Oct/10

26

WTA Health Check

The tennis season is a marathon and two years ago the WTA Tour shortened its route. The WTA Tour enacted its Roadmap plan in 2009 in an effort to reduce players’ work load, decrease the number of injury and fatigue-related withdrawals and increase player participation and overall health.

Has it worked?

Is the WTA Tour on the road to recovery or are pain-provoked pit stops still prevalent?

Scanning recent headlines to see the Williams sisters withdrew from this week’s season-ending WTA Championships in Doha and next month’s Fed Cup final in San Diego after several former Grand Slam champions — Justine Henin, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova — and 14th-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska pulled the plug on their seasons prematurely you might view the Tour’s top 20 as a tennis disabled list.

Despite those departures, the WTA reports injury-related withdrawals are down and player participation in keeping tournament commitments are up. The WTA Tour study, which compares the 2010 season stats to 2008, the last season before the Roadmap Plan was put
into place, shows:

  • Withdrawals are down 35% from 336 in 2008 to 217 in 2010
  • Retirements/Walkovers are down 16% from 58 in 2008 to 49 in 2010
  • Medical timeouts are down 35% from 590 in 2008 to 385 in 2010
  • Top 10 player commitment withdrawals are down 50% from 32 in 2008 to 16 in 2010
  • Top 10 player commitments played improved 12% from 2008 to 2010
  • Overall prize money, including the Grand Slams, increased 18% from $72,825,205 in 2008 to $85,723,120 in 2010.

A cynic might suggest the timing of the study may be directly designed to counter recent prominent player pull outs. Regardless of the motivation, it is positive news for the WTA Tour, which has lost Sony Ericsson as its title sponsor (though Sony Ericsson has remained a sponsor of the Tour) and will undoubtedly use those numbers as selling points to potential sponsors.

Consider that only five top 20 players have played 60 or more matches this season — World
No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki (74), third-ranked Vera Zvonareva (63), No. 8 Samantha Stosur (62), No. 13 Shahar Peer (68) and No. 20 Yanina Wickmayer (63).

The issue the WTA faces is trying to create a competitive climate in which its top stars play more Tour events rather than using Tour stops as pit stops on the road to revving it up for the four majors.

Australian Open and Wimbledon winner Serena and three-time US Open champion Kim Clijsters both endured absences due to injury and are two of the six members of the top 20 who played fewer than 50 matches. Serena played 20 matches and Clijsters, who is scheduled to play the season-ending event in Doha starting Tuesday, has played 42 matches. Former Grand Slam champions Venus Williams (45 matches), Henin (40 matches), Sharapova (44) and Henin (43) all played less than 50 matches as well.

Traditionally, the Williams sisters, Sharapova, Clijsters and Henin have played shorter schedules than other top 20 players and you could argue in those cases that less is more — that the dedication to playing diminishes schedules has lengthened their longevity as champions.

Both Clijsters and Henin have comeback after announcing retirements in their mid 20-s, which can make you wonder if the mid-career retirement route will become a more popular detour on the career path.

Should top-ranked players, some of whom incur more mileage on their bodies and psyches by going deeper into draws, receive even more breaks than other top 20 players? Or are those precisely the players the Tour needs to play more to sell the sport to sponsors, advertisers and fans?

Is there a direct correlation between age and fitness and matches played?

The 20-year-old Wozniacki, who leads the Tour in matches played, is the youngest player in the top 20 and one of the fittest. Stosur and Zvonareva are widely regarded as two of the fittest women on tour, both are 26 and both have endured extended absences in the last three years — Stosur suffered from a viral illness in 2007 and Zvonareva underwent ankle surgery last November — and both reached their first major finals last summer.

Who is the fittest player on Tour and how much of a factor in the best-of-three set format of women’s tennis is fitness to championship success?

(Serena Williams sculpture was created by Illiinois-based artist Barrymore Alan Moton.)

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1 comment

  • Scoop Malinowski · October 26, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Hard to get into the Doha event for some reason, it was so much more enjoyable when it was in NY. It seems so far away and some of the top players don’t seem into playing it at all. It’s been kind of a down year for the WTA with Serena’s disappearance, the lackluster slam finals at Wimbledon and New York. Though Schiavone winning in Paris was a joy to see and the rise of Wozniacki also. The women’s game is definitely taking a back seat right now – or riding on the coattails – on the excitement generated by the ATP and Federer, Nadal and company. Hopefully that will change in 2011 and we will see more thrilling womens matches.

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