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Sicknote Wimbledon and the data that shows tennis has reached tipping point



Sicknote Wimbledon and the data that shows tennis has reached tipping point

Admittedly, such scenes are not unprecedented. In 2013, so-called “Wacky Wednesday” saw a record tally of seven retirements and withdrawals on its own, plus defeats for seven former world No 1s including defending champion Roger Federer.

There have also been periods – notably in 2017 and 2018 – when all the top men seemed to be injured at once, prompting Rafael Nadal to comment during the 2018 Australian Open that, “They [the ATP] have to think a little bit about the health of the players.”

But there is increasingly a sense that an already arduous sport is reaching a tipping point.

The build-up to this year’s Wimbledon was dominated by health chat, whether it revolved around Djokovic’s miraculous recovery from knee-meniscus surgery or Murray’s spinal cyst.

When Telegraph Sport offered our pre-tournament favourites, we had to caveat three of the leading women on the basis that Vondrousova’s hip was an unknown, Elena Rybakina has withdrawn from several events this season because of sickness, and Aryna Sabalenka arrived carrying a “rare” problem in a shoulder muscle that didn’t allow her to serve.

As things turned out, Rybakina shrugged off her health problems and stormed through to the semi-finals on Wednesday. But Sabalenka never even took to the match court. From day one, Wimbledon 2024 has felt like a demolition derby in which the prize could well go to the last player standing.

This tournament underscores one great misconception about Wimbledon. It looks so easy on TV, two athletic young things swishing a racket around on a lovely striped lawn. Yet anyone who has seen top-level tennis up close knows how physically intense it is.

What with improved racket technology and the ultra-professionalism of the leading names – who now tend to hire fitness trainers and physios as well as coaches – there are no easy matches any more. As a consequence, Wimbledon 2024 has delivered a record 36 five-setters to date, beating the 35 (also a new record) played at January’s Australian Open.

Throw in the recent expansion of Masters 1000 events to 14 days rather than seven or 10, and we are talking about a seriously exhausted workforce. Yes, the sport has been discussing a possible rejig of the calendar – the so-called Premium Tour – to reduce players’ commitments and create a longer off-season. But such is tennis’s administrative inertia that it is hard to see anything happening in the short term.

Improved medical techniques helped the so-called “Big Four” – and Serena Williams – to play into their late thirties or beyond. But will the next generation of champions – the likes of Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz – be able to drag as much mileage out of their weary bodies?

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