Players who retire hen losing - article
The past month has thrown up lots of questions about why and when players retire during matches. Juan Martin Del Potro quit while trailing 6-1, 3-1 against James Blake at the Tennis Channel Open in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, bringing into sharp focus the flaws of the round robin system. At the other end of the spectrum, Andy Murray felt compelled to finish last week's semifinal match against Novak Djokovic at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells even though he was too injured to be competitive.
So how often do players retire injured when they are losing, and how often when they are winning? Which players never retire even when losing, and which have a habit of throwing in the towel?
We went through the career records of the top 20 players on both the ATP and WTA tours as of February 28, calculating the proportion of times they’ve stopped when close to losing a match. Naturally, it's assumed that a player who retires when ahead or level in a match genuinely can’t continue playing, but it’s a different story when they’re behind. Unless some debilitating injury strikes, retiring when just a few games from defeat is a grey area of tennis etiquette.
Some pros are more prone to on-court injuries than others and there is no suggestion that any were not injured when they retired, but the statistics seem to speak volumes about the attitude of various players. Though they're equally likely to become injured while ahead as they are when they are behind, some will play on until a result has been determined, even if they went into the match carrying an injury. Others stop when they feel they can no longer win the match.
Retiring during a match doesn’t just affect the player, but the crowd and the opponent as well. “There are definitely players that are retiring so that the opponent doesn’t get the satisfaction of really beating them,” said John Lloyd, British Davis cup captain and former Australian Open finalist. “I did it early in my career too, not with retiring but through tanking. It’s a similar thing: I was messing around and it was obvious to the opponent that I wasn’t taking it seriously, so he didn’t get the satisfaction of beating me. It’s the same with retiring – you don’t want to give the opponent the satisfaction of actually beating you.”
Players with the best records for not retiring when losing include those who are generally well-regarded for their competitive fairness and sportsmanship. Among the men, Roger Federer and James Blake have never quit while behind in a match.
“I’m not surprised that Federer and Blake have never retired,” said Lloyd. “It’s kind of an old school mentality – you don’t ‘deef’ [default]. I think it’s the champion’s mentality. You’ve got to be a champion enough to know that you take it like a man and give the player the satisfaction that they beat you, whether you were injured or not.”
At the other extreme is Tommy Haas, with 11 out of his 13 career retirements coming when he was heading for defeat. On the one hand, he deserves credit for even starting some of those matches if he was already injured, but two of his withdrawals seem almost petty: he once retired while trailing 6-4, 5-0 in a best-of-three set match and on another occasion while trailing 5-1 in the deciding set. Similarly, Jarkko Nieminen has six retirements, all of them when he was heading towards defeat.
Andre Silva, the ATP’s chief player officer was shown the research and commented: “Injuries and retirements are unfortunately part of the game and we monitor those because of our concern and care for players’ health and well being. But we have never encountered a case when we could suspect a player of retiring during a match when he could have continued without further damage to an injury or risk to his health.”
Ivan Ljubicic, who has a good record when it comes to not retiring, talked about his experience with this dilemma at Indian Wells last week, where he lost the opening set 6-2 to David Nalandian and was having trouble with his knee. “I was thinking in the beginning of the second set, if I lose the serve, I’m just going to retire, because I didn’t know how bad can it be if I keep playing,” said Ljubcic. But he persevered – and won the match in three sets.
On the women’s side, the well-liked Kim Clijsters has had plenty of injuries but retired while behind just once – in the semi-finals of her hometown event of Hasselt, when she was down a set and tied at 2-2 in the second against Elena Bovina. Ana Ivanovic, Shahar Peer, Nicole Vaidisova and Martina Hingis have all never retired while losing.
Hingis’ laudable record is no surprise either, according to Lloyd. “The bottom line is that the really good champions don’t feel they’re going to lose until the last point, so they never throw in the towel. I don’t ever remember Chris [Evert, to whom he was married] defaulting.”
On the flip side, an astonishing 11.4% of Jelena Jankovic’s total career defeats are retirements while losing – that’s more than one in every nine losses. Nadia Petrova is also one of the most common on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour: she has retired while either one or two games from defeat on no fewer than five occasions.
About her last retirement while on the verge of defeat – she trailed 6-2, 4-2 in the second round in Sydney earlier this year – Petrova said: “I was just not well. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t play my best tennis. The crowd would not enjoy. Why should I carry on?”
When told that around two-thirds of players’ retirements occur when they are losing, Petrova admitted the probability of winning was often a factor in deciding whether to carry on. “Why would you retire when you’re winning?” she said. “Most of the time players are retiring when they’re not feeling well, or they’re hurt, and they cannot continue. So they’d be putting themselves into danger [if they carried on playing].”
She added: “It was many times that I was winning and I had to call someone onto court. I was fortunate to finish it.”
A spokesperson for the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, who also reviewed the data, said: “There is no evidence that WTA Tour players do anything other than compete their very best.
“Tour healthcare professionals provide advice and treatment to ensure the health and safety of players, including whether it is safe or not to continue to play during the course of a match.”
Those sitting in the player’s box can also affect the decision to quit or play on. Maria Sharapova has twice retired, both times while seemingly on her way to defeat: when 6-4, 2-1 down in the Beijing semi-finals two years ago, and while 6-1, 0-1 behind against Ivanovic at the same stage in Tokyo last month. In Indian Wells a fortnight ago, the Russian explained her recent absence from the Tour was due to a hamstring injury she had sustained while playing Ivanovic. “It was a sudden movement that I did after a serve when I landed in the second game of my match,” she said.
The Russian did not take a medical timeout until she had lost the first set 6-1. When allowed to speak to coach Michael Joyce as part of the WTA’s on-court coaching trial, she mentioned she was having problems while serving. “That is ridiculous, just hit your serve,” he replied. She led 30-0 in the opening game of the second set, but when her opponent got back to 30-30, Joyce was heard to yell: “quit, quit!”
Jankovic retired in Dubai last month after twisting her ankle during the second set of her semifinal against Amelie Mauresmo, saying after the match, "I would have played on even on one foot, and even if my other foot had been three times the size, but my mum called out to me to stop." Clearly, the injury was very real, but as noted above, the decision to stop is not unusual for her.
Justine Henin is also slightly above the Top 20 average, but might own the most memorable example of all – stopping when down 6-1, 2-0 with a stomach complaint during last year’s Australian Open final against Mauresmo. Serena Williams has twice retired within one or two games of losing, while Anna Chakvetadze has retired four times during her short career – each time when she was a set and a break down, or a game away from losing.
But that doesn't always sit well. “It’s pretty pitiful to do that unless it’s an obvious physical thing,” said Lloyd. “Once you play, you should play until the end – unless you can’t stand up, of course. These matches where players are retiring a game or two from defeat, that’s pathetic.”