Day four of the US Open was barely under way here yesterday when two more players joined the rapidly growing ranks of the sick and injured at the year's final Grand Slam event. Radek Stepanek retired with a shoulder problem in the third set against Juan Monaco, while his fellow Czech, Petra Cetkovska, did not even make it to the start line, withdrawing from the tournament with a quadriceps injury shortly before she was due to play Ana Ivanovic.
Cetkovska was the fourth player to withdraw during the tournament, while Stepanek's departure brought to 11 the number of mid-match retirements. Barely into the second round, the tournament was just one short of the record for a Grand Slam event in the Open era, 12 players having quit during matches at Melbourne in 2003 and at Wimbledon in 2008.
The Association of Tennis Professionals said that the percentage of retirements on the men's tour overall had not increased this year, while there were significantly fewer withdrawals than in the past. "There's no question that the game has got more physical, but the health of our players has actually been pretty consistent over the past several years," a spokesman said.
Most of the early exits have been due to injury, but a number of players have also been affected by illness. Andy Murray is among those taking no chances by spending as little time as possible at the site.
"There have been a lot of players dropping out, which is a worry," Murray said. "You can take special tablets which boost your immune system and I'm doing that. You have to be careful as a lot of people have been getting sick and you want to stay away from it.
"I've been avoiding the locker rooms as much as possible. You don't want to be hanging about on site more than you need to and I've been trying to get out of the stadium just as soon as I can whenever I'm done."
Murray, who plays his second-round match today against the Dutchman Robin Haase, is feeling in good shape, particularly after embarking on a diet which cuts out cow's milk and gliadin, a protein found in wheat. "I'm having a lot more fish and vegetables and trying to have a more balanced diet rather than just the typical pasta before matches and steaks and chicken," he said. "I feel way better. I wake up at 7am now and feel great. Before I would wake up at 9.30 and feel terrible."
The world No 4's feel-good factor has been helped by a change of accommodation this year. "I stayed in this hotel before when I made the final in 2008," he said. "It's quieter and right beside Central Park. There are a couple of restaurants which we pretty much use the whole time."
Haase, Murray's opponent, has had his own physical problems. By the age of 20 the Dutchman had broken into the world's top 100, only for a serious knee injury to keep him out of the game for more than a year. This is the first season in which the 24-year-old has been a regular on the main ATP tour.
An attacking player, Haase took Rafael Nadal to five sets at Wimbledon last summer. He reached the third round at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year and won his first title last month on clay at Kitzbühel. He reached the semi-finals at Winston-Salem last week in his only warm-up tournament before the US Open.
The world No 41 is a contemporary of Murray's, but while the Scot went to Barcelona's Sanchez Casal academy the Dutchman stayed at school until he was 18. "That's why Andy got so quickly to the top," Haase said. "When I finished my school I started to play some Futures, when he was already something like No 50 in the world."
The two players have met only once before, when Haase won in straight sets in Rotterdam three years ago, the week after Murray had won a tournament in Marseille. "I think he was a little tired," Haase recalled. "If you win a title it's always tough to come back. I played good tennis, but he wasn't playing his best tennis. I took advantage of that and now I have to play for sure much better than I did then."
Murray said: "He's made life difficult for a lot of good players so I have to be ready. I've know him since the juniors, when I was 12 or 13. When I was that age the British team used to go over to Holland to play against their best kids.
"He's the same now as he was back then. He always hits the ball big and is unpredictable. He can be quite inconsistent, so that's what I will have to play on."
Haase added: "I'll definitely have to get my percentage of errors really low because he's not giving any errors most of the time. I will have to be healthy, that's also the first thing. I need to be fit and be there mentally for every point, because he's just not giving you anything."