Pullouts pile up – and the season has yet to begin

The easy parallel to make, of course, is that all of these early-season injuries were exacerbated by the players’ participation in the IPTL in late November and December.

But the IPTLers, who all appear to have had pre-existing injuries going into the league and probably would have been better off resting, rehabbing and healing, aren’t the only ones who have bowed out of early events.

Sock had hip surgery

Sock had hip surgery

The hardest-hit by far has been the exhibition Hopman Cup, a country vs. country tournament in which replacements aren’t so easy to come by, given they have to come from the same country.

First out: American Jack Sock (who didn’t play in the IPTL). Sock had a hip procedure and is expected to be out two months. His replacement is John Isner.

Next out? Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Tsonga had an arm injury that prevented him from playing on the deciding Sunday at the Davis Cup final. He got a lot of flack for flying off to play three weeks of IPTL, although obviously the stress level isn’t even close to what it would be in Davis Cup. There was a huge cheque attached.

Stepanek has a bad back.

Stepanek has a bad back.

But just a few weeks later, he had to bail on Hopman Cup, replaced by Benoit Paire.

Then: Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, with a back injury. At 36, these are the kinds of things that happen. A year ago, Stepanek played with his now-former girlfriend Petra Kvitova in Perth. Luckily, Kvitova isn’t there this year, replaced by Lucie Safaraova. Why? Because the best replacement the tournament could come up with is young Adam Pavlasek. Now 20, Pavlasek got a lot of publicity a few years ago when he was just barely 17, and his older woman, Kvitova, won Wimbledon. That might be … awkward.

Kyrgios has a back thingie

Kyrgios has a back thingie

The latest is Aussie Nick Kyrgios, due to team up with Perth’s Casey Dellacqua for Australia. Kyrgios also played IPTL, although he didn’t see a ton of action. The reason for his withdrawal: a strained muscle in his back during training, which of course likely won’t affect his participation in either the big Sydney tuneup event or the Australian Open. He’ll be replaced by Matthew Ebden.

It’s a tough blow for the organizers, who have seen four of the eight scheduled men withdraw.

It wasn’t easy for this weekend’s six-man event in Abu Dhabi, either, as Tsonga and Gaël Monfils both pulled out of that exhibition. They were replaced by Feliciano Lopez and – surprisingly – Nicolas Almagro.

Cilic has an ongoing shoulder issue.

Cilic has an ongoing shoulder issue.

Almagro, whose ranking is down to No. 71, hasn’t played since pulling out of Wimbledon with a left foot injury. He had surgery June 30. He has already admitted he’s not 100 per cent.

Other early-season casualties:

Marin Cilic: out of Brisbane with a right shoulder injury that dogged him the last half of 2014 – even through his win at the U.S. Open. Cilic did play the IPTL.

Janko Tipsarevic: The Serb hasn’t played since Valencia in 2013, after two foot surgeries in 2014. He’s been out so long, he’s listed as “inactive” on his ATP Tour biography page. He certainly was hoping to be back in Australia; that won’t happen. Tipsarevic is out of all of the Australian summer events.

Dominic Thiem of Austria withdrew from Doha because of illness. His friend and training partner Ernest Gulbis, who had injury issues at the end of the 2014 season, also pulled out.

Delpo's wrist still isn't right.

Delpo’s wrist still isn’t right.

Juan Martin del Potro: The Argentine hasn’t played singles since last February, and had surgery on his left wrist.

At last word, he still wasn’t hitting his two-handed backhand at full effort. And so del Potro has delayed his departure for the Australian summer swing, where he is scheduled to play Brisbane next week.

According to this story in La Nacion, del Potro has yet to even play sets against legitimate competition, and basically will have to make a decision on New Year’s Day about whether or not to make the trip.

The casualties on the women’s side have been far less noteworthy. So far, all the women scheduled for the Hopman Cup are on board, and they don’t have those two exhibition events the men have, in Abu Dhabi and Thailand.

Zvonareva's still trying to come back.

Zvonareva’s still trying to come back.

One name to follow is Vera Zvonareva, who is currently ranked No. 251. Zvonareva didn’t play after the Olympics in 2012, missed all of 2013, and played five tournaments in 2014. All of that was due to a right shoulder injury; she had surgery in Feb. 2013 but, as we’ve seen with most shoulder surgeries on Tour, recovery is a very tricky process.

Zvonareva played three tournaments in January, then not until a first-round loss at Indian Wells, then again not until a first-round loss at Wimbledon, then shut down her season.

The Russian is playing a $10,000 tournament in Hong Kong this week. After winning two rounds, she pulled out before a quarter-final match against Akiko Omae. That’s not good news. She’s entered in Shenzen next week.

Here’s what she looked like in Hong Kong, during her first-round match.

 

Now, for a little perspective, let’s flash back about a year, and see what kind of withdrawals took place at the beginning of the 2014 season (part of which was technically in 2013). This is not an exhaustive list.

Men (withdrawals, retirements, walkovers)

Brisbane: Melzer (shoulder surgery); Kyrgios (shoulder), Kevin Anderson (viral infection)
Chennai: Tipsarevic, Kudryatsev (groin), Fognini (thigh), Reister (sick), Youzhny (sick), Pospisil (lower back), Lu (thigh)
Doha: nobody
Hopman Cup: Janowicz
Auckland: Brian Baker, Robredo, Monfils (fatigue)
Sydney: Almagro, Fognini (thigh), Pospisil (lower back), Roger-Vasselin
Australian Open: Baker, Melzer, Tipsarevic, Troicki, Tomic (vs. Nadal)

Women (withdrawals, retirements, walkovers)

Brisbane: Wozniacki (shoulder), Barty (adductor), Pavlyuchenkova (thigh), Lisicki (gastro)
Shenzen: Babos (gastro), King (thigh)
Auckland: Cadantu (shoulder), Hampton (hip)
Sydney: Hampton (hip), Stevens (wrist), Mattek-Sands (lumbar spine)
Hobart: Venus Williams (WD-change of schedule), Flavia Pennetta (WD-wrist), Vesnina (hip), Robson (wrist), Wickmayer (viral illness)
Australian Open: Polona Hercog, Hampton.

 

We tend to forget from year to year. That’s a fairly big list, and it happens every year although most of the players do tend to show up for the Grand Slam, and often are protecting little niggles.

So far, most of the withdrawals have been for exhibition events.

So far.

Everyone will search for a quick Twitter answer as to why – we love our questions answered in 140 characters, as if life were like that.  The off-season being too short is an ongoing issue; nothing new there. Of course it is. And playing a few exhibitions probably doesn’t make a huge different in the grand scheme of things.

It could very well be that the game itself is progressing to a point – physically, technologically, endurance-wise – that it’s ahead of the human body’s capacity to handle it. Despite the trainers, the nutrition, the off-court workouts, everything else, the slower courts and longer matches of attrition that have become the norm on the men’s side just seem to be resulting in more injuries.

The scary ones are the wrists and the shoulders. Because although the evidence remains fairly anecdotal, players seem to have a whole lot of trouble coming back from those.

Beyond the short off-season, there is just so much money to be made out there, it’s tough not to try to keep playing (and since it’s not our money, or our short careers, it’s easy but disingenuous to pass judgment on what someone should do with their money and their career). So injuries never heal up fully.

The best recent example in sport that we could use as a comparison is years back in figure skating, when the male skaters started throwing up quadruple-triple jump combinations as though they were nothing. Of course, they weren’t nothing; they were HUGE. And everyone tried doing them, because that’s what you needed to do, and everyone else was doing them. And injuries piled up.

And suddenly, almost no one was doing them any more. And the rules were changed in a way that you would still win without doing them. And slowly they started coming back – but nowhere near at the rate they were showing up 10-15 years ago. It was a trick that was just a little beyond the body’s ability to execute it and stay healthy. And the sport paid the price for awhile.

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