A hip injury forced world number 1 Rafael Nadal to retire in the fifth set of his quarterfinal match against Marin Cilic at the Australian Open.

The highest ranks of men’s professional tennis have been wracked with injuries.  Last year when I had the good fortune to attend the Cincinnati Open, in mid-August, six of the top ten players were out with injuries. This decimation echoed in grayed-out posters and scratched out names. Right now, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are all recovering from various injuries. Rafael Nadal claimed last month “there are too many injuries in tennis, and the season needs to be shorter.”

Should injuries be the definitive factor in shortening the tennis season?

My colleague Geoff Bruce recently wrote a piece arguing the way players like Rafael Nadal approach the injury problem is misleading and unjustified. In it, he convincingly argues that these players have benefited for years from playing styles that are unsustainable. Very few can play the way their brutal, physical brand of tennis.

Djokovic makes this point himself :  https://imgur.com/RsVwm3E

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic don’t need to play 6 hour matches to make a livelihood. They already have tens of millions of dollars in prize money. So claiming the tour is responsible for their injury problems is inaccurate.

While Geoff addresses special cases like Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer, it is worth assessing whether the ATP right now is structured so players must take on over-ambitious schedules to succeed. Let’s look at the top ten. Are players today playing more than ever before?

histogram of matches played for top ten in 2000, 2017.

No. It is actually the opposite. In 2017, the top ten played an average of 67 matches, far below the average 85 in 2000 (significant p < 0.05). One may argue that matches are far more physical today, but one should also note improvements in medical technology and therapy. It isn’t clear that players today are playing too many matches.

Perhaps you would argue that the top ten played way too many matches to make a living, injured themselves, and now are playing more reasonable schedules. This convoluted proposal is not supported by the playing schedules of those who are just barely making a living on the tour.  I took a random sample of those ranked 150-200. This is the archetypal threshold ranking for a sustainable tennis career. In this range of rankings, players make about 100,000$ a year.  Such a salary is comfortable but not opulent, as players have coaching, travel and physiotherapy needs.

  • #180: Noah Rubin. 105,479 dollars in 2017. 42 matches, only 2 five-setters. Played from January to November.
  • # 150: Corentin Moutet. 58,271. 72 matches! January November. Also 18 years old.
  • #200: Arthur De Greef. 121, 332. 56 matches. January – End of October.

As you can see from these stats, it doesn’t seem like players need to over-play in order to break even on the tour.

When I first thought about the injury problems of the ATP today, I thought, the length of the tour calendar doesn’t matter, but the tour should stop mandating players to do so many tournaments. In the course of my research , I learned that the mandates only apply to the top 30, and withdrawals are allowed. (http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/rankings/rankings-faq )

As described, I also learned that the playing schedules of the top ten are not unprecedented, and parallel those lower down in the rankings hierarchy.

So why are there so many injuries? I believe the answer can be found in another factor, age. The tour has grown progressively older.

Percentage of players over 30 in top 100 (ATP)

Older players are more likely to get injured, and to thus judiciously manage which tournaments they enter. Thus the grayed out banners I saw last summer in Cincinnati. The question then becomes why the tour is getting older. Many articles have been written about this trend. One might argue that the next generation is simply weak, not up to the high standards of the highest echelon of the game. While this is partially true (we may never see competitors like the Big Four again), the graph above shows how extensive this trend has been. Players everywhere are getting older, not just the Big Four.

Instead, I argue that the ageing of the ATP is a natural consequence of the monetary and technological development of the sport of tennis. Grand slams are now hugely lucrative, (~50,000$ or more for a first round win). The best players have extensive retinues of coaches, and they make winning multiple matches in Grand Slams more feasible (think of Hyeon Chung with his terrible blisters at the Aussie). As players earn those lucrative prizes and hire those large teams, it crowds out others.

To make an analogy, tennis right now is a little like the mid-game stage in poker. A couple “established” players have large pots. With their advantage, they can play riskier hands, bet more, and bluff harder.  On the other hand, “newbie” players with small pots have to play judiciously, folding often, and one mistake can cost them the game. Now imagine if when the newbies lose, someone else takes their spot. The established players can just keep building their pots, growing older and older in “game time”. One catch– the top players suffer an occasional penalty when they play hands, restricting them from playing again and possibly even knocking them out of the game.

Tennis today is like my fanciful poker game. Established, older players have a stranglehold over the rankings. This can be extremely exciting when they are all participating and competing with each other, think of 2012, when each member of the Big Four won a different Grand Slam. But when you watch those epic matches from 2012, you can tell they’re living on borrowed time. They yank each other across the court for hours, grunting, stretching, lunging.

Unfortunately, today many of the very best are at an age where they can’t keep their strangleholds and also participate in lots of events. Hence we instead see staggered periods of dominance. Think of the way Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer alternated their Grand Slam wins last year.

In my next article I’ll describe why the length of the ATP tour should be changed, despite believing that it doesn’t contribute to current injury concerns. Thanks for reading, please comment below!