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Tennis' Grand Problem

June 26th.  The day the sports world was fixated on former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez getting arrested and charged with the murder of a semi-pro football player.  The story was broadcast on every sports channel, along with all the local news stations.  Yet there was another interesting sports story that occurred today that got overshadowed. 

It happened on the grass courts at Wimbledon, and no one is talking about it.  Yes I get it; a tennis story is not as newsworthy or important as an NFL player being charged with murder.  But when you have a storied major tournament like Wimbledon, and a majority of the top players of the world are either losing, withdrawing, or stopping their matches due to injury, it is a big deal.  What happened on June 26th points to a major problem in the sport, one that has always been ignored or brushed aside as insignificant or imaginary.

On one day, eight players got injured either before or during their matches, and all had to withdraw from the tournament.  Among the eight players were the #2 and #9 seeds in the women's draw (Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki - both past #1 players), and the #6, #10, and #18 seeds on the men's side (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marin Cilic, and John Isner - who is the top American player). 

As if the withdrawals and injuries weren't bad enough for the tournament, two of the most recognizable and successful players in the world were upset on June 26th.  Maria Sharapova was beaten by a player more known for her loud grunts and screeches than her ability on a tennis court.  Roger Federer was beaten by a player that had never defeated a player ranked in the top 20.  Federer hadn't lost before the second week of a major tournament since 2004, and has won Wimbledon eight times in his career.

Is it just a coincidence that all these top players were ousted on June 26th, or is there a reason and/or excuse for all the carnage?  The media and some of the players seem to be focused on the weather and the court conditions.  Many players have injured themselves from slipping and falling on the grass courts this year.  While the courts are always pretty slick early in the tournament and firmer when they get worn down, this year the grass seems really treacherous.  According to the media, there could be various reasons for the slick conditions, ranging from the wet and humid spring to having less time to prepare the courts due to the Olympics last year to the players using insufficient footwear on the courts.  There is another obvious answer that has nothing to do with the courts and everything to do with what is wrong with the sport.

Tennis' schedule is the main reason more and more athletes have to withdraw before matches or retire during matches.  The way the schedule for both the men and the women is currently set up; there are no off weeks during the season and only a few weeks between the end of one year and the beginning of the next.  Between playing every week and traveling all over the world, it's no wonder that more and more top players are succumbing to injuries and illnesses during the season.

The season starts at the beginning of January in Australia and New Zealand, with players getting only two or three weeks to get prepared for the first Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open.  Within a week of that tournament ending, the top players are asked to play for their country in round one of the Davis Cup.  Afterwards, players normally come to the United States to prepare for the two big tournaments in March, both of which are mandatory events and are played back-to-back.  The mandatory events are called Masters Series events, and are exclusive to the top 64 players in the world.  Masters Series events are basically smaller versions of Grand Slams, and winning these events have become very prestigious as they are used to tune up for the majors.  April has players traveling to Europe and switching to the clay courts, with the men playing in another Masters Series event just two weeks after the last one.  May has the women playing in two Masters events back-to-back, with the second being held for both men and women.  By the end of the month the second Grand Slam takes place at the French Open.  Two weeks after the French Open ends Wimbledon begins.  Once Wimbledon ends the players can either stay in Europe for a few clay court events or travel back to the United States to get ready for the last Grand Slam tournament.  By August everyone is in the U.S., as there are Masters Series events leading up to the U.S. Open.  By the end of September the players are in Asia playing in tournaments in China, Japan, and Thailand.  October brings another mandatory event in China, with the men having an additional one at the end of October in France while the women have their year-end championships.  The men end their season in November with the top eight players qualifying for the season-ending round-robin tournament.

With all the wear and tear on a player's body participating in all these tournaments, nevermind the extensive preparation needed to play at the highest level for 10 months out of the year, injuries are bound to occur.  Requiring the top draws to play in all these mandatory Masters Series tournaments throughout the year, and setting up the schedule so that there is no off time between mandatory events, are the two main causes for the current rash of injuries.

Having two weeks between the French Open and Wimbledon is a travesty, and is unfair to both the players and the fans of the sport.  Playing on clay is totally different from playing on grass.  The ball bounces in the opposite manner, requiring players to change their tactics and strategy.  Stopping on a clay court requires a player to slide, which takes lots of practice to perfect.  Asking someone to play on clay for a couple of months perfecting how to move on a slick surface, then requiring them to play on a surface that is totally opposite without having any time to practice or prepare is asinine.  There's a reason that four players withdrew from Wimbledon on June 26th with knee issues.  It's not a coincidence, it's what happens when you play this much tennis on various surfaces with no rest or off weeks.  Fans who bought tickets to the second week of a Grand Slam expected to see Azarenka, Tsonga, Wozniacki, and Nadal (who didn't withdraw from the event but just came back from a knee injury this year and was clearly hampered by some injury or ailment during his first round loss).  Hopefully seeing a Grand Slam tournament with no-names in the second week will bring about some change in a hurry.  Otherwise the ridiculous schedule in tennis is going to run the top draws into the ground - whether it is hard, clay, or grass.