THE men’s singles competition at this year’s US Open has never felt more like a battle to be the last man standing. A bit like the tennis equivalent to the brutal ending to The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s ultra violent western, every time you look a top tennis player is biting the dust with an injured limb, one less gunslinger to be factored into this grimly fascinating survival of the fittest.

Andy Murray was just the latest to withdraw, having to admit defeat in his battle to recover from the hip injury that flared up so spectacularly during his five set quarter-final defeat by Sam Querrey at Wimbledon.

He joins a long list of absentees. Novak Djokovic is out for the remainder of the season with an elbow problem. Defending champion Stan Wawrinka, out for the rest of the campaign with a knee problem. Milos Raonic, sorry, bad wrist. Kei Nishikori, likewise.

Loading article content

Even those who retained a serious interest in the contest when the first round draw was made in New York on Friday are nursing the odd war wound or two.  Marin Cilic, the champion here in 2014, might have fought off the blister which dogged him during the SW19 final but he hasn’t played since either due to an adductor strain.

And for once Roger Federer, the 36-year-old whose efficiency from his limited tournament play during this remarkable year has been nothing short a masterpiece, hasn’t been immune either. The 19-time Grand Slam winner tweaked something in his back when losing to Alexander Zverev in the final of Montreal and subsequently pulled out of the Cincinnati Masters. Of the really big hitters in the draw, Rafa Nadal - proudly back at the summit of the sport - is the one man who goes in without requiring a doctor’s line, and it was only a year ago that the infirmity of the Mallorcan’s knees was threatening to make him an irrelevance at the majors.

So why is this all happening? And is it time for drastic remedial action to be considered to sure that more of the best players are able to take part in more of the bigger events, more of the time?

If the answer to the first question is an amalgam of harder training and playing schedules, modern racket technology which allows players to hit harder than ever and the gruelling nature of hard court play, the solution to the second might required some radical thinking.

The US Open is rarely shy when it comes to innovation in tennis. Already this year the qualifying competition has showcased a 25-second shot clock to focus the server’s mind between points, and allowed coaching from the players’ box. Both have generally been well received - particularly the coaching change which levels the playing field considering so many coaches go unchecked when they bark out incessant instructions in foreign languages anyway - and both could be introduced in the main draw here in 12 months’ time.

But rather than rail against the unfairness of equal prize money in a sport where the top male players are on court far longer, has the time to come to go the other way, and limit men’s Grand Slam matches to best of three sets? It is an idea which has been around for years, but the natural wastage of the field at Flushing Meadows makes the notion more pertinent than ever.

“I think we should look at it for sure,” said Patrick McEnroe, speaking on behalf of ESPN.co.uk. “The event that I point to on the men’s side is the Olympics, when they played the Olympics at Wimbledon, right? That was an amazing tournament, and who was in the final four of the tournament? Murray, Djokovic, Federer, and [Juan Martin] Del Potro, okay. Obviously some epic matches have been five sets. We know that. But there’s also been epic matches when it was just best of three, and we had one of the big four in the finals of 42 consecutive Masters events. So the best players will still win.”

His fellow pundit Brad Gilbert takes an alternative view. “I’m adamantly against ever changing it from five because I think that’s what sets the men’s game apart and makes it absolutely great,” he added. “In no way, shape or form want to see any change ever to best of five except for I would be totally cool with all four of the majors going to a tiebreaker in the fifth. Then one way to make the matches shorter, I think, would be to go to no-ad scoring.”

“As long as I’ve been playing, and I’ve been involved in the game 37 years, there’s always been injuries,” added Gilbert. “But guys are training way harder. They’re doing everything they can. And obviously with the poly strings now, guys are able to hit the ball harder, so maybe that bleeds into some wrist issues that we have had. But there’s no foolproof whatever you do. Djokovic hasn’t missed a Slam in umpteen years. Stan’s been very healthy. Nishikori and Raonic get hurt a lot, but it’s just unfortunate that a lot of them have piled up coming into this US Open.”