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Precautionary withdrawals creating more and more headaches on tour

Top-ranked Serena Williams was 15 games into her 2016 campaign when she had to pull the plug on her debut, retiring with an inflamed knee during her Hopman Cup exhibition match -- one in which she was trailing Jarmila Wolfe 7-5, 2-1.

That was disappointing. But at least Williams got a few licks in, which is more than you can say for another marquee name, No. 3 Maria Sharapova. The defending champion in Brisbane, Sharapova pulled out of her first tournament of 2016 with a sore left forearm.

An hour didn't go by before Sharapova was followed out the door by Brisbane's top-seed, No. 2 Simona Halep, who complained of a tender left Achilles tendon. She told the media, "I thought I was ready, but I can't do a full match."

Judging from this rash of withdrawals, you might be under the impression that the women pros did not have the luxury of an offseason as the tour wound down in 2015.

In a way, that impression would be accurate.

Granted, Williams is 34 years old. She had a grueling 2015, and has some history with her ailing left knee. But did she really have to play those International Premier Tennis League matches halfway round the world from her home, during her time off? Sharapova also played those IPTL exhibitions, as well as hosting her own eponymous exhibition in Los Angeles.

But the proliferation of events that leads celebrity players to keep their bags packed and their physios on speed-dial are only half of the equation. The other half is a tour infrastructure that's become so remunerative for top players that they can afford to withdraw from smaller tournaments in order to safeguard their chances in upcoming, major events.

The pullouts of Sharapova and Halep are pretty good examples of these "precautionary" withdrawals. It's a category of default that didn't really exist, or at any rate did not have a name, until the recent past. But in recent years, it's become a regular feature on the WTA Tour, and it keeps tournament directors up at night.

In some ways, the banged-up state of the WTA's top stars vividly illustrates how the law of unintended consequences works. In 2009, the WTA adopted a much-publicized "Road Map." It was essentially a comprehensive restructuring of the tour with two goals: to create a two-month offseason (in response to an alarming uptick in injuries and withdrawals) and to make room for a sensible Asian swing to accommodate the emerging market there.

Ironically, it was the Asian market this fall that was hit hardest of all by the WTA withdrawals (by contrast, the ATP events fared well). Yet the early winter IPTL season in Asia -- featuring, among others, Serena Williams and Sharapova -- was deemed a rousing success.

Presenting the women with a longer offseason has opened up a whole new world of extra-tournament opportunities for them. And it has certainly opened up Asia, but not in the way most expected.

Even the WTA has come to understand this at the institutional level. Hence the mini-tour it now promotes for emerging players after the year officially ends with the WTA Championships.

As things stand, the top players are then free to pursue their own desires over the final two months of the year. Meanwhile, lesser lights have a nice little old-school November tour on which they can sweat and grunt and earn ranking points.

Most of the women on that minor tour won't suffer injury. They can't afford to. That seems a prerogative of the stars these days.