Ten of the top 25 men in tennis are out of the Madrid Masters, the last tournament before the French Open, and many of them are in doubt for that culminating Slam of the clay season.
Has a Masters tournament ever been quite as torn open by injury? Has the top of the men’s tour leaked its seeds quite so early in the season, and on the most benign of surfaces?
At No. 13, Fernando Gonzalez has been sidelined by knee problems since Barcelona, and has announced he will not return at least until the French Open.
He reached the semis in Paris last year, so this could be a major blow to his rankings, with three players snapping at his heels. He’s already seen a resurgent David Ferrer overtake him this week.
Ivan Ljubicic, No. 14, has withdrawn from both Estoril and Madrid with a torn intercostal muscle sustained in Rome. This is a serious blow to the 31-year-old who won his first Masters title fewer than two months ago in Indian Wells. He will lose points from Madrid, though a good performance in Paris could sustain his ranking.
No. 17 Juan Carlos Ferrero, having broken into the top 20—aged 30—for the first time in two years after a wonderful Latin American clay swing, is out with a knee injury.
He’s already slipped a couple of ranking points since moving to the European clay, but he has little to defend until the grass. However, the rest of the clay season should have proffered a good number of points to send him on his way. He can still hope that his knees take him beyond the second round at Roland Garros, his target from last year.
No. 19 Tommy Haas’s woes continue. In a career blighted by injury and accident, he now has to recuperate from hip surgery undertaken prior to Indian Wells. He could be out for six months, which would take him to the U.S. Open.
This phase of 2009 marked a wonderful resurgence for Haas, with good results in Madrid, Paris, and then through the grass season. This is a cruel blow in his career’s Indian summer.
Also missing, at No. 20, is Radek Stepanek: He’s had a shocker of a season since the first tournament of the year, and hasn’t played at all since March.
No. 24 Tommy Robredo had to retire with a lower back injury in Barcelona and is out of Madrid.
And the troubles of No. 25 Gilles Simon, still struggling with recurrent knee injuries, will ensure his inexorable slide down the rankings.
But the biggest disappointment for the Madrid fans in particular, and tennis more widely, are the holes created by injury at the very top of the rankings.
Of the top six men, three will miss Madrid, two have been out of competition since mid March, and one has only played the Australian Open during the entire year. They are the “Big Ds:” Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro, and Nikolay Davydenko.
The first missing man is world No. 2 Djokovic, stricken down once more with breathing problems. It’s become a chronic complaint that seemed, after medical intervention a couple of years back, to have been resolved.
2009 was his most successful season thus far, but then in Melbourne, he was once again debilitated by stomach and breathing difficulties. Now, just as he seemed to be hitting some form again, he has been forced to withdraw from Madrid. He retired during the quarterfinals of his home tournament in Belgrade, and at the last moment confirmed his absence from Madrid.
According to his website, the problems are allergy related, and cause serious fatigue, but he claims they are temporary.
He says: “Allergies really bother me…How long they will be present depends on the rest. When you have that kind of a problem, recovery requires rest, not physical effort. I’ll see about next week, but the most important for me is to play at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.”
He enjoyed great success this time last year, winning the title in Belgrade and reaching the semis in Madrid. He will, therefore, probably slip from his coveted No. 2 position in the short term. But a good run in Paris will reverse his ranking points, so there is probably wisdom in his Madrid decision.
World No. 6 Davydenko, who ended 2009 and began 2010 as the player to beat, has had recurrent wrist problems, so when he aggravated the injury in the Rotterdam semifinals, the scale of the problem was underestimated.
Then he withdrew in the third round of Indian Wells, and an MRI scan revealed that the Russian's wrist was, in fact, fractured. He was predicted to need a splint for at least four weeks.
With six weeks now elapsed, there is still no word about the state of the injury, or when he expects to return.
The lack of information is partially due to the Russian’s absence, even after five and half years in the top 20, of a website. The low-profile Davydenko seemed to relish the publicity he drew after winning the WTF title, but has still managed to retreat completely into the shadows.
He has now missed Estoril and will miss Madrid. Whether he will be back in time for the French Open is unknown. He reached the quarterfinals there last year but, with no clay court time ahead of that Slam, his chances of matching his 2009 result, should he play, look decidedly slim.
World No. 5 Del Potro, like Davydenko, has no website and, also like the Russian, has a serious wrist injury.
Sadly for the Argentine, he’s just setting out on his highly-anticipated career but has not managed to play a single tournament this year except the Australian Open, and even there he struggled to set the world alight.
Where Davydenko seemed to revel in the new-found attentions of the media circus, Del Potro seems to have found the sudden limelight difficult to manage.
Rather than retreat to his home to preserve some privacy, or put his affairs in the hands of an experienced agent, there has been a trail of conflicting information about the state of the young man’s health.
One minute he was slated to enter the Barcelona tournament, the next he was reported to need major surgery.
Finally, in an effort to clear the lines of communication, he made a formal statement to the press both to confirm his surgery and to refute the rumors of panic attacks that had sprung up in some media outlets.
“I will have surgery today on my right wrist…I have tried all season to avoid surgery by trying different treatments but, evidently, the injury was more serious. As you will all understand, this is not a happy moment in my life. But I’m used to battling through adversity and I have the strength to come through this. The recovery time will be lengthy.”
Estimates range from between three and six months.
These are difficult times for a 21-year-old just growing into his talent and his still-developing frame. Taking control of his communications in this way is an essential step in that development.
He will undoubtedly slip, temporarily, from his lofty ranking, as he will lose semifinal points from both Madrid and Roland Garros. Because he is unlikely to compete until at least the North American swing, he is also likely to lose the heavy points he won in Washington, Montreal, and Flushing Meadows in 2009. It will be a sore test of his character.
All these absences from the top rankings—seen in the context of the persistent poor form of No. 4 Andy Murray and the failure of No. 1 Roger Federer to impose himself on the tour since his Australian victory—lays open the route back to the top for Rafael Nadal by the summer.
It also opens up the time and space for some aspirant top-tenners to make a move.
Fernando Verdasco, hovering at No. 9, will fancy his chances, on his current form, of outstripping his highest ever ranking: He achieved No. 7 for two weeks this time last year.
Andy Roddick has followed the same course as last year by avoiding clay until the faster conditions of Madrid. He will return this week after a wonderful display in Indian Wells and Miami, and could make up points ahead of the grass season.
No. 7 Robin Soderling should put together a good run in Madrid, where he went out in the second round last year. No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is in a similar position.
Then there is No. 12 Ferrer, who’s been on a confidence-boosting run since February.
Clay suits him like a glove, and he can continue to put on big points in Madrid and Roland Garros. The Spaniard could be one of the prime contenders to make hay while the sun shines. And who would begrudge one of the hardest workers on the tour that reward?