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Why tennis, and fans, are cheated when players retire early

LONDON -- As Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were making their 2017 Wimbledon debuts on Centre Court, tennis should have been basking in glory.

Instead, the game and its fans got fleeced.

In front of a crowd gripped by the expectations that come from seeing the seven-time champion make his tournament debut, Federer and opponent Alexandr Dolgopolov ripped through a fast but competitive first set. True, Dolgopolov looked outmatched, as he has in all three of his career losses against Federer, but his quirky style flummoxed the Swiss on more than one occasion.

And then, suddenly, on tennis' most venerable stage, in front of a massive international broadcast audience, Dolgopolov simply quit.

It's still unclear why, though a leg injury has been cited, even though the Ukrainian seemed to be moving just fine.

"His explanation to me is that he felt too much pain on the serve, maybe on the jump," Federer said, speaking to the media after a match that lasted 43 minutes. "That's what he told me."

Viewed in isolation, the surprising withdrawal wouldn't have been all that big of a deal. Injuries happen. There are no guarantees. But this wasn't a one-off. On Tuesday, this became an unfortunate trend.

Just before the Federer match, three-time Wimbledon champ Djokovic had taken the stage. He played a textbook first set against Slovakian Martin Klizan, stoking hope that he is returning to form after a year of disappointment. But Klizan had come to the court with a heavily wrapped lower left leg. After 11 games, just like Dolgopolov, Klizan quit.

A trend? How about history.

When, later in the afternoon, Janko Tipsarevic withdrew from his match, seven first-round men had ended early because of defaults. That ties a record from 2008.

"I feel for the crowd," Federer said. "They're there to watch good tennis, proper tennis. They put in another match now at Centre Court, I believe."

Let's be clear: Caroline Wozniacki squaring off against Timea Babos, the match moved to Centre Court as a last-minute replacement after the double withdrawals, didn't exactly give the main stage much buzz.

As Federer pointed out, it's impossible to really assess what's going on in the mind of an injured player. Could Klizan and Dolgopolov have kept going? Did they take the court simply to draw a paycheck, knowing they weren't going to finish? Only they know for sure.

But this much we do know: Grand Slam prize-money rules shortchange fans by incentivizing an injured player to show up, play a little and simply walk away. The profit is significant. At Wimbledon, players receive roughly $45,000 if all they do is play one point and walk away.

That doesn't mean much to the ultra-rich megastars -- which might be the reason you rarely see them default during the early rounds. But it's a big windfall for the lesser-knowns, players such as the 84th-ranked Dolgopolov, who made $553,000 in 2016.

Federer suggested that the Grand Slams should look at copying recent changes made at tournaments run by the ATP, which governs most of the tour but doesn't oversee the majors. New ATP rules as of this season provide a sizable carrot for injured players to give up their spots at a tournament for someone more likely to make it through the first round.

There are a few limitations to guard against abuse, but the basics are straightforward: Once a player is accepted into a tournament draw, he or she can default without playing and still collect the prize money for a first-round loss. As a replacement, the next-highest player takes over.

In a constant struggle to attract fans, tennis surely didn't need back-to-back high-profile defaults to open the 131st Wimbledon. It also didn't need Monday's midmatch withdrawal by one of its most charismatic future stars, Nick Kyrgios, or the half-effort and news conference confessional by the enigmatic Bernard Tomic.

"I couldn't care less if I make a fourth-round US Open or I lose first round," Tomic said Tuesday. "To me, everything is the same."

Ugh. Get the guy some perspective. Or a real job.

Of course, neither Federer nor Djokovic can relate to that kind of adolescent attitude. Federer spoke directly to his own mindset regarding injuries and playing out matches on Tuesday. Bottom line: Even if he's injured, it's going to take a ton to make him walk from a court without his opponent being forced to win match point.

"Miracles happen," Federer said. "You never know. If you hang around, you start drop-shotting the guy, he twists his ankle, you move on."

Even the weather could help an injured player, Federer noted. Hey, you take the court and keep on, and it begins raining, maybe you get a break in the action long enough to heal.

"Maybe a big cloud's coming in," he said with a smile. "We're here in Britain, so there's always the big, thick cloud that moves through."