Player union call as injuries mount
By Linda Pearce
January 12, 2006
ROGER Federer believes the solution to the injury epidemic sweeping men's tennis lies with player schedules rather than a calendar overhaul, as defending champion Marat Safin yesterday joined world No.2 Rafael Nadal and four-time winner Andre Agassi among the Australian Open withdrawals.
In contrast, world No.3 Andy Roddick suggested the establishment of an independent player body, while urging the sport's disparate groups to find a way to extend the off-season because "something needs to be done in the best interests of players and their health".
Safin, 25, has been bothered by tendonitis in his left knee since March, and has not played since reaching the quarter-finals in Cincinatti in August, so confirmation of the Russian's no-show was even less of a surprise that Nadal's announcement late the previous night that he would also be unable to contest the year's first grand slam.
Despite the withdrawals fuelling the debate about the growing demands of the game, Federer said the spate of injuries should be blamed more on coincidence than the 11-month season that officials have been unable to revamp.
"I think it's just unfortunate at the moment," Federer said after yesterday's surprise 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Germany's Tommy Haas at the AAMI Kooyong Classic. "How often does it happen that half the top guys are injured? It's never really happening, and if you look at the injuries they have, they have been coming for a long time.
"We all think it's the tour in the end. I don't quite agree with it because it's been like this for years and years and years … But I think if you're playing carefully, and you're fit, you shouldn't have too many injuries, because you can always plan if you want to play more or less."
Federer said that although the non-appearances of Safin, Nadal and Agassi were major disappointments for the Open, "we still have good players here with Lleyton (Hewitt), Andy (Roddick) and myself". Roddick, too, lamented the loss of the defending champion, the second-best player of 2005 and "the biggest legend of the game".
While acknowledging injuries can be cyclical, Roddick said tennis was one of the few major sports without a player union. He nevertheless conceded that "for every person that says 'We are not healthy', there's another guy who says, 'Hey, we need those two weeks at the end of the year for prizemoney', so it's kind of tough to get everyone on the same page".
"The ITF (International Tennis Federation), the Davis Cup, the grand slams, they're all different entities and you'd think that they would want to work together for the greater good. But they each want their little slice of the pie and they're not willing to give that up," he said.
"As (with) most things, it comes down to business and dollars and cents as opposed to common logic as to what should be the best for the game. I don't think it takes a brain surgeon to figure out why people are getting hurt."
A finalist in three of the past four years, Safin is the first men's champion since Agassi in 2002 to be unable to attempt a title defence. He has been practising with coach his Peter Lundgren in Spain, but — like Agassi, who sprained an ankle in a racquetball accident in October — not sufficiently to prepare for best-of-five-sets tennis in the heat of a Melbourne January.
"I am very sad that I cannot go to the Australian Open to defend my title as champion … In my heart I know I want to be at the Australian Open to try to play but I have had to listen to what Peter, my team and also myself are saying that it would not be right to go to a grand slam and put so much test on my knee right now," he said in a statement.
Australian Open chief executive Paul McNamee stood by the strength of the men's draw. "We'll still end up with 46 of the top 50 (in the men's). That's a pretty good number," McNamee said. "We've still got eight out of the top 10 men. That's pretty strong."
Thus, the two men who shared the grand slam spoils with Federer last year, and the only active player to have won all four majors will be missing when the Australian Open starts on Monday. "Obviously it opens the door for a lot of other guys," said Roddick, who will now be seeded second behind Federer, and ahead of Australia's Hewitt.