Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Rash of Early Retirements


The concept of quitting is something that most athletes cannot begin to ever fathom actually doing. It goes against the very ethos of sports to quit in the middle of an event, give up and walk off the playing field, when there is still some fathomable chance to compete. In most team sports, coaches stress to "play until the final whistle" and it is seen as noble when teams that are being beaten still fight to the end. Effort is praised, even where it is without hope, because sports are about competition until the very end. Even in individual sports like golf, when a player walks off the course before the completion of a round , it is seen as the sign of a major injury. Foregoing the chance to finish a round is so looked down upon by the participants, that it is (usually) only done only if the player is truly unable to go on.  Quitting is a nonstarter in virtually all sports, only to be done in the most severe of cases and always with a hint of embarrassment on the player's face.

Well except tennis. In tennis, for reasons that I cannot understand, quitting does not have the same negative connotation. Leaving matches prior to their completion or "tanking" points to save energy is not only not looked at it with scorn, it seems to be an accepted part of the culture. This US Open has been peppered with "retirements," especially on the men's side, where each day has seen 3-4 matches end with one of the players walking off the court. This is especially odd because considering the history of this Tournament over time, these have not even been particularly hot or harsh conditions. At times these retirements have been totally understandable, such as yesterday's painful session of cramps by American Steve Johnson, that caused him to leave a match he was likely on his way to winning. But then others have been...well questionable. One of those odd retirements occurred on Tuesday when Jack Sock walked off the court in his first round match versus Pablo Andujar. Sock was behind two sets to one, but still in the match and he declined to start the fourth set, citing cramping issues. Little was thought about the decision then, until Sock said today:


Now it is always difficult to judge the amount of pain a person is going through at any given moment. Because pain by its very nature is only experienced by an individual, judging whether someone is "faking" it or making more out of an issue than they should is almost always unfair. But here we have Sock himself acknowledging that he started to feel "some" cramping and that he didn't want it to get worse.  Well why not?  This is the US Open.  Was Sock saving his legs for some other Grand Slam event of which I am not aware?  Clearly one doesn't want Sock to have to endure pain, but wouldn't it stand to reason that he should play until he simply cannot go any more?  I don't want things "to get worse" either in any aspect of life, but that doesn't mean you don't give every last ounce of effort until it does. While I won't cast a final aspersion on Sock's grit, on the heels of having lost the third set 6-1 and not playing his best tennis (while also I might add, not necessarily looking injured), it is at the very least questionable.

Sock is of course not the only player with a retirement that causes us to raise our eyebrows. Michael Llodra just gave up against Philip Kohlschreiber after the first set, which accounts for the 29th retirement of his career...the 7th in a Grand Slam. That record is suspect at best and suggests a person more likely to simply "take his ball and go home" when confronted with adversity rather than truly play until the final point. Maybe I am just being too harsh but seeing this image of Steve Johnson truly suffering yesterday,


and I can't help but ask, how come it seems so easy for so many others to simply throw in the towel?