Is it necessary to suffer to succeed in tennis?

Oct 4, 2013, 12:00:00 AM

Is it necessary to suffer to succeed in tennis?
When Marion Bartoli unexpectedly announced that she was ending her tennis career in the summer, it was to stop the daily sufferings that she had to endure when playing tennis at the highest level. Special case or systemic problem?

When Marion Bartoli, last Wimbledon champion to date, unexpectedly announced that she was ending her tennis career in the summer, it was, according to her, to stop the daily sufferings that she had to endure when playing tennis at the highest level. Special case or systemic problem?


Marion Bartoli’s early retirement came up as a surprise. Because the announcement was sudden and unexpected. Because she had just won her first Grand Slam at Wimbledon. Because she had never seemed so strong and confident. Because she was only 28 years old. And finally, because the number one argument given by the player to justify her decision was: "My body is falling apart." Falling apart? How? Because of her almost-barbaric training sessions with her father/coach, the intensity of the matches and the gruelling seasons. According to her, the notion of pleasure had completely disappeared, giving way to a painful, way too intrusive and ultimately unsustainable life. High-level tennis isn’t a game anymore, not even a job, but a form of torture that the player has to endure, inherent requisite to success. « It's a daily job for which your body is your tool, says the former player and consultant Julien Varlet. To win, you have to make sure that you can master this tool at 100% or 150%, but you also need to consider its specificities. Some have a fragile hip, others a bad back or knees. Suffering, it happens, to everyone, at one time or another in the career.» Besides, the French isn’t the only one who left the tour abruptly evoking the same reasons. Before her, the Belgians Kim Clijsters and especially Justine Henin recognized when they retired that they were no longer able to withstand the intense off-competition workload and the predominance of the physical aspect for the players in the Top 10. At the end of the U.S. Open, the Belgian Xavier Malisse, 33, admitted that he wasn’t far from doing the same: « It’s starting to be hard for me. Everything hurts when I play, the thumb, the toe. I give everything, but I can't do that all year round. [...] I'm still willing to get up in the morning to work on my physical condition, but after an hour, I just can't do it anymore.» Clearly, this provides food for thought.


The paradox: the roaring thirtysomethings


"And yet, there has never been as many successful thirtysomethings on the tour" says former French DTN Patrice Hagelauer, who rightly raises the following paradox: if it's necessary to suffer and over train to succeed in tennis, why has Serena Williams never been as strong than at 32 years old? Why can Roger Federer still compete with the best at the same age? Why did Tommy Haas came back to his best form at 35? Of course, players enter the professional tour later than they used to, but it can't be the only explanation. « Personally, I think that the training sessions are not as hard as they used to be, or at least, they’ve become more intelligent because more targeted, according to Hagelauer. The time when we had to pump tons of iron is long gone." An opinion shared by Julien Varlet: "Today, for example, the players have to run much less than they used to and they cycle much more, which allows to work the land better while preserving the joints." The ATP and WTA tours have also professionalised, providing the players with the continuous presence of a full staff of physical therapists, physical trainers and nutritionists. The risk of "breaking down" is then inevitably reduced.


Listening to your body better to suffer less


What about the intensity of a season, then? Is it too hard? Is it too painful in the long run? "But the pace of a season, it's the player who inflicts it to himself, refutes Nathalie Tauziat, who now works with the Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, World 46th. Before she abruptly ended her career, Marion (Bartoli, ed) was one of the players who were playing the most tournaments in the year, almost 30. Her agenda was perhaps too heavy..." For Patrice Hagelauer it seems obvious too: "Marion might have gone a bit too far. Just like Justine Henin, whose morphology was, originally, not made for high-level sport and who had to indulge in colossal work sessions to dominate her opponents. But it remains special cases." Therefore, there wouldn’t be a general problem of suffering in tennis but rather special cases of players with a physical disadvantage to play at the highest level, who have to compensate for their original physical weakness by overtraining. According to Julien Varlet: "You have to listen to your body and adjust training sessions accordingly. This is also why there is so many players in their thirties who are still performing: they are more mature and they know how to manage their efforts better over the season."


The injury, a welcome break


Because playing too much inevitably means risking an injury that would keep you away from the courts for several weeks or months. An episode of course often resented by the player(s) but which may eventually proves to be a blessing in disguise according to our specialists. "Many players play better after an injury and a long absence: look at Nadal's come back this year, he has never seemed so strong, so motivated" says Patrice Hagelauer. Not surprising for Julien Varlet, because "as in any business, tennis players need to take breaks. Otherwise, you get stuck in all sorts of ruts. This is where the daily trainings and travels around the world can be considered as painful." A break under duress could therefore be very welcome. "In the case of Marion, if I had been her coach, I would have recommended to skip the U.S. Open, take a vacation and come back fresh the next year" says our consultant, for whom the suffering invoked by the French seemed finally more mental than purely physical.


By Régis Delanoë