Serena Williams’ transgression on Wednesday was not pulling out of the Cincinnati Open with an injury. It is far more complicated than that. The Open era, after all, has had players from Agassi to Zvereva withdraw from tournaments, often with explanations eliciting more suspicion than sympathy.
Williams said she woke up the morning of her second-round match against Samantha Stosur with a swollen toe on her surgically repaired right foot. Fair enough. She had made her priorities clear the day before.
Asked if she was in danger of overplaying after winning hardcourt tournaments in California and Canada, Williams said: “Yeah, I’m going to have to figure that out. I definitely don’t want to overdo it.”
Was she foreshadowing her withdrawal?
“Nothing against Cincinnati or Toronto or the Stanfords that I played, but this is all preparation. Everyone is preparing for the US Open,” Williams went on to say.
Even if you believe, as the skeptics do, that Williams had no intention of playing out her string of matches in Cincinnati, that she showed up to sell a few more tickets like a dutiful star and cement her position in the top 32 so she would be seeded for the US Open, she would hardly be the first player to act out of self-interest.
Monica Seles pulled out of a tournament in Sydney, Australia, in the first month of the 1991 season — citing physical and mental exhaustion — after playing a lucrative exhibition the previous week. That was the year she won the first two legs of the Grand Slam and then withdrew from Wimbledon for an injury that was variously described as located in her shoulder, her knees and her shins.
The Belarusian Natalia Zvereva sometimes withdrew from tournaments in the late 1980s rather than be forced to turn over most of her prize money to the Soviet Tennis Federation.
Before Novak Djokovic became the No. 1 player in the world and embarked on his current run of 55 victories in 56 matches, he retired from four Grand Slam matches. His injury-induced pullouts at the French Open in 2005 and 2006, at Wimbledon in 2007 and at the Australian Open in 2009, led to the inside joke that Djokovic was going for the retirement Slam.
Injuries are bound to happen, unless you are Roger Federer, whose streak of good health is underscored by his 47 consecutive Grand Slam appearances (a streak perhaps more impressive than his 29 consecutive trips to the quarter-finals in the majors).
However, all the stresses can strain credibility. Andre Agassi, in the days when he wore his hair long and his arrogance on his sleeve like a sponsor’s patch, was the unofficial ATP Tour leader in suspicious injuries.
More recently, Mardy Fish bowed out of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic this month, citing a heel injury, after reaching consecutive finals in Atlanta and Los Angeles. He has also withdrawn from next week’s event in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The reason? He does not have Carolina on his mind, but, rather, the Open.
“I’ve never been a top-10 player in the world going into the biggest tournament of the year,” said Fish, who is ranked seventh and is the top American. “I’ve played quite a few matches this summer, and obviously I want to put myself in the best position to do well.”
The US Open Series was started to increase interest in tennis in the US leading up to the Open. The best way to do that is to shine a spotlight on the top American.