Trends and Perspective on WTA Retirements and Withdrawals

Yesterday, there was no women’s singles at Indian Wells. Both Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur pulled out of their quarterfinal matches, presenting a very obvious target for anyone concerned about an injury bug in women’s tennis.

Last year, WTA retirements hit an all-time high of 4.8% of tour-level matches, almost a full percentage point above the 3.9% of matches that were not completed in 2006.  While part of the injury total was due to stomach bugs in China and food poisoning at Indian Wells, the overall trend has been upward for about 30 years:


While it’s less clear that players are any more likely to pull out of Grand Slam matches (the dark red line in the graph above), there’s no doubt that more WTA matches are ending due to injury than they did 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

In a moment, I’ll explain why this is happening, and why the trend is unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon.  But first, some perspective on yesterday’s programming disaster.

Since there was nothing else to talk about yesterday in the world of women’s tennis, it was inevitable that the subject of injuries dominated. (Thanks to Federer vs. Nadal on the card, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.) Taking a tournament-wide view, though, this year’s Indian Wells WTA event has been a positive on the health front.

Women’s tennis has seen more than 1 in 50 tour-level matches end with W/O or RET in the score for more than 15 years.  Yesterday’s two withdrawals were the first two incomplete matches of the entire event–including qualifying!  Assuming we get through the semifinals and final without any further problems, that’s 93 of 95 (97.9%) of main draw matches complete, and 129 of 131 (98.5%) of main draw and qualifying matches complete.  Last year, while food poisoning dominated the headlines, there were at least three injury-related retirements from the singles draw, and two years ago, there were five.

These two quarterfinal withdrawals were bad news for television and fans, but they don’t represent a trend.

High stakes, high risk

While Indian Wells has been mostly injury-free, it also shouldn’t be seen as a trend in the positive direction.  WTA players (and ATPers, for the same reasons) are going to keep showing up at tournaments less than 100%, developing health problems midway through tournaments, and generally not finishing all the matches they start.

This isn’t because of too many hard courts, slower balls, mandatory events, doping, or even runaway racquet technology.  It’s because the financial stakes in tennis–and with it, severe inequality in the ranks–are climbing even faster than the injury rate.  The level of fitness required to compete at the highest level is always increasing, and players are forced to choose between trying to keep up or probably falling away.

A simpler example of this phenomenon, and one that makes it easier to illustrate the point, is in competitive distance running.  Marathoners rarely run more than two marathons per year, and there is very little room at the top.  Run a marathon in 2:04 and you’re a superstar. 2:05 or 2:06 and the sponsors will keep supporting you.  If you can’t break 2:10, you’re probably working full-time at a local shoe store.

The most straightforward way to improve your marathon time is to train harder, whether that means more mileage over a several-month training period or more aggressive workouts.  When the choice is between 2:05 and oblivion, the incentives are heavily structured toward overly aggressive training.  There’s not much difference between finishing with a 2:10 compared to overtraining, getting injured, and not finishing at all.

Tennis, of course, is a bit more forgiving.  You don’t need to be one of the top 10 in the world to make a decent living, but then again, to remain in the top 10, you must consistently beat players on the fringes of the top 100, where the incentives are not that different from those in distance running.

As the stakes increase, players are more willing to skirt the edge between hard training and over training.  And while players are getting closer to that line, they are hardly going too far–at least according to their own incentives.  Sure, we’d like to have seen Vika play yesterday, but a few retirements over the course of the year isn’t going to stop her from regaining the #1 ranking.  Two years ago, she pulled out of her quarterfinal with Caroline Wozniacki after only three games–and then started a twelve-match winning streak the following week.

If there were more matches on clay, players would simply push themselves harder on clay courts.  (Anyway, there is almost exactly the same percentage of WTA retirements on clay as there are on hard.)  Same thing if the balls played faster.  If there were fewer mandatory events, we’d see top players engaging in longer periods of hard training. Probably more exhibitions, too.

There are no incentives–nor should there be–for players to stay healthy for the duration of 100% of their matches.  If we want the best players in the world to entertain us with the best possible tennis they can play, retirements and withdrawals are something we’ll have to learn to accept.  We won’t get one without the other.

2012 Indian Wells Projections: Quarterfinals

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how the cluster of players after the big four was itself cementing its hold on the next few ranking spots.  Since then, Ferrer, Berdych, and Tsonga have all lost.  Oops!

Of that group, only Juan Martin del Potro has survived, and according to my numbers, he poses a serious challenge to Roger Federer tomorrow.  But that isn’t the tightest match.  That honor goes to Isner/Simon, the most dramatic contrast of playing styles in the quarterfinals.  They’ve played once before, at last year’s US Open, when Isner won in four sets, including three tiebreaks.  It was even closer than it sounds–Simon won more than half of the points that day.

Here are the full odds for the rest of the tournament:

Player                       SF      F      W
(1)Novak Djokovic         84.8%  69.0%  44.5%
(12)Nicolas Almagro       15.2%   6.7%   1.6%
(13)Gilles Simon          48.1%  11.5%   3.4%
(11)John Isner            51.9%  12.8%   4.0%  

(9)Juan Martin Del Potro  44.6%  21.0%   8.9%
(3)Roger Federer          55.4%  29.2%  13.9%
David Nalbandian          23.3%   6.5%   1.8%
(2)Rafael Nadal           76.7%  43.2%  21.9%

2012 Indian Wells Projections: Round of 16

As big days in men’s tennis go, Super Wednesday at Indian Wells is right up there.  Six of the top ten are in action, along with ten other guys, some of whom belong here.  According to my simulations, it is increasingly Novak Djokovic’s tournament to win.  At the very least, it’s Novak’s quarterfinal to reach.

Player                       QF     SF      F      W  
(1)Novak Djokovic         95.6%  72.6%  60.6%  40.4%  
Pablo Andujar              4.4%   0.6%   0.1%   0.0%  
(12)Nicolas Almagro       31.4%   5.7%   2.7%   0.8%  
(7)Tomas Berdych          68.6%  21.1%  14.1%   6.3%  
Ryan Harrison             39.7%  17.5%   3.2%   0.7%  
(13)Gilles Simon          60.3%  32.8%   8.0%   2.6%  
(11)John Isner            70.8%  39.5%  10.1%   3.4%  
(Q)Matthew Ebden          29.2%  10.1%   1.3%   0.2%  
Player                       QF     SF      F      W  
Denis Istomin             23.4%   6.1%   1.5%   0.3%  
(9)Juan Martin Del Potro  76.6%  38.9%  19.2%   8.3%  
Thomaz Bellucci           17.5%   4.6%   0.9%   0.2%  
(3)Roger Federer          82.5%  50.4%  27.7%  13.5%  
(6)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga     67.3%  30.4%  14.7%   6.0%  
David Nalbandian          32.7%   9.6%   3.0%   0.8%  
(21)Alexandr Dolgopolov   25.0%  10.1%   3.3%   1.0%  
(2)Rafael Nadal           75.0%  49.9%  29.7%  15.3%

The Winter of Mardy Fish

Yesterday at Indian Wells, Mardy Fish lost to Matthew Ebden, an Australian counterpuncher barely ranked inside the top 100.  Ebden has played well since last fall, when he reached the quarters in Shanghai by beating Ryan Harrison and Gilles Simon, but that isn’t going to make Fish feel any better.  It’s been a disastrous few months for the American.

How disastrous?  Mardy’s loss yesterday was his 10th in his last 14 matches.  In that time, he’s beaten Andreas Seppi (by retirement), Andreas Beck, Gilles Muller, and Florian Mayer.  He’s lost to Ebden, Albano Olivetti, Alejandro Falla, and James Blake.  Not exactly top ten results.

Looking back through his last 15 months of results, though, it’s questionable whether he ever had what we think of as “top ten” results.  When the big four is winning everything, that leaves only crumbs for the rest, so men like Fish, Janko Tipsarevic, and Nicolas Almagro find themselves in the top ten simply by reaching a bunch of quarterfinals and winning a 250 or two.  It was evident at last year’s World Tour Finals: Fish, as the eight-seed, managed to take a set from both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal,  but went home without a single victory.  (In addition to the elite world of the top four, there seems also to be an elite world of five-through-seven.  David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Tomas Berdych seem to be on a different level than everyone else, with the exception of Juan Martin Del Potro.)

Fish’s most impressive results in all of 2011 were a quarterfinal at Wimbledon (he beat Berdych en route) and semis at Cincinnati and Miami.  (He beat Nadal in Cinci and Ferrer in Miami.)  It was easy to root for Mardy the comeback kid, but the number eight ranking seems to be his ceiling.  And with Tipsarevic, Del Potro, and John Isner chasing him down, a poor performance in Miami this year could mean he’ll never reach that peak again.

2012 Indian Wells Projections: Round of 32

Andy Murray is out, and the clear winner is … Novak Djokovic.  Djokovic’s chances of winning the tournament leapt to 36.2%, almost triple Nadal’s.  The Djokovic factor produces an interesting quirk: the only two players of the remaining 32 whose chances round to 0.0% play each other in the 3rd round.  One of them, of course, is guaranteed to reach the round of 16, but their chances of beating Djokovic (or Kevin Anderson, come to that) are awfully small.

Aside from the top seeds, there aren’t many overwhelming favorites this round, according to my odds.  It often seems to happen that way at Masters and even Grand Slam events–there’s a slew of compelling matchups in the third and fourth rounds, then in the quarters, we watch the top seeds rip apart guys outside of the top four.

Here are the odds for today’s and tomorrow’ matches:

Player                      R16     QF     SF        W  
(1)Novak Djokovic         85.8%  81.6%  64.4%    36.2%  
(29)Kevin Anderson        14.2%  10.8%   4.2%     0.5%  
Pablo Andujar             45.9%   3.2%   0.5%     0.0%  
Albert Ramos              54.1%   4.3%   0.8%     0.0%  
(12)Nicolas Almagro       58.4%  21.2%   5.1%     0.7%  
Santiago Giraldo          41.7%  12.0%   2.3%     0.2%  
(30)Andy Roddick          35.8%  20.8%   5.6%     1.0%  
(7)Tomas Berdych          64.2%  46.0%  17.0%     5.2%  

Player                      R16     QF     SF        W  
Guillermo Garcia Lopez    48.2%  16.8%   6.1%     0.3%  
Ryan Harrison             51.8%  19.1%   7.3%     0.4%  
(23)Stanislas Wawrinka    55.0%  36.4%  19.4%     2.4%  
(13)Gilles Simon          45.0%  27.6%  13.4%     1.4%  
(11)John Isner            57.3%  28.5%  15.3%     1.6%  
(22)Juan Monaco           42.7%  18.4%   8.6%     0.7%  
(Q)Matthew Ebden          24.2%   7.8%   2.6%     0.1%  
(8)Mardy Fish             75.8%  45.2%  27.4%     4.1%  

Player                      R16     QF     SF        W  
(5)David Ferrer           69.0%  32.2%  15.2%     2.5%  
Denis Istomin             31.0%   8.9%   2.7%     0.2%  
(19)Fernando Verdasco     30.6%  13.9%   5.3%     0.5%  
(9)Juan Martin Del Potro  69.4%  45.1%  25.3%     6.3%  
Nikolay Davydenko         57.8%  15.9%   5.4%     0.4%  
Thomaz Bellucci           42.3%   9.3%   2.6%     0.1%  
(27)Milos Raonic          31.2%  19.9%   8.9%     1.2%  
(3)Roger Federer          68.8%  54.8%  34.6%    10.3%  

Player                      R16     QF     SF        W  
(6)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga     76.9%  50.1%  25.0%     5.9%  
(28)Radek Stepanek        23.1%   8.2%   2.0%     0.1%  
David Nalbandian          44.8%  17.6%   5.9%     0.7%  
(10)Janko Tipsarevic      55.2%  24.1%   9.3%     1.3%  
Marcos Baghdatis          53.5%  18.4%   8.5%     1.2%  
(21)Alexandr Dolgopolov   46.5%  14.7%   6.3%     0.7%  
(26)Marcel Granollers     24.5%  11.4%   4.8%     0.6%  
(2)Rafael Nadal           75.5%  55.5%  38.1%    13.2%

Another Early Exit for Andy Murray

Last night, disaster befell Andy Murray again.  The only good thing you can say about his straight-set loss to 92nd-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez is that it wasn’t quite the embarrassment of his losses to Donald Young and Alex Bogomolov one year ago.  Once again, it raises questions about whether Murray really belongs in the conversation with the rest of the big four.  After all, except for the odd disappointment from semi-injured Rafa, the other three guys aren’t losing in any first or second rounds.

Federer hasn’t lost to anyone outside the top 50 since Indian Wells in 2008, and that was to a comeback-trail Mardy Fish.  Nadal has been perfect against the top 50 since his own (probably injured) loss to Gigi in 2010–before that, you have to go back to Queen’s Club 2007.  Djokovic’s undefeated streak against the top 50 goes back to Queen’s Club 2010.

While it’s disappointing that Murray followed up such an impressive performance in Dubai with such a dud, let’s consider this in context.  Even counting Indian Wells last year, yesterday’s match was only Murray’s fifth loss to a player outside the top 20 (and third outside the top 50) since the beginning of 2011.  (He also lost to Thomaz Bellucci in Madrid and Kevin Anderson in Canada.)  Sure, this is the rung below Rafa/Roger/Novak, but the current level of top three-or-four dominance has raised the bar beyond any realistic expectations.

And perhaps most importantly, do these early exits really matter?  In the locker room, maybe, but what about in the rankings?  Murray trails Federer by 1,260 points.  If Andy had reached the semis in both Indian Wells and Miami last year (and remember, simply playing up to one’s seed can’t reasonably be expected), he would have 670 more points, barely cutting that lead in half.  Count the early exit at the Canada Masters as well and assume that he reached the semifinal there as well–still only 1005 additional points, and not enough to catch Federer.  (Though he would’ve held the #3 ranking before Fed’s win in Dubai.)

These counterfactuals are reminders that, given the current level of competition, it’s the big matches that really matter.  Winning a grand slam semifinal is worth almost as much as reaching the semis of two Masters events.  If Murray is to displace one of the top three, he’s much more likely to do so by winning a slam (or at least reaching more finals) than by simply playing up to his seed everywhere else.

2012 Indian Wells Projections: Field of 64

When I initially posted odds for Indian Wells, the qualifiers weren’t placed.  In the space of a couple days, the draw was filled out, and then most of the qualifiers were gone.  Frederico Gil, Marinko Matosevic, and Andrey Golubev got from qualifying to the second round, but they faced other qualifiers in the first round.  The only other qualifying survivor was Matthew Ebden, who advanced past the always-beatable Igor Kunitsyn.

With the big names, little has changed–after all, the top 32 have yet to play a match.  The simulation is just a little more nuanced, now that the actual rating of each player is included.

Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(1)Novak Djokovic         89.6%  75.8%  62.3%    25.8%  
(Q)Andrey Golubev         10.4%   4.1%   1.5%     0.0%  
Philipp Kohlschreiber     53.7%  11.4%   5.5%     0.3%  
(29)Kevin Anderson        46.3%   8.8%   3.9%     0.2%  
(18)Florian Mayer         82.7%  44.6%  12.4%     0.9%  
Pablo Andujar             17.3%   3.7%   0.3%     0.0%  
Albert Ramos              18.4%   4.7%   0.4%     0.0%  
Richard Gasquet           81.6%  47.0%  13.7%     1.1%  
Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(12)Nicolas Almagro       51.3%  21.9%   9.0%     0.3%  
(WC)Sam Querrey           48.7%  19.9%   7.9%     0.2%  
Santiago Giraldo          28.6%  12.1%   4.0%     0.1%  
(17)Kei Nishikori         71.4%  46.1%  25.2%     2.2%  
(30)Andy Roddick          64.6%  27.3%  13.5%     0.6%  
Lukasz Kubot              35.4%  10.5%   3.8%     0.1%  
Sergiy Stakhovsky         24.8%  10.5%   3.8%     0.1%  
(7)Tomas Berdych          75.2%  51.7%  32.8%     3.8%  
Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(4)Andy Murray            80.7%  62.3%  44.5%     9.7%  
Guillermo Garcia Lopez    19.3%   8.5%   3.3%     0.1%  
Ryan Harrison             44.2%  11.8%   4.8%     0.1%  
(25)Viktor Troicki        55.8%  17.4%   8.0%     0.3%  
(23)Stanislas Wawrinka    84.0%  50.8%  22.5%     1.9%  
(WC)Robby Ginepri         16.0%   3.8%   0.6%     0.0%  
Dudi Sela                 33.8%  11.8%   3.2%     0.0%  
(13)Gilles Simon          66.2%  33.6%  13.2%     0.8%  
Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(11)John Isner            84.1%  52.4%  27.7%     1.5%  
(LL)Federico Gil          15.9%   3.9%   0.7%     0.0%  
Nicolas Mahut             34.4%  11.8%   3.8%     0.0%  
(22)Juan Monaco           65.6%  31.9%  14.7%     0.5%  
(32)Julien Benneteau      63.7%  26.7%  12.9%     0.4%  
(Q)Matthew Ebden          36.3%  10.7%   3.7%     0.0%  
Andreas Seppi             32.2%  16.3%   7.3%     0.1%  
(8)Mardy Fish             67.8%  46.3%  29.1%     2.4%  
Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(5)David Ferrer           70.0%  51.3%  25.6%     2.1%  
Grigor Dimitrov           30.0%  16.5%   5.2%     0.1%  
Denis Istomin             73.6%  27.5%   8.9%     0.2%  
(31)Juan Ignacio Chela    26.4%   4.7%   0.7%     0.0%  
(19)Fernando Verdasco     65.3%  24.1%  12.1%     0.5%  
Ryan Sweeting             34.7%   8.6%   3.1%     0.0%  
(Q)Marinko Matosevic      14.3%   4.6%   1.3%     0.0%  
(9)Juan Martin Del Potro  85.7%  62.8%  43.2%     6.4%  
Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(14)Gael Monfils          69.1%  48.2%  23.2%     2.7%  
Nikolay Davydenko         30.9%  15.8%   4.8%     0.1%  
Thomaz Bellucci           39.1%  11.8%   3.0%     0.0%  
(20)Jurgen Melzer         60.9%  24.2%   8.2%     0.3%  
(27)Milos Raonic          86.8%  32.7%  16.9%     1.1%  
Carlos Berlocq            13.2%   1.3%   0.2%     0.0%  
(WC)Denis Kudla           16.6%   6.0%   1.9%     0.0%  
(3)Roger Federer          83.4%  60.1%  41.8%     8.5%  
Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(6)Jo-Wilfried Tsonga     72.4%  56.4%  36.9%     4.8%  
Michael Llodra            27.6%  15.9%   6.7%     0.2%  
Xavier Malisse            47.2%  12.7%   4.3%     0.0%  
(28)Radek Stepanek        52.8%  15.0%   5.4%     0.1%  
(24)Marin Cilic           54.8%  30.7%  15.1%     0.8%  
David Nalbandian          45.2%  23.2%  10.3%     0.4%  
Gilles Muller             26.5%   7.6%   2.2%     0.0%  
(10)Janko Tipsarevic      73.5%  38.4%  19.2%     1.1%  
Player                      R32    R16     QF        W  
(15)Feliciano Lopez       42.6%  21.8%   6.6%     0.3%  
Marcos Baghdatis          57.4%  33.5%  12.0%     0.9%  
Steve Darcis              35.9%  12.8%   2.9%     0.1%  
(21)Alexandr Dolgopolov   64.1%  31.9%  10.6%     0.6%  
(26)Marcel Granollers     91.1%  25.9%  13.0%     0.7%  
Tommy Haas                 8.9%   0.4%   0.0%     0.0%  
Leonardo Mayer             7.4%   1.8%   0.4%     0.0%  
(2)Rafael Nadal           92.7%  71.9%  54.5%    14.3%