The juxtaposition couldn't be starker. Every boldfaced name in men's tennis is currently in Shanghai to contest the Rolex Masters. At the same time, each day brings news of another top women's star who has decided the pull the plug. In recent days, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Nadia Petrova, Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova all have announced that they're either definitely or likely out for the rest of the year. That comes on top of Justine Henin's season-ending injury in June, Kim Clijsters' withdrawal from the mandatory event in Beijing and Elena Dementieva's pullout from her home tournament in Moscow next week.
Injuries have plagued the WTA for years, but this is about as low as it goes. All of this is coming a year after the tour's revamped schedule, the Roadmap, was designed to keep the women from overplaying and ease the toll on their bodies by reducing the number of events they were required to play.
What is going on? There can be no single answer to a series of problems that includes Serena Williams cutting her foot at a restaurant, Henin hurting her elbow on court at Wimbledon, a 30-year-old Venus Williams needing knee surgery and Kuznetsova citing "illness" as a reason to hang up her racket. But since comparing the the men's and women's tours at the moment is so temptingly obvious, let's try that route.
The primary difference between the tours is one that was crystal clear this week. The ATP has established a series of events outside of the Grand Slams that the players recognize as fundamental to the sport and prestigious in their own right. That's why Roger Federer flew to Shanghai in October, even after all of the Slams were over and his years on tour would have given him an exemption. It's why Rafael Nadal took the time to find his post-Open groove in two smaller warm-up events, Bangkok and Tokyo.
The idea of the Roadmap was to establish something similar to the men's tour on a smaller scale for the women. It created a core group of events that they knew they had to play and hopefully could build their seasons around, rather than just flying from one tournament to the next each week. It hasn't happened. In fact, the reverse has happened. The four mandatory women's events -- Indian Wells in March, Key Biscayne in April, Madrid in May and last week's China Open -- are too scattered to gain any traction or establish any connection to each other. In marketing speak, they're tough to brand. Unlike the men's Masters, they don't form lead-ins to the Slams or the season-ending championships. The WTA hasn't found a way to use the Slams to its advantage, the way the ATP has.
The Masters don't keep the men from getting injured, of course, but the men do know they have to gear up and be ready for the Masers all the way into November. I believe the women are injured, but I don't think, like John McEnroe, that it's from overplaying. In the past, the top women have made sure they're healthy and ready for the Slams. This year's U.S. Open aside, Serena has rarely ever withdrawn from a major, the way she has in countless smaller events. When the Slams are over, the women will go home to rest for 2011, which begins with another Slam in Melbourne. Meanwhile, the ATP has the stage to itself in Shanghai and beyond.