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Dropouts, withdrawals lead to calls for WTA rules changes

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Connecticut Open tournament director Anne Worcester heard the same story over and over last week from top players who had committed to her event, the final WTA tuneup before the U.S. Open.

They had an injury or an illness and while it was nothing serious, with the major in New York coming up … well, you understand.

Worcester believes it’s time for the WTA to look at its rules and its schedule and consider making some changes to better serve the tournaments that want to put on a good show, the fans who spend money to see top players and the players who are often stretched too thin over an 11-month season.

“It’s not just our week, the week before the U.S. Open,” she said. “If you look at the women’s tennis tour, especially this summer, there have been too many withdrawals and retirements.”

The problem was acute in New Haven. The tournament lost top seed Simona Halep, who withdrew on Monday after playing in two consecutive finals. The official reason was a sore right Achilles.

“It’s tough to make this decision,” Halep said. “But I have to. I have to rest.”

Sixth-seeded Ashleigh Barty, seventh-seeded Kiki Bertens – who won just days before in Cincinnati – and Johanna Konta all withdrew, citing a virus.

Others tried, but couldn’t make it through the week. American CoCo Vandeweghe, who like Halep received a wild card into the tournament, retired from her first-round match with an ankle injury. Three-time champion and third-seeded Petra Kvitova made it to the quarterfinals before leaving after one set with a sore shoulder. Reigning Olympic champion Monica Puig left her semifinal match after eight games with an abdominal strain.

As a result, Carla Suarez Navarro made it to Saturday’s final while completing just one full match and fewer than four sets.

Worcester said she believed all of those who dropped out wanted to play and were not making frivolous decisions. Many top players prefer not to play at all the week before a Grand Slam, and those that do tend to be cautious with anything that could prevent them from playing for the bigger title, prize money and prestige.

All those who dropped out of New Haven, where the champion receives just over $136,000, are expected to play in New York, where players earn $20,000 more than that just for winning two singles matches.

Worcester said the real issue is the WTA’s circuit structure and long season.

In addition to the majors, the WTA has four Premier Mandatory events: Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing. A player must also compete in four of the Premier 5 tournaments – Doha, Rome, Wuhan, Montreal and Cincinnati – and two of 12 other premier events, of which New Haven is one.

That would be fine, Worcester said, if they weren’t also being drawn into so many other smaller tournaments around the world. That, she said, results in tired and injured players who end up missing or dropping out of premier-level events.

“We have too many international-level tournaments on the WTA Tour, with a play-down rule that is nowhere near as strong as it needs to be,” she said. “Players should only be allowed to play down to that international level in very specific, discrete situations and right now it’s too easy for too many top-10 players to play down.”

Worcester said she’s been told the WTA may add a couple more premier-level dates earlier in the summer, which could allow Connecticut to move away from the week before the U.S. Open.

She’d also like to find a structure that would allow top players who play deep into one tournament the ability to get an extra day of rest before the next tournament. That would mean adjusting the size of the main draw to allow more byes.

The WTA, asked to respond to the criticism, issued a statement saying it is always willing to look at changes that will make the tour better.

“It is disappointing when withdrawals occur as the players want to compete and we want our fans to be able to count on seeing their favorite stars at their local tournaments,” the organization said. “We are confident that our calendar allows players to commit to a schedule that best suits their individual needs and goals while delivering an exciting product to our fans.”

Nadal beats Ferrer to reach Barcelona Open quarterfinals

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BARCELONA, Spain — Rafael Nadal looked closer to his clay-court best again as he beat David Ferrer 6-3, 6-3 on Thursday to reach the quarterfinals of the Barcelona Open.

The 11-time Barcelona champion saved four of five break points and broke four times in what could have been his last meeting with Ferrer, who is retiring after the Madrid Open next month. It was a sign of improvement for Nadal, who lost in the semifinals in Monte Carlo last week and then needed three sets to get past Leonard Mayer in his opening match in Barcelona.

“This match was important for me,” Nadal said. “Yesterday I had a tough match. I took a step forward and was able to play with more energy.”

The top-seeded Nadal will next face either Stefanos Tsitsipas, last year’s runner-up, or Jan-Lennard Struff.

Nadal was up 5-3 in the first set before play was stopped for a rain delay. He continued to dictate the match when play resumed, serving out the set and breaking Ferrer’s next service game.

Ferrer saved three match points before finally sending a forehand into the net to give Nadal the win.

The 37-year-old Ferrer was making his last appearance at the Barcelona Open and could not hold back the tears when he received an ovation from the audience. He placed his pink headband on the court as a mark that he had played his last match here.

“I am happy to be able to finish this tournament on the center court, playing against Nadal. I gave it my all,” Ferrer said.

Also, third-seeded Dominic Thiem broke Jaume Munar five times to earn a 7-5, 6-1 victory. Fourth-seeded Kei Nishikori, who won the tournament in 2014 and 2015, brushed off Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-1, 6-3.

Grigor Dimitrov was beaten 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2) by Nicolas Jarry, who will meet Daniil Medvedev after he beat American Mackenzie McDonald 6-3, 6-2.

Osaka opens clay campaign by beating Hsieh in Stuttgart

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STUTTGART, Germany — Top-ranked Naomi Osaka opened her clay-court season by beating Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan 6-4, 6-3, on Thursday to reach the Porsche Grand Prix quarterfinals.

Osaka hit 22 winners and converted three of her six break points to seal the win in 1 hour, 24 minutes and set up a meeting with Donna Vekic of Croatia.

After saving two break points early, it was an unusually smooth victory for Osaka over Hsieh. She needed three sets to get past the Taiwanese veteran en route to her Australian Open victory and then lost to her at the Miami Open last month.

“I felt like this surface is more suited for me (than Hsieh),” Osaka said. “I was sort of in my plan. So, I just felt like I executed what I was trying to do.”

Two-time Stuttgart champion Angelique Kerber also advanced by beating fellow German Andrea Petkovic 6-2, 6-4. The fifth-seeded Kerber saved two break points to hold for 2-2 in the first set and then reeled off the next four games to take control. She then earned a decisive break for 4-3 in the second before closing out the win with her fourth match point.

Kerber will face sixth-seeded Kiki Bertens, who served 20 aces to rally for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Belinda Bencic.

No. 7 Anastasija Sevastova also advanced by beating former champion Laura Siegemund of Germany 6-4, 6-3 to set up a quarterfinal against Petra Kvitova, who advanced on Wednesday.

Vekic dispatched Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, 6-1, 7-5, earlier on Thursday.