, retirements generally have been rare. In most tournaments it didn’t happen at all. If it happened once, it was the kind of thing sports commentators talked about. But last year in the final of the Australian Open, Justin Henin played Amelie Mauresmo and when Mauresmo won the first set and went up 2-0 in the second set, Henin quit. The final. Of a grand slam tournament. Henin took a lot of heat from commentators and writers and fans for not gutting-out the match and giving her opponent a ‘real’ victory. But other players seem to have taken the tactic and not the heat to heart. Since then there have been more and more retirements.

But two retirements in the first round from major players was still strange.

And it got stranger.

In the third round, Francesca Schiavone squared off against the number two player in the world, Svetlana Kuznetsova. Schiavone took the first set 6-3 and with the second set tied at 3-3, Kuznetsova quit.

Kuznetsova retired with a sore shoulder. Kuznetsova also is qualified for the year-end championships, so she had the ‘extra careful’ excuse available to her.

I thought, what the hell, is anyone in this tournament going to finish a match?

Later in the third round, French-Russian beauty Tatiana Golovin played France’s Marion Bartoli and Bartoli didn’t even let one set get past her. On serve at 4-5 in the oppening set, Bartoli quit.

Bartoli retired with a sore knee.

I thought, at this rate there won’t be anybody left to play in the final!

From then on, however, things went reasonably smoothly and the final pitted Golovin against Henin and Henin won in straight sets.

But four retirements was something new to me.

What’s happening to women’s tennis? Players are just walking away from matches!

When the tournament was over, I checked out the complete draw sheet. There were thirty-one matches total. Four ended in retirements. (That’s about 13%.) In hindsight it doesn’t really sound all that bad. Four out of thirty-one. But I don’t remember such a thing ever happening before.

I recently looked back at the head-to-head matches of some great players from the past. Steffi Graf played Monica Seles 15 times. And those women fought hard. Those two never had a match against each other end in a retirement. Chris Evert played Martina Navratilova 80 times! Maybe the best sports rivalry ever. They had two matches that never started because one or the other was injured, but of their 80 matches against one another not one that started ended in a retirement.

Jimmy Conners used to say you’d have to take him off the court on a stretcher. Heck, Boris Becker once broke a bone and was carried off the court on a stretcher.

In women’s tennis now players just quit when they get an ache or pain.

Strange goings on.

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