The Injury Plague of Tennis

Today, the tennis world was rocked by another ‘rest of the season’ withdrawal from one of the top seeds.  Former U.S Open finalist, Kei Nishikori, pulled the plug on the remainder of the season, citing a wrist injury sustained during practice.  While Kei Nishikori is known for being injury prone, he joins a sizable list of players currently on the sidelines, and is the third player – behind Novak Djokovic and Stanilas Wawrinka – to pull out of competition for the rest of the season.

The uptick in injuries is not new.  This has been a gradually growing trend that has gone largely unchecked for a number of years.  The only possible positive from the high number of tournament withdrawals and season ending announcements is that the ATP/WTA tours and the slams might start seriously considering a lasting solution.  To find that solution, we will have to take a closer look at the recent evolution of the game that brought about tennis’s injury plague.

In 2002 a unique and largely unprecedented Wimbledon final was played.  It involved two of the game’s then bright young stars – Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian.  The crowd would be treated to a baseline slug fest on grass.  There would be no screeching winners or blink and you miss it points.  This was a dragged out battle of patience and grit.  This was a long range battle that put a premium on the intelligent use of angles and spin.  Most of all, the battle favored the player with the stronger legs.  The SW 2002 final would feature exactly zero serve and volley points.  That final, ushered in the reign of a new brand of tennis.  The baseliner.

The reign of this breed of player was really no surprise.  The courts around the world were gradually slowing down and the reduced speed of the balls meant that baseline huggers could reach more shots and do more with the replies.  Eventually, up and coming tennis players were faced with two choices: rebel against the changing tides and risk a career of underachievement or join the movement.  Serve and volley was on one knee, but not knocked out yet.

Then came string and racket technology.  Modern rackets afforded players a larger sweet spot and were more forgiving – even encouraging – when players struck the ball with the racket outside of the sweet spot area.  The result was more control and more importantly, spin.  No one really delved into the theoretical limits of spin that could be imparted on the ball with these new rackets.  As players like Rafael Nadal have showed throughout their career, those revolutions can and do get up there.  The vicious top spin, allowed players to hit their shots harder, knowing they had a higher margin for error as the spin would bring the ball down before it whizzed past the baseline.  The serve and volley players were essentially sitting ducks at net.  Some of them – Roger Federer for example – got the memo and re-adapted their game to the new surface conditions and technology.  The end result was the same.  Serve and volley was dead and the baseline game was truly and well on its way.

To be fair, tennis profited immensely from this new style.  Pit the right players with just the right amount of contrasting styles against each other, and you had riveting matches filled with pulsating points and edge of your seat rallies punctuated with screaming shots that left you gasping for more.  This was tennis overdrive and the sporting world loved it.  Tournaments continually upped the prize monies for participating and for winning, driving the players to compete in more of them.  It wasn’t a matter of greed for the players, but a matter of necessity.  There is one fundamental fact about the baseline game.  It is very physical.  Baseliners by nature, do a whole lot more running than serve-volley players.  It isn’t just running though.  It’s developing the ability to stop and change directions on a dime.  It is about pushing your body’s form to its limits, twisting and contorting in almost superhuman ways – a feat that Djokovic has mastered – in order to reach a shot, and do something remotely tangible with it once your racket makes contact with the ball.  Most of all, it is about recovering from the grueling ordeal in time to come back for more of the same, barely twenty-four hours later.

To achieve all this, modern players need a team – dieticians, physicians, physiotherapists, trainers and many more health niche experts, are regular members of the top player’s entourage.  That top player, has to pay the hefty salaries of all these people.  That means more play to earn more.  If you are reading this and are beginning to see the pattern, good for you.  I will explicitly state it, regardless.  The evolution of our sport has led its athletes to perform at considerably higher and higher levels, consistently.  While it has made for gripping tennis, it is now clear that most of these athletes are approaching their physical limits.  Regardless of how advanced and sound the medical system has become, it cannot carry the human body through the extra mile or so beyond its evolutionary limits.  The result is usually a cataclysmic breakdown.  The examples are all around us.  Novak Djokovic.  Andy Murray.  Stanilas Wawrinka.  Roger Federer.  Kei Nishikori.  Juan Martin Del Potro.  Rafael Nadal.  Maria Sharapova.

Federer it appears, has discovered a stop – gap measure.  The long rest.  I call it a stop gap measure because while it – at least in the case of Federer – helps the player recover immensely, it denies the sport one of its stars for a considerable amount of time.  One could argue that there is a bright side to this as it gives the tennis world a glimpse of the up and coming players who seize the gap, but what happens when they too start getting injured?  The fact remains that there is an injury plague that needs to be addressed.

I believe the solution is in finding a balance.  It is a sigh of relief to see a few courts getting faster again.  I believe they can get faster still without sacrificing the baseline game  or the aggressive/S&V game.  The schedule also needs to be revisited.  There are too many tournaments in a season.  It is time to really think about the structuring of the schedule to allow reasonable break times and a clear off season.  The Australian Open always produces some of the highest levels of tennis you’ll see all year and there’s a reason for that.  Maybe similar break lengths can be worked into the season, leading up to the grand slams.  As for the money within the system, I truly have no answer.  It is disheartening to see players complain about not having enough of a break and showing up for million dollar appearance fees in November/December.  I do know one thing.  There’s too much money in the system.  The solution?  If you are a numbers guy, feel free to let me know.

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