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Thursday, September 15, 2011

What Explains Lack of Injury Retirements at US Open Junior Championships?


Once the rain became the top story during the second week, the theme dominating the first week of the US Open, the record number of retirements, slid into the background. But I decided to follow the trend through the junior championships to see if the numbers were similar, and they most certainly were not.

First, the numbers for the men's and women's singles draws. There were 10 men (correction: 11, with Tipsarevic's retirement in the quarterfinals) and four women who started a main draw singles match and did not complete it, which was not only a US Open record, but an Open Era Grand Slam record. I would guess that the men's side produced so many more due to the best-of-five format, where continuing seemed like too big a mountain to climb, but that's just speculation. (It would be interesting to see the statistics on the percentage of retirements when trailing in a match versus leading). It also should be noted that all of these retirements came in the first three rounds (the women also had two walkovers in the second round), so there were none in the second week.

For the juniors, the week started perfectly. In the first round, held over two days--Sunday and Monday--all 64 singles matches ended conventionally. Monday was the first day for doubles, and it brought the first retirement, when the team of Natalija Kostic and Ayaka Okuno retired, down 6-1, 3-0 to eventual champions Irina Khromacheva and Demi Schuurs. Then came two days of rain, and no junior matches were played. On Thursday, indoors at the Sound Shore Club in Port Chester, there was one retirement, when Jessica Pegula retired in her second round match with qualifier Su Jeong Jang with the score 0-6, 6-3, 1-0. Pegula had her thigh wrapped with ice after the match, and perhaps the fact that she would have to play a second match yet that evening if she had won that third set may have figured in her decision. But, as it turns out, that was the beginning and the end of the 2011 US Open junior championship retirements.

It's true that the girls doubles draw took a hit on Friday, when six teams received walkovers, most likely due to the prospect of three days without having a doubles match scheduled, although it should be noted there were no walkovers in the boys doubles draw.

I thought I was going to see the second singles retirement in singles on Friday, when No. 6 seed Yulia Putintseva cramped badly in the third set against Nicole Gibbs, but after treatment, Putintseva, known for her often confrontational and ultra-competitive demeanor, finished the match.

Those juniors who kept winning played an enormous amount of tennis on the last three days of the tournament, but still there were no additional breakdowns. The 94 boys matches in singles and doubles produced zero, none, not one, retirement or walkover. That is amazing, but I have no plausible explanation for it.

Is it fair to think the money the professionals receive, which is $19,000 even for a first round loss at the US Open, provides an incentive to play when not fully healthy? Is there so much money at stake in a career that professionals will not risk the slightest chance they could make the injury worse? Is the game at the highest level played with such sheer force and athleticism that it isn't possible to avoid injury, especially after a long hard court season?

I don't have any answers, but I do know the juniors, who are constantly being unfavorably compared to the pros, surpassed them in sheer toughness this time.

7 comments:

russ said...

Great topic. My experience as a parent of a junior who competed in supernationals is that juniors play in tougher conditions (100+ temperatures in Little Rock, San Antonio, 95+ with humidity in Florida in July) with higher stresses. They could, and often, play three hour plus matches every day for a week. If they're in the back draw they have to play two matches a day. That's not even counting the doubles. They throw up on court, they go into full body cramps and have to be carried out on a stretcher and taken to a hospital, they play with stress fractures, torn ligaments and muscles that are only discovered after a tournament, and they exhibit more guts and fortitude as twelve, fourteen year olds than most pros would even entertain. If you look at retirements at junior tournaments, most retirements (or walkovers) occur before a match rather than during. Those juniors who retire during a match are usually the same kids and they have developed a reputation as quitters. Maybe it's because kids aren't playing for money that honor and reputation count for more. Maybe it's also that they're still young and climbing the ladder that juniors need to compete with such intensity. Or maybe as they grow older and more physically mature, the physical exertion takes a greater toll. Or it could be (since there are more retirements in the back draws of older age groups) that as they get older, that back draws are no longer as important and the spiritual, psychological stress is paramount. But whatever the reasons for the relative lack of retirements of young juniors versus the pros, those critics who lambaste american juniors as being soft have never been to Little Rock or San Antonio, or Ft Lauderdale in the summer and have never seen those kids compete in the most god awful conditions you can imagine.

Fairplay said...

Maybe it is true (fewer injury retirements) for the Junior US Open, but please look into any Junior USTA National and count the withdrawals. How many top juniors are "injured" once they lose in the main draw? So what is at stake here? Losing to a lower ranked player? Balking at the few USTA points that consolation draws carry? Maybe playing at a Junior Grand Slam just has a lot more promise than playing at any Junior USTA National.
As for the unfavorable comparison of juniors with pros, I have to disagree somewhat: if I am not mistaken, juniors have to play (or at least had to a few years ago) up to FOUR matches a day (2 singles and 2 doubles. When pros have to play two matches in two days because of inclement weather, commentators immediately start bombarding us with excuses as to why they won't be up to their level not having enough rest et all. I know, professional tennis is at a much higher level, but if you spend 6 hours or more on average on the court a few days in a row, playing tennis as a junior, it certainly is also very demanding. And most of them don't even have access to trainers for rehab like the pros do. On top of that they have to keep up with school work.

correction said...

Colette,

There were actually 11 retirements in the men's draw, including one in the second week (Tipsarevic retired against Djokovic in the quarterfinals). Not in a single case did a player retired while leading; most of the times, they were already comfortably down a set, if not two. I remember a similar issue being raised at Wimbledon a couple years ago, and it was mentioned that some players (particularly those with lower ranking) play through injury because of a higher paycheck - they have a chance to earn a good amount of money just by getting on the court and playing a set or two. That can partly explain why such situation does not arise in juniors - there is no monetary incentive for them to sacrifice their health (although, some may argue that other parts of the US Open experience can be just as valuable)

Jon from PBG said...

Come on now, the pro game moves at 3 times the speed as the junior game. The intensity and toll on the body is light years away. This isn't rocket science, if these juniors with "guts and fortitude" played in the pros for 6 months they would be reduced to rubble. As Fairplay said, there are boatloads of injuries in juniors and russ is being silly, no juniors are playing tennis with torn ligaments as that is impossible. Partial tears? Yeah, guys play football with those. But lets not be dramatic here, lots of wimps in American junior tennis. I live in FL. and there are plenty of whining juniors here. At the championships, every other word was complaining about the humidity.

Wait a minute said...

My experience as a junior parent is retirements or walkovers come from the higher ranked kids when they have lost and decide not to play in the backdraw. If this happened, they also will pull out of doubles. Another situation you see this in is mandatory or sectional tournaments that kids must play in for endorsement. A highly ranked player will play one game feigning injury then retire as so not to jeopardize losing to a lower ranked player on a local basis or wasting thier time playing at a non-national level. Over the years this has messed with local ranking in that a lower ranked kids who can't go to or qualify for nationals has no chance of improving ranking on a local level. For years parents have been complaining that a penalty system should be invoked for this behavior but since it is usually done by the top players the USTA will not go after them for this unsportsmanlike like behavior.

coach said...

jon is so right. the game most juniors play even the highly ranked ones is not the same tennis the pros play. Pushing for match after match is not the same as using professional footwork and driving every ball.just go to florida and watch the pushing and whining and poor fitness

coach

No comparison said...

No comparison here. Professional tennis players are just that- professionals. This is their livelihood. Playing through injury could cost them big in the future in terms of lost time and wages. In addition the ability of a young teen to recover physically is alot faster than an adult.