UPDATE: There is reporting that Swan, thankfully, has had the fine overturned. This would be a logical and fair decision. We will update this article with confirmation one way or another when it is available. Of course, the fine being leveled in the first place was still a terrible decision, but at least it’s (hopefully) been fixed.
With first-round retirements at the Majors piling up, it was clear to tennis governing bodies that a change was needed. There was an understandable reluctance from players carrying injuries to withdraw ahead of their first-round matches, when doing so would mean they forfeited the substantial prize money earned from a first-round loss at a Slam. But it was hurting the profile of the sport to have so many matches in the first round end after only a handful of games.
A rule intended to find the right balance was thus implemented. Players with pre-existing injuries could withdraw ahead of the tournament and still receive half their prize money. The other half would go to a lucky loser. And to deter players from bypassing the rule in the hope of claiming the full pay cheque, a heavy fine for first-round retirements was put in place. In theory all was well. Players would get their prize money and the fans would have the chance to see completed matches.
But although first-round retirements have decline, the rule has not been a complete success. And that is because, and not for the first time, tournament officials have shown a baffling lack of common sense. Unfortunately, the pre-existing injury clause, which should not have been too complicated to understand, has become a grey area allowing tournament officials to lob punitive fines at players. Last year, Mischa Zverev received a hefty fine for withdrawing from his first-round match in Australia, but the German was not injured but ill.
Zverev, who reached the last eight in Melbourne in 2016, has forged an impressive career and a prize money haul to match, having now earned over $5 million. Thus whilst the $36,000 fine he was levied with was doubtless unwelcome, it was one he could afford. Britain’s Katie Swan, just 19 years old and still finding her feet in the sport, is in a rather less secure position than the veteran Zverev. Indeed, her career prize money total is just $264,927.
The prize money she was due to receive ($15,000) for her loss in the first-round qualifying in Melbourne, which came via retirement due to back spasms that left her unable to walk and in tears (she had to leave the court in a wheelchair), would doubtless have been helpful. Probably something of a salve to what was a fairly traumatic experience for a teenager. Instead, the ITF handed out a $5,500 fine. Because, we can only assume, Swan was supposed to predict that her back would spasm and use that premonition to withdraw before play started.
This is not a rule that should be replaced or even dramatically altered. But the application of it must come in for a serious review. It was not intended to be punitive but that is what it appears to have become. And all because it cannot be applied with any common sense. Tennis currently has enough problems without adding this to its overflowing plate. Hopefully, reason will prevail. Unfortunately, the current evidence suggests otherwise.
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