Why are many tennis stars battling injuries?

Published - September 02, 2017 08:58 pm IST

Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka ices his knee during a break in his men's singles match against Russia's Daniil Medvedev, on the opening day at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, in London.

Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka ices his knee during a break in his men's singles match against Russia's Daniil Medvedev, on the opening day at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, in London.

Why are top seeds out of U.S. Open?

In most sports, an injury or two to a player aged over 30 doesn’t evoke a collective disbelief. But tennis seems to be different. With a number of top stars in their thirties and playing well, the presence of just six of the top 11 ranked men in the world in the ongoing U.S. Open has surprised many. Novak Djokovic (elbow), Stan Wawrinka (knee), Kei Nishikori (wrist), Milos Raonic (wrist) and Andy Murray (hip) have all withdrawn. Such a depleted men’s field at Flushing Meadows was last seen way back in 1996 and even then, seven of the top 10 were on court. This year, several top players bowed out in the first few days itself, including A. Zverev (no. 4), Grigor Dimitrov (no. 7), Nick Kyrgios (no. 14) and Tomas Berdych (no. 15).

Is this a case of too much tennis?

Stephanie Kovalchik, a data scientist at Tennis Australia, thinks so. She used a term ‘game age,’ which was defined as the total number of games played up to a certain age. Players were split by their generation into five year groups, according to the first year they played a professional match in. Before 1990, players were mostly above 30 years when they reached 10,000 games. For the 1990 to 1994 generation, it was 28, for 1995 to 2004, it became 27, and for 2005-2009, it dropped to 26. If you had noticed these numbers prior to the U.S. Open, it would have been a paradox. Perhaps not anymore.

Does scheduling have an impact?

Tennis off-season is pretty much non-existent. Most players, including Roger Federer, now world No. 3, and Alexander Zverev last year, have had to shut down their seasons early to find time. It is inevitable that tournaments will be shoehorned in a global sport like tennis. But it helps no one that of the nine Masters 1000 events, eight are mandatory. Six of these are held in back-to-back weeks.

This commitment can be reduced by one tournament for passing each of the following milestones: 600 matches, 12 years of play and 30 years of age; a threshold so high not even a handful can reach. A host of ATP 250s and 500s are also crammed in, encouraging excessive play. There are multiple rounds of Davis Cup too and this year will see the debut of Laver Cup, the tennis equivalent of golf’s Ryder Cup. Murray went on a bull-run late last year, playing every tournament possible. It got him to world No. 1 and also to his present dysfunctional state.

Have playing styles led to injuries?

Modern-day tennis puts a premium on strokes loaded with heavy topspin. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi used to produce 1,800 ball revolutions per minute off their forehands. Federer’s is at 2,500 and Rafael Nadal’s average is 3,200. Players also use an open stance (Juan Martin del Potro) as opposed to side-on (Marat Safin). To execute a topspin-heavy aggressive ground-stroke with an open stance, it’s the forearm and wrist which generate power.

According to kinesiology experts, the shoulder, used in a side-on stance, can withstand more wear and tear as it is the bigger joint. It is no surprise then that Nishikori, Djokovic and Raonic now, and Nadal and del Potro in the past, have all suffered arm-related injuries.

Are remedial steps being taken?

There's nothing concrete yet, but quite a few targets are being lined up. Truncating a best-of-five sets match is one. But nothing may come out of it, considering that it exists only at the Majors (and Davis Cup) and even there players have a day’s rest between matches. The rolling 52-week ATP ranking system, which penalises players if they don’t better previous years’ performance in the same week, is a burden. Finally, there is prize money. At the U.S. Open, a first-round loser in singles takes home $50,000, which incentivises a player to enter even if it requires playing through pain. At Wimbledon this year, there were 15 retirements (men and women), an Open Era record. Should retaining prize money for injured players and giving their spots to lucky losers be considered?

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