age and injury....
When Kim Clijsters came down with a stress fracture at the Australian Open, our first thought was not, "Too bad." It was "another one." Because Clijsters is following almost a standard path: Hit 18, start playing more, get hurt.
Injuries, of course, are the big story on the WTA Tour these days; if we look at the current Top Ten, every one of these players has missed at least one tournament due to injury in the past two years, and only two (Jennifer Capriati and Jelena Dokic) have not had, or at least claimed, major injuries. Clijsters isn't the only one with a stress fracture. Monica Seles had one (we could also mention Anna Kournikova, who was top ten at the time of her injury, as a stress fracture victim). In the past year, Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport have both had surgery. We could spend a whole column looking at these injuries and their nature.
But that's not our point. Instead, we're going to look at the interaction between age and injury.
The WTA is under two very different pressures: Spectators want to see more top players play, so the WTA tries to get those top players to enter more events. But we also see players burning out, so there is pressure to have them play less.
The net result is what can only be called a bad compromise: Any player over 18 can play as much as she wants, and the ranking system encourages her to do so. But players under 18 are placed under age restriction rules, and suffer in the rankings accordingly. There are age rules for playing. There are no age rules for rankings.
So what happens when players turn 18? They tend to go on playing sprees. Let's document that. We'll look at the top players who have come up since the current more strict age restrictions came in. (We should note that these are not the most strict age restrictions; those, imposed in 1994, were the "Capriati Rules II," imposed after Jennifer Capriati's burnout, and affected all players younger than Martina Hingis, except for Anna Kournikova, who was partially excepted. We are currently operating under the "Lucic rules," which are slightly more liberal but still much more strict than the "Capriati Rules I," imposed to get Capriati as much playing time as possible as a teenager.)
We won't take every player; a player ranked low enough probably loses often enough that she can't overplay. But we'll look at top contenders. In the table below, we'll list the player, her birthday, the number of events she had played as of the week she turned 18, and the number of events she had one year later (or as of now, if she hasn't yet turned 19).
Player ....... Birthday ...Events@18 .Events@19
Bedanova ..... Mar 9, 1983 ... 15 .......24
Bovina ....... Mar 10, 1983 ...17 .......21
Clijsters .....Jun 8, 1983 ... 19 .......21
Dementieva ... Oct 15, 1981 ...19 .......20
Dokic .........Apr 12, 1983 ...17 .......29
Hantuchova ... Apr 23, 1983 ...16 .......21
Henin .........Jun 1, 1982 ... 10 .......23
Kournikova ... Jun 7, 1981 ... 20 .......21
Marrero .......Jan 16, 1983 ...17 .......26
M. J. Martinez Dec 8, 1982 ... 17 .......24
Medina Garrigu Jul 31, 1982 ...12 .......26
Molik .........Jan 27, 1981 ...17 .......22
Myskina .......Jul 8, 1981 ... 17 .......23
Petrova .......Jun 8, 1982 ... 17 .......19
Srebotnik .....Mar 12, 1981 ...18 .......26
Tulyaganova ...Jan 7, 1982 ... 13 .......21
S. Williams ...Sep 26, 1981 ...12 .......12
 Clijsters is not yet 19, and has been injured; based on her
initial schedule, she would probably have had about 24 events
on her nineteenth birthday
 Not yet 19
 Henin was already starting to suffer regular injuries before
she turned 18; hence her low number in "events@18"
Kournikova was given a partial ranking exception, meaning that
she was given the right to play a full schedule at 17. For her,
the key statistic is that she played 26 events in 2000 (her
first chance at a full schedule) -- and lost half of 2001 with
In addition, the following players are not yet 18 but have
suffered substantial injuries:
Player ....... Birthday .....Max Tourns .Current Trns
Krasnoroutsaka Apr 29, 1984 ... 18 .........12
Thus we observe that every one of these players except Serena Williams increased her schedule after turning 19. The median number of events played at age 18 was 17 (which is proper, since that's how many a 17-year-old is allowed to play; players with more were bending the rules in some way). The median number of events played by 19-year-olds was 22. The median increase was six. Eight players (Bedanova, Dokic, Henin, Marrero, M. J. Martinez, Medina Garrigues, Srebotnik, Tulyaganova) added at least seven tournaments in the year they turned eighteen.
In other words, players crank up their schedules by about a third when they reach 18. (In two cases -- Henin and Medina Garrigues -- they more than doubled it.)
Also noteworthy in this list is the median of 22 events for players on their nineteenth birthday. At present, there are six players in the Top Ten who are over 20 years old (Capriati, Davenport, Hingis, Mauresmo, Seles, Venus Williams), and not one of them has more than 18 events. Hingis and Davenport have each managed 22 events at some point in their careers, but not gone beyond, and both cut back the next year; the others, for the most part, have never been that high since hitting the Top Twenty.
And what do we see for injuries? Clijsters has a stress fracture. Myskina, though she was only out for a few weeks, lost most of a year to the aftereffects of a wrist injury. Petrova has been out for the last couple of months, and still isn't back. Krasnoroutskaya is also out. Henin and Kournikova are extremely injury-prone. Dementieva has started to lose time. Even Dokic, the iron horse of the WTA Tour, started to suffer injuries at the end of last year.
The new ranking rules have resulted in a massive "play escalation." Could it be time for "arms control"?