Retiring at Roland Garros

After almost a week has passed since the end of Roland Garros, talk and conversation revolves around the WTA’s penchant to crown first time winners at that tournament, and Novak Djokovic’s stranglehold on the entire ATP. Interesting and fun subjects to talk about but a slight myopia about the tournament, as the first few rounds of the tournament were dominated by a completely different topic: the retirements of several players during the first week of play.

From the ATP, the list of retirements was: Henri Laaksonnen, Grigor Dimitrov, Lorenzo Musetti and Roger Federer. From the WTA: Ashley Barty, Jennifer Brady, Petra Kvitova and Naomi Osaka. Four of these retirements were of the “normal” type and bear no relevance to this discussion. Laaksonen, Dimitrov, Brady and Barty retired during their matches with physical ailments or injuries, something that is not, unfortunately, unusual in the sport. It is the other four retirements that were of a different nature.

First, Kvitova. Petra Kvitova is a woman that cannot be said is unfortunate, but that has had some bumps in her career that are not common. None is larger and more important, due to the truly horrific events that happened, than the assault that she went through and which put her career in peril, when her left hand was severely injured by her assailant. But here, at Roland Garros, another sample of her peculiar bad luck happened, when she was forced to retire because she suffered an ankle injury when she tripped over cables at the press conference. Putting aside the truly unlucky nature of the event, another of the retirements made this a small source for some jokes, as press conferences were the talk of the tournament at the moment. One hopes that all tournaments in both tours are implementing better layouts at their conference rooms, to avoid the slightest possibility that any such incidents happening again.

Which leave us the three truly different retirements of the tournaments to discuss.

Lorenzo Musetti is one of the young promising crop of Italian players, a group that is poised to make some noise in the near future. But at RG Musetti was making noise now, as he led the eventual champ Djokovic by two very hard fought and entertaining sets. However, at that moment, Djokovic woke up from his slumber and started to do what he does to young players that have not met him before, mauling young Lorenzo in a 6-1, 6-0, 4-0 shark frenzy of winners and impossible-to-handle groundstrokes.

Which indeed, Musetti could handle no more. With no warning or signs of anything being wrong, the young Italian performed a Roberto Duran “No Mas” and approached the net to shake hands and concede the match. At his press conference he stated that as he was not being able to win any points, he felt it was not fair for the spectators, as if retiring in this fashion from a match was proper compensation to the paying customers or depriving them of at least two more games of Djokovic’s majestic display was not something to consider.

Musetti is, of course, a young player and sometimes youth can be used as an explanation to what people do, but this was, if one takes Musetti at his word, a flagrant violation of one tradition in tennis: you finish the match, regardless of the score, giving it your all and accepting your opponent’s superiority if that person is winning. Modern examples exist, such as Andre Agassi’s final match at RG, when his chronically injured back prevented him from giving a proper performance but he stood and finished his match against a “lesser” opponent, limping to shake hands at the net after the score was called. Both tours should talk about this issue because allowing Musetti’s gesture to be an acceptable practice in the sport may mean retirements at tournaments and venues that do not have the importance of a Grand Slam tournament and where a player may decide that giving it all is really not worth it will be acceptable. Sure, the cynical can say that this happens already with players that minutes before were running like a frightened gazelle and suddenly invoke an injury, but that is the point: Musetti was clear that nothing wrong with his body was happening, he just simply was not going to win and therefore any further effort was not due. At least a conversation with the young man is due.

The retirement of Federer is analogous in that no injury was invoked, but all similarities stop there. To recap: Federer reached the third round, where he played a majestic 3:35 hours match versus Domenik Koepfer, the score being 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 7-5, which points to the quality of the match.  After that match, Federer decided that he would not be able to play his next round, a promising encounter with Matteo Berrettini, because he had to listen to his body and get some rest. The grueling match had taken too much of a toll.

It is here hard to not wonder what was Federer expecting from Roland Garros. Opposite to Musetti, Federer is a man of incredible experience, and one can ask: was he expecting a series of 6-1’s and 6-2’s as he played this slam, universally well known as grueling? Or did Federer enter the tournament seeing it as a warm up and training for the upcoming grass season, a surface where he excels? The issue is that, once again, Federer is an ambassador of the sport and still the most popular player in the tour, yet he simply admitted that he would not play a scheduled match, for which he was not injured, simply because of fatigue. The relationship with the sport is balanced, a way of saying that Federer has given a lot to the sport and its fans, and in turn the sport has given him incredible riches and fame. But in this case, pondering the questions above is valid because a slam tournament was treated as a training session, spectators were left with tickets for a match that was highly anticipated and, perhaps most important of all, the tradition that if you are not injured you play your match was also being swept aside. Again, if this premise is accepted, either a mechanism is needed to ensure that matches will be played, as it is not hard to imagine the debacle that would have happened had Federer been playing a semi-final, or some regulations must be put in place, to ensure that tournaments will not be played as training grounds. The same caveats from the cynics can be heard (faking injuries, retiring only after serving one game, etc) but the precedent does not look good.

Which brings us to the retirement of Osaka. To recap: Osaka announced, prior to the start of the event, that she would not attend the mandatory post-match press conferences due to mental health issues, and the organizers of the event, joined later by the ITF and the other three slams, reminded her that if she were to go that route she would be fined and a possible escalation could be expected. After skipping her first such conference, the fine was delivered, the Slam tournaments reminded her of her contractual obligations and Osaka pulled out of her upcoming match.

Osaka is, together with Serena Williams, the most recognizable face of the WTA. The fact that she invoked mental health in her announcement made the issue even more important, as it can be agreed that such issues are not trivial. But then, in the cacophony of the knee jerk reactions, a proper analysis was not held. Calls of racism and sexism were not scarce, despite the fact that no such issues were mentioned by Osaka herself, and for a few days Roland Garros was the talk of the entire sports world, focusing on Osaka’s comments. But one fact that stands out is simple: no more talks about this have happened, something that is worrisome because, if indeed press conferences are harmful or even potentially so to the mental health of athletes, this has to be discussed. Keith Olbermann wrote about the discrimination that Osaka was facing and compared her position to that of previous sports figures that had been open about their dislike for press conferences, but Olbermann missed the point completely: Marshawn Lynch, Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick, the three examples he used, did not stop going to press conferences but rather stated (and still do) that they don’t like them and are useless, not that their mental health has been affected by such events. In an age that is characterized by people that have the same problems grouping together, it is important to note that no fellow players, either from the ATP or WTA, joined Osaka in stating that such press conferences are harmful: Ashley Barty stated she sees them as part of the job, Daniil Medevev said he sometimes likes them, sometimes he doesn’t, Nadal pointed out that were it not for such coverage they would not be as wealthy and famous, and Billie Jean King reminded people of how instrumental the press had been when the tour was being created and a message was needed to be heard. The closest to support that Osaka got came from Venus Williams, who simply said she always went into a press room knowing that none of the people there plays tennis remotely as well as she does, a non-sequitur because those people are journalists, not players, and Williams has been interviewed by the likes of Evert and Navratilova, two examples of players that can hold a position of equality with her, at the very least.

One issue is this: mental health has been included in this conversation and, if it is indeed too stressful for athletes to go though press conferences, then something needs to be done. The options are to study whether this is a fact, or find out if Osaka is the sole sample of such a group, or if she invoked it as opposed to cleanly saying she does not like them. The paradox is that, although Osaka does come across as shy and introverted, she is very good at dealing with the media. Her responses are thoughtful, can be funny (as when a reporter asked her why she said that Hsiew Su-Wei’s game was special and she deadpanned “Have you seen her play?”, a delightful and snappy answer) and can be insightful (her comments during the BLM protests of 2020 were discerning). Journalist Jon Wertheim called her “a media darling” precisely because of these reasons but, as an example, if Osaka claims that she was depressed after her 2018 US Open win, she may need a special dispensation (which would have to be extended to all players claiming the same position) or indeed these conferences are far from gentle. Something needs to be studied and, so far, after the first week of Roland Garros was done, not much more has been talked about this subject. Press conferences continued, losers went to them and did not mention further ordeals, and at this moment, Osaka is a group of one, as no other players are joining her position.

Roland Garros 2021 will go down in history, mostly due to Djokovic’s performance and Krejcikova’s first win, but much more happened, and almost all of it took place during the first week. Three of the retirements that took place during the event were anything but normal. A little further conversation on those subjects is still due.