Yesterday, Vitalia Diatchenko proved to be even less of a match for Serena Williams than expected. She retired down 6-0, 2-0, winning only 5 of 37 points. She also sparked the usual array of questions about how Grand Slam prize money–$39,500 for first-round losers–incentivizes players to show up and collect a check even if they aren’t physically fit to play.
Diatchenko wasn’t the only player to exit yesterday without finishing a match. Of the 32 men’s matches, six ended in retirement. On the other hand, none of those were nearly as bad. All six injured men played at least two sets, and five of them won a set.
The prominence of Serena’s first-round match, combined with the sheer number of Monday retirements, is sure to keep pundits busy for a few days proposing rule changes. As we’ll see, however, there’s little evidence of a trend, and no need to change the rules.
Men’s slam retirements in context
Before yesterday’s bloodbath, there had been only five first-round retirements in the men’s halves of this year’s Grand Slams. The up-to-date total of 11 retirements is exactly equal to the annual average from 1997-2014 and the same as the number of first-round retirements in 1994.
The number of first-round Slam retirements has trended up slightly over the last 20 years. From 1995 to 2004, an average of ten men bowed out of their first-round matches each year. From 2005 to 2014, the average was 12.2–in large part thanks to the total of 19 first-round retirements last season.
That rise represents an increase in injuries and retirements in general, not a jump in unfit players showing up for Slams. From 1995 to 2004, an average of 8.5 players retired or withdrew from Slam matches after the first round, while in the following ten years, that number rose to 10.8.
Retirements at other tour-level events tell the same story. At non-Slams from 1995-2004, the retirement rate was about 1.3%, and in the following ten years, it rose to approximately 1.8%. (There isn’t much of a difference between first-round and later-round retirements at non-Slams.)
Injury rates in general have risen–exactly what we’d expect from a sport that has become increasingly physical. Based on recent results, we shouldn’t be surprised to see more retirements in best-of-five matches, as most of yesterday’s victims would’ve survived to the end of a best-of-three contest.
Women’s slam retirements
In most seasons, the rate of first-round retirements in women’s Grand Slam draws is barely half of the corresponding rate in other tour events.
In the last ten years, just over 1.2% of Slam entrants have quit their first-round match early. The equivalent rate in later Slam rounds is 1.1%, and the first-round rate at non-Slam tournaments is 2.26%. Diatchenko was the fifth woman to retire in a Slam first round this year, and if one more does so today, the total of six retirements will be exactly in line with the 1.2% average.
One painful anecdote isn’t a trend, and the spotlight of a high-profile match shouldn’t give any more weight to a single data point. Even with the giant checks on offer to first-round losers, players are not showing up unfit to play any more often than they do throughout the rest of the season.