Summary: In this article, I look at the problem of early-round retirements in Grand Slam tournaments. First, I illustrate the negative effects of these retirements for fans AND players. Then I form a framework to analyze these retirements. Using this framework, I analyze proposed solutions, chiefly, shortening early-round matches to three sets -which addresses the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. Finally, I argue for the combined use of the ATP’s Lucky Loser policy and Brad Gilbert’s proposed solution – a temporary ban on entering ATP tournaments when players retire in Grand Slam matches. This solution is equitable, non-punitive, and address the symptoms and the root cause of the problem. That being said, the policy requires communication between the ATP and Grand Slam tournaments, and careful examination of ban length. With adequate care and oversight, this policy could positively influence the sport of tennis today.
On July 4th at Wimbledon, both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer’s first-round opponents were forced to retire due to injury mid-second-set. A joyous occasion in tennis – the upstart vs the excellent star – turned into a gloomy one. Crowds booed, commentators tsk-ed and fans watching online had to switch to a Berdych match (I joke, I joke). The retirements were particularly harsh on fans because of Wimbledon’s ‘queue’ policy. The queue allows a certain number of seats for fans in Center Court for very cheap, ~ five pounds. The big catch – you have to wait. Diehards camp out for days to get in. Brutal to make it through the queue to only see little glimpses of the early round matches.
Any retirement is a bummer for tennis fans, and the ATP tour and Grand Slam tournaments should enact policy to prevent them. What is less obvious is the negative effect of these early retirements on tour as a whole.
Let’s look at an example
Federer played Alexandr Dolgopolov today. Dolgopolov got a free slot into the main draw due to his ranking. He probably knew he was injured (he’s had a very rough last couple months), but couldn’t pass up the 35,000 euro check for competing. So he played Federer for about 45 minutes and then bowed out when he could no longer compete, collecting his check. He filled the slot in the Wimbledon draw, but Wimbledon’s money was misspent on him. The men’s tennis tour is deep and wide. Many players could have taken Dolgopolov’s slot and played a full match, and probably a more competitive one at that. Better for the fans. Also, better for the players. Qualifying for the main draw match is a massive achievement for lower-ranked players. Journalists have written about the steep drop-off in pay between the top 100 players and the rest of the tennis tour. Dolgopolov is a well-established player, with millions in prize money. The Wimbledon check may pad his wallet, but it doesn’t make or break his year. Lower-ranked players need money, competition, and exposure.
So we may agree that early-round retirements like Alexandr Dolgopolov’s are A) unfortunate for fans, and B) bad for player equity. The problem is apparent. The solution is much less clear.
A Framework For Evaluating Solutions
First, let us be clear which part of the problem we’re pursuing. Let us start with a simple framework. There are two types of injuries:
Category A: Injuries sustained during a match. These could be freak accidents (like David Goffin turning his ankle on the tarp at the French), or due to sustained playing before the main draw match (like qualifiers who make it to the main draw).
Category B: Pre-existing injuries.
Tennis tournaments take Category A very seriously. They develop safety measures to prevent these injuries from happening. Tournaments can’t combat Category B injuries. And Category B retirements are unfortunate, bad news. In playing with a pre-existing injury, a player mostly went against their body and the spirit of the sport to reap financial gain. Policy targeting Category B retirements is lacking. This is where the punishment or ‘disincentivization’ should take place. Note: A criticism of this distinction immediately comes to mind: “how can a tournament tell the two apart? ” The answer: they don’t have to. Players with pre-existing injuries (B) should behave differently from those who are healthy before the match (A). Tournaments should target the behaviour of these players, not the injuries themselves. I hope to make this clear later. To start, an ideal policy should just avoid punishing players for Category A retirements. Keep this in mind when I evaluate proposals.
There are a wealth of proposed options. Most fall short of practicality. Let us use a litmus test- if a policy punishes Category A retirements, it should not be used. One frequently proposed system is fining players if they retire from a first-round match. Does it punish Category A retirements? Yes – not viable. Other policies don’t expressly punish injuries, but can also be dismissed due to practicality. Examples: medical checkups, prize money sharing, consolation matches for the fans (they do this at the Year-End Championships).
Let us move on to practical proposals, and avoid Category A punishment. A prevalent one this year: How about reducing Grand Slam matches to best of three sets? The thinking is: injured players would just tough out the match despite their injuries because the finish line isn’t so far away. In this model, Category A and Category B behaviour takes place, but the ramifications for fans are less severe. I have severe doubts about this option. First, it breaks from the Grand Slam tradition. Best of five-set matches mean that Grand Slam champions have to accomplish a spectacular feat of endurance. Only the very best can win these tournaments, and that’s how it should be. Second, and most importantly, such a policy would combat the symptoms and not the problem itself. Injured players are still entering and taking up prize money, but shorter matches allow them to “finish”. So fans get to watch a match point, but they still lack bang for their buck. And lower-ranked players are still stifled.
I support the debate over match length. Transparent dialogue is always useful. I believe that shortening early-round matches could improve the quality of tennis at Grand Slam tournaments and prevent later round injuries. These outcomes are wholly distinct from preventing Category B retirements.
Lucky Loser or Short-Term Bans
Two policies remain. First, Grand Slam tournaments could do what ATP tournaments do. Namely, they could allow the main draw entrants to withdraw with an injury and yet still collect prize money. In their place goes a Lucky Loser, who gains no prize money but a chance to make the second round.
Pros: No punishment of Category A retirements. It fixes the problem for fans – they get to watch a quality match. It helps lower-ranked players.
Cons: This proposal may rankle Grand Slam tournament directors. It essentially establishes a stipend. Anyone who can make a Grand Slam draw automatically earns a significant sum of money. Grand Slam tournaments want their entrants to be fully committed. In this situation, a seriously injured (or seriously unmotivated) player could enter a Grand Slam with no intention of competing, pull out and earn 30,000$ in their bank account.
So while this policy has lots of benefits, they stem from simply moving Category B behaviour back from retirements to withdrawals. If you hate Category B withdrawals, you’re still in trouble. There may be a solution to Category B withdrawals. See ESPN analyst and former coach Brad Gilbert’s idea:
It’s simple and effective. Just ban players from playing other tournaments during the rest of the Grand Slam tournament (or longer).
1) It’s not punitive to Category A retirements. If you have an injury severe enough to retire mid-match at one of the premier tennis tournaments in the world, you should not be physically able to play other tournaments right after. Essentially, you’re not punishing the player for getting injured; you’re enforcing a rational treatment of such injury. No player has grounds for protest.
2) It reduces the financial incentive for Category B behaviour – retirements AND withdrawals. A player with a pre-existing injury could collect money by entering a Grand Slam tournament. Still, they would also be losing financial gains by not resting and entering other tournaments. Note: the length of the ban would have to be carefully modulated so that the financial incentive for Category B behaviour would be less than the incentive for playing other tournaments during that time, which would be tricky.
3) Flexibility. Tournaments could enforce this into the second week.
4) It maintains the premier brand of Grand Slams. If you want to play in one, you better be committed. There is no way you can drop out and enter other tennis tournaments.
1) example: Say I’m injured but want the paycheck. All I have to do is simply play the whole match but try not to hurt myself worse. I would just tank. Simple solution: the men’s tour often enforces “anti-tanking” policy. See Nick Kyrgios at the Shanghai Open last year.
2) It requires communication and rapport between ATP and Grand Slam tournaments.
I believe we have a solution. If Grand Slam tournaments adopt the Lucky Loser policy from ATP tournaments, they improve fan experiences and give lower-ranked players opportunities. Doing so raises the chance of so-called Category B withdrawals – entering into Grand Slam main draws with no intention of playing. But then we can take Brad Gilbert’s idea and apply it to disincentivize Category B withdrawals. Voila! Sure, you can enter a Grand Slam tournament, drop out without playing, and make some money. But you will also incur a ban that prevents you from earning money in other tournaments.
The details need elaboration and careful work. But now’s the time to start. Wimbledon doesn’t have the blistering heat of the Australian Open or the gruelling rallies of the French. Yet eight of their 64 first-round matches ended in retirement. That needs to change.
Thanks for reading, please comment below if you have questions or critiques.