Seven members of the Top 20 have already ended their seasons, including the three men who loomed largest in 2016: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. None of the three has played an official match since Wimbledon.
Djokovic, who had played in 51 straight Grand Slam tournaments and won 12, has not competed since retiring in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in early July with chronic elbow pain down 7-6 (2), 2-0 to Tomas Berdych.
Berdych was experiencing back pain of his own in that match and made it to Oct. 19 before calling it a season. Nick Kyrgios, never the most durable of young tennis stars, issued a season-ending statement on Twitter later the same day, citing the recurrence of a hip injury.
“Unless I want this to escalate to an injury that requires surgery, I need to listen to my body and my team,” he wrote.
The inactive list goes on, including Kei Nishikori of Japan, who is out with a right wrist injury, and Milos Raonic, last year’s Wimbledon finalist, who ended his injury-filled season this month after retiring in the second round of Tokyo with a calf problem. Raonic’s latest misfortune came after making it clear he favored systemic change, pointing out that none of last year’s final Top 5 played in this year’s United States Open.
“Maybe it’s a testament to some kind of reform being needed for the sake of players’ careers, and being able to provide a certain caliber of tennis for spectators,” Raonic said in Tokyo. “Give the players that really stand out mandatory events, give them a chance to play everything within a seven-month period so they can really focus on themselves health-wise, but also on improving, because you need that time. We’re the only sport, outside of golf maybe, that plays as spread out as we do without any time for rest.”
The counterpoint to this of course is that the same small group — Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and to a lesser degree Murray and Wawrinka — managed to endure and rule men’s tennis for nearly a decade: dominating not only at the Grand Slam tournaments but at the Masters 1000 level.
Two of them — the Nadal, 31, and Federer, 36 — are back on top this year after ending their own seasons early in 2016, giving everybody else ideas.
“What these players have been able to do, the consistency and success they’ve enjoyed at the biggest events on tour over such a sustained period, has been unprecedented,” Chris Kermode, executive chairman and president of the ATP , said in an email. “At some point that takes a toll on the body, especially given the physicality of men’s professional tennis, and that is evident today.”
It is not just great players in their 30s who are suffering, however. Nishikori is 27, Raonic is 26, Kyrgios is 22.
“Injury trends and player playing patterns need to be assessed across multiple years,” Kermode said. “Our data shows that the number of registered injuries across the whole player group has been reasonably flat in the last three years.”
But the trend has been disquietingly upward among the tour elite. The question is whether the Federer-Nadal template will work for their once and probably future rivals. Djokovic and Wawrinka already have announced their plans to play an exhibition in Abu Dhabi in late December as part of their preparation for the Australian Open in 2018, the year’s first Grand Slam.
Murray, who has had recurring hip problems, has resumed practicing.
“I think there is a correlation between players seeing what Roger and Rafa did and then coming back and having two dominant years,” Gimelstob said. “It’s a copycat business, all of it, whether it’s basketball, analytics or moneyball in baseball. People see others having success, and they imitate it. I think the trend factor is real here.”
But if the trend for superstar injuries continues in 2018, substantive change, such as revamping the ranking system or reducing playing obligations, will be hard to resist.
The ATP already has made concessions to human frailty: slightly shortening the season, reducing finals of Masters 1000 events to best-of-three sets; adding byes in ATP 250 events and granting exemptions from some mandatory playing requirements for veterans who have hit certain benchmarks, including 600 career tour matches.
The tour has nearly doubled the number of physiotherapists it employs since 2013 and continues to offer an injury prevention screening program to players.
But there may be new demands on top players with the success of last month’s new Laver Cup, a team event set to take place every September over three days in non-Olympic years, and with the continued interest in the World Team Cup.
“I love the saying, you can only put 10 pounds of stuff in a 10-pound bag,” said Craig Boynton, coach of the Americans Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson. “What will happen if these events are successful is that they will be put in players’ schedules and other things will be knocked out.”
Players, eager to maximize their shining moments in a Darwinian sport, have not always been the best judges of their own limits, however. For now, the yellow light is definitely flashing.