Retirements Are Down at the Australian Open. Is Money the Reason?

Retirements Are Down at the Australian Open. Is Money the Reason?


Even before Mischa Zverev retired in the second set of his first-round match against Hyeon Chung on Tuesday night, there was excitement about the rule’s effect: Four players had taken the opportunity to leave with half of the money.

“What has occurred in the first round has shown that the new rule works,” said Craig Tiley, the tournament director. “The real winner from this is the tennis fan who gets to see high-quality, competitive tennis, and I think the players are embracing it.”

Eric Butorac, who served as president of the ATP player council for two years until his retirement at the end of the 2016 season, said the rule change had been “a topic for years” and expressed enthusiasm at its implementation at Grand Slam events, which have been steadily increasing their purses in recent years.

A similar rule at ATP Tour events was introduced last year and proved popular.

The rules on withdrawals and prize money were thrust into a spotlight at Wimbledon last year, when seven men retired during their first-round matches, including the opponents of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in back-to-back matches on Centre Court. That led to disappointed ticket holders and television networks that were shortchanged of hours of premium match play.

The change was a part of a handful of experimental rules announced in November. Bill Babcock, the director of the Grand Slam Board, stressed that the rule was still in a trial period and would be evaluated when a full year of data was available after the United States Open.

Photo

Bernarda Pera earned a spot in the main draw at the Australian Open after another player withdrew.

Credit
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Under the new rules, any player who competes in the first round and retires or performs “below professional standards” could be fined. The policy was designed to combat the waves of retirements that have been frustrating for healthy, eager players on the outside looking in.

Lukas Lacko, currently ranked 86th, has spent much of his career just inside the rankings cutoff for entry into Grand Slam main draws. He said players felt entitled to the first-round prize money at majors because of their work year-round.

“You work hard all season to get top 100, gluing together small results,” Lacko said. “It’s a reward you deserve because you got to top 100, and it’s big money at these tournaments. And if you suddenly, unluckily get injured, then you can’t play and get paid where you were working hard for to play: the top of the hill. And if you don’t play the match, you got zero. It was a big difference.”

Tim Smyczek, a 30-year-old American ranked No. 131, recalled one year at Wimbledon when he, as a lucky loser, waited for a possible withdrawal, only to see several players retire midmatch with what appeared to be pre-existing injuries.

“You kind of couldn’t blame the guys for going and taking the check, because they earned their spot in the main draw,” Smyczek said. “But hopefully this is enough incentive to do the right thing.”

Two men and two women — Filip Krajinovic, Lu Yen-hsun, Margarita Gasparyan and Ana Konjuh — withdrew between the draw on Thursday night and the beginning of the first round on Monday morning. Four lucky losers replaced them in the bracket; one of them, Bernarda Pera, went on to notch her first win at a Grand Slam event. She will also get to add at least the second-round money (90,000 Australian dollars, or $71,652) to her winnings.

Peter Polansky, who also got a chance to play as a lucky loser, said he did not think he would have gotten the opportunity without the new rule.

“Otherwise I’m sure those two guys would have gone out and played their match and retired down a set,” said Polansky, who lost to Karen Khachanov on Tuesday.

Though it would have meant less money for himself, Polansky said he would be fine with the withdrawing player keeping even 100 percent of his first-round check, which is the policy at ATP tournaments.

“For me, they can even take the full prize money and just give the lucky loser a chance to play, like they do at the tour level,” he said. “I’d be O.K. with that, too; I don’t think 50 percent is actually enough. But still, that’s great for Krajinovic and Lu because there’s not many people that would. My arm could be in a cast and I would still go out there and try to play.”

Not everyone was convinced the rule deserved credit for the bright start to the tournament. Robin Haase, a former member of the ATP player council, said he thought the rule was likely to have made little difference because the 50 percent offer would be turned down by players who crave the whole amount.

“I think it’s just a coincidence that no one pulled out,” he said. “The guys that would step on the court before hurt, they will still step out there for that extra 50 percent. That’s just the way it is. Either you do everything or nothing, that’s my opinion.”



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