Day of devastation at Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, England -- It was an onslaught that dramatically opened up both the men's and women's tournament and will likely heighten questions about the short length of the grass-court season.

Wednesday was marked not by the athletic splendor on the grass, but the startling number of players who were taken off it.

It started with John Isner, the top-ranked American in the draw, who retired with a knee injury just four minutes into the match. And then …

• (12:37 p.m.): Steve Darcis, who opened up the men's draw with a shocking first-round upset of Rafael Nadal, withdrew with a right shoulder injury.

•(12:52): Victoria Azarenka, the world No. 2, withdrew (right knee injury).

•(1:02): Radek Stepanek retired (left hamstring).

•(2:08): Marin Cilic withdrew (left knee).

•(4:37): Yaroslava Shvedova withdrew (right arm injury).

•(4:45): Jo-Wilfried Tsonga retired (left knee injury) down two sets to one.

In 46 years of Grand Slam tennis in the Open era, there has never been a day that saw such devastating attrition.

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

John Isner was only four minutes into his match when he hurt his knee.

It didn't count in the official tally, but No. 3 Maria Sharapova's loss to Michelle Larcher De Brito was colored by two nasty-looking falls on the slippery slope that was Court 2.

"This court is dangerous," an agitated Sharapova said to the chair umpire after one tumble.

Afterward, Sharapova took the high road with respect to the court conditions, but said, "I buckled my knee three times, that's obviously my first reaction," she said. "And because I've just never fallen that many times in a match before. Those are the conditions that are there for my opponent, as well. Just took a lot more falls than she did today."

De Brito agreed, saying, "These grass courts can be slippery and quite dangerous."

"I would say very black day," said Cilic, the men's 10th seed. "The other days, other weeks, there were no pullouts. I mean, just happened today everything.

"So difficult to say what's the explanation. But everything is related to individual. Difficult to say what the real issue is."

Suddenly, injuries and upsets have given the tournament a new shape. Azarenka was perhaps the only serious challenger to Serena Williams' title defense. She pulled out two days after crumpling to the grass in her opening match with Maria Joao Koehler, who also slipped on the grass and took a terrible fall. Leading 6-1, Azarenka writhed on the grass in the second game of the second set, but recovered to win 6-2. She received an MRI on her knee, which came back negative.

Azarenka's withdrawal was only the third time since 1968 and the first time since 1972 that a top-2 seed has withdrawn from a major midevent.

"I mean, my opponent fell twice," Azarenka said. "I fell badly. There were some other people who fell after. So I don't know if it's the court or the weather. I can't figure it out it. Would be great if the club or somebody who takes care of the court just would examine or try to find an issue so that wouldn't happen."

All this, a day after Philipp Kohlschreiber retired in the fifth set against Ivan Dodig, while Argentina's Guido Pella was taken off the court on a stretcher after a nasty fall.

World No. 4 David Ferrer is still alive in the tournament, but fell hard twice on Centre Court in his first-round match with Argentine Martin Alund. Ferrer won in four sets, but he is nursing a left ankle injury.

"Obviously, we missed something," Azarenka's coach, Sam Sumyk, said. "She can walk; she can get out of bed, but she cannot do the things she needs to do. It's actually gotten worse. It's always a shame in any tournament, but maybe more disappointing in a Grand Slam."

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Victoria Azarenka was not happy at all about the playing conditions Wednesday.

The U.S., which hasn't had an American man win a major in a decade, saw its best hope quickly fade when Isner -- whose chances of making a quarterfinal run improved dramatically when Nadal lost -- retired 14 minutes into his second-round match against Frenchman Adrian Mannarino because of a left knee injury.

Serving at 40-0 in the first game, Isner appeared to land awkwardly on his left knee after a 114 mph serve that went unreturned. Isner, who withdrew earlier this year from the Australian Open with a right knee injury, returned Mannarino's subsequent first serve wide and immediately walked to his chair.

After a nearly 10-minute medical timeout, Isner returned to the court, his left knee taped, and did not attempt to return an 89 mph serve that bounced to his left for an ace. At 40-15, he let a Mannarino return land at his feet well inside the baseline and looked up at his box and shook his head, a clear sign he was seriously injured. Isner served one ball at 1-1 and walked off the court, ending his tournament.

"Third point of the match, I didn't do anything different. I just go to serve, and I think it was as I landed," Isner said. "You know I always serve and land on my left leg, like I have done 20 million times playing this game, and this is the first time I just felt this, like, sharp pain. It wasn't like a pop, wasn't like you hear athletes, like 'Oh crap, I feel like I heard it pop.'

"There wasn't anything. It didn't pop. It just grabbed like really badly, and I knew I was in serious trouble then. I knew at that point it was not likely I was going to be able to play."

Three days into this Wimbledon, four American men remain in the draw: James Blake, who beat Thiemo de Bakker of the Netherlands, Bobby Reynolds, who beat fellow American Steve Johnson, Rajeev Ram and Denis Kudla. But Isner was the one with the best opportunity to make a real run into the second week.

Recently, injuries have ravaged the top shelf of American men's tennis. Mardy Fish, who finished 2011 as the world No. 8, has returned to tour sparingly after revealing a heart irregularity and has played only two matches this year.

Brian Baker, who returned last year from several debilitating injuries that cost him nearly six years of his career, tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee in the second round of the Australian Open against Sam Querrey.

Then there was Andy Roddick, the last American to win a Grand Slam tournament, who stepped away from the game after losing last year at the US Open to Juan Martin del Potro, when a shoulder injury did not heal well enough for him to continue his career.

Isner's quick exit is quite an ironic contrast to the Wimbledon moment that made him famous in 2010 against another Frenchman, Nicolas Mahut. Isner was on the court 11 hours, 1 minute less on Wednesday than in that 70-68 fifth-set marathon.

CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images

Something was clearly wrong with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after the first set.

Other players, including Novak Djokovic, suffered hard falls in their opening matches. Slippery grass is commonplace over the first days of a tournament, until it becomes more worn through play, but the instances here appear to have had greater consequences.

So what is going on?

"It's hard to explain. It's true it seems to be more than usual," Sumyk said. "For us, it happens on the first day. It's awesome grass. But with the humidity, it is very slippery out there."

However, one explanation is that Wimbledon, played just two weeks after the French Open, does not give players enough time to train and find comfort on grass. In 2015, an extra week has already been scheduled between the two tournaments.

Another possibility? England has had one of the worst springs on record, in terms of rain and cold. The courts could be retaining more water than usual.

And then there is the Olympic question. Did replacing the grass an unprecedented two times in a single summer last year have something to do with this?

Richard Lewis, the chief executive of the All England Club, issued the following statement:

"There has been a high number of withdrawals at The Championships today and we sympathize with all the players affected. The withdrawals have occurred for a variety of reasons, but there has been some suggestion that the court surface is to blame. We have no reason to think this is the case. Indeed, many players have complimented us on the very good condition of the courts.

"The court preparation has been to exactly the same meticulous standard as in previous years and it is well known that grass surfaces tend to be more lush at the start of an event. The factual evidence, which is independently checked, is that the courts are almost identical to last year, as dry and firm as they should be, and we expect them to continue to play to their usual high quality."

While other players have not taken kindly to the conditions, Cilic backed the club, saying he didn't detect any major differences in surface except that, "It's a bit quicker conditions this year than last year."

Nonetheless, if the first three days of the tournament were highlighted by Nadal's loss, it was also marred by the number of players losing their footing on the grass.

Tsonga, though, was an interesting case. He came to Wimbledon with a knee injury and did not blame the courts.

"There is nothing about this court," he said. "They great."

But then he added, "For myself, the weather is not that good to play tennis because it's cold outside, and it's humid. And I think for all the joint, it's not really good."

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