In 2009 the WTA, after years of debate and struggle, finally shortened its season. Of course, since we're talking about tennis, "shorten" is a relative term. The women were offered a total of 14 more days off -- the offseason went from seven to nine weeks -- before they had to start up again in 2010. This, along with a reduced number of required events for the top players, was the cornerstone of the tour's Roadmap, which was designed to do two interrelated things: Keep the biggest stars from getting injured, and get them to face off against each other more often.
By the end of '09, it seemed that those goals might be reached. Serena Williams, who had rarely made it to the end of the year in top shape, was fresh enough to win her first season-ending tour title in eight years. Starting her comeback as a professional player and mom, Kim Clijsters liked the new flexibility. And whether or not the two extra weeks made much difference, the women began the new year with a strong opening Slam in Australia, where two big stars, Williams and Justine Henin, faced off in the final.
Then the tour ran off the road. Williams hasn't played since Melbourne, missing two mandatory events, one of which, Key Biscayne, is located near a beach where she recently was seen frolicking. Maria Sharapova appeared, briefly, in Indian Wells. Dinara Safina is out with a stress fracture in her back. Venus Williams played, and lost, the Key Biscayne final with a bandage on her right thigh and another on her left knee. Svetlana Kuznetsova complained of shoulder problems after a dismal loss at the same tournament. This week Victoria Azarenka pulled out of Marbella with a hamstring issue, and Caroline Wozniacki retired from her semifinal in Charleston after she rolled her ankle. The problems have spread to a couple of young hopefuls, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (foot) and Sabine Lisicki (ankle).
One of the WTA's motivations for the Roadmap was to give a tournament like the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, a former keystone event of the tour, a chance to attract more big names again. It did, until Serena and Sharapova pulled out. As of now it appears the events that will benefit most will be the ones the WTA doesn't run, the Grand Slams. The Aussie Open had a loaded draw, and Serena should be rounding into shape for the French.
The players have blamed the usual suspects -- better competition, more physical play, even the schedule. The only thing that seems clear is that the hard-hitting, physical style of today's game is tough on the players' bodies. You can't even accuse the young and hungry players, like Wozniacki and Azarenka, of overplaying -- each competed in just one event, Dubai, in all of February. Short of a revolution in technique and training, none of this will change. The WTA has reduced mandatory events to just four, as low as it can go, but the tour can't legislate injuries away. Now it's up to the players to realize the pitfalls and make their own schedules with the long haul in mind. We have the Roadmap. The question now is whether there's any destination at the end of it.