Rafael Nadal: back, Novak Djokovic: wrist, David Ferrer: adductors, Juan Martin del Potro: wrist, Richard Gasquet: back, Milos Raonic: foot... Supposed to be protected thanks to their status of Top 10 players (no monetary pressure, exemptions from first rounds...), most of the best tennis players in the world already have a very full health record after only four months of competition in 2014. How is this cascade of injuries possible? Explanation in three sets... as as many responsible.
1 / The calendar: it has never been so heavy
A clarification first: yes, the best players play generally fewer games than their twentieth century counterparts. But one fact remains: the Men’s season begins in January with a top notch tournament, the Australian Open and ends with a bang in November, at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals or in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. Unlike other individual sports, the ATP therefore never really takes breaks, and the word "season" doesn’t ultimately mean much as the interval from one year to another is so small. Instead, the introduction of a mandatory criterion to participate to Masters 1000 tournaments during the last decade has contributed to multiply top-level events throughout the year. Four Grand Slam tournaments, a World Tour Final at the end of the year, nine Masters 1000 (although Monte Carlo lost his compulsory nature in 2009) and two ATP 500: with many constraints, the timing of those gentlemen has never been so heavy, and real rest breaks so small.
A reform decided by the ATP in order to reinforce the masters in front of monuments such as Grand Slams, which radically changed the appearance of the season: the players are no longer free to set a schedule at their convenience, to preserve a few breaks, to avoid a hated surface, to focus on their own countries (or continent) rather than travel endlessly all around the world... It may have made the prosperity of Masters 1000, assuring them great matches between great tennis stars, but it also impoverished the ATP 250, which now have to be resourceful to attract the best... when they are not out, trying to heal their injuries.
For smaller tournaments were a preparation, a build-up or a field of experimentation for bigger deadlines, the stakes for current champions are quite different in Masters 1000, where they multiply matches with their direct rivals for Grand Slam victory. The fight at the top no longer has downtimes. Players must be prepared, always be the “good boys”: "only" a dozen tournaments imposed upon the agenda of tennis stars? Sure, but a dozen places to be full on, all the time, where an average level of play is not enough.
With the adoption of a calendar much more rigid than it was in the past, players simply have lost the freedom to listen to their body. But the idea of going back is making its way little by little: « There are things that we need to reconsider, that must be discussed with the players who are essentials, but also with the ATP, said the Open 13 director, Jean-François Caujolle in February, before the cascade of withdrawals from top 10 players who were supposed to play the Marseille tournament. I can’t see any other solutions that the revision of the classification system, of the players’ obligations. We must free the circuit, players should be free to play where they want, when they want. We must open the ranking. »
2 / The game: it has never been so challenging
This seems all the more essential since tennis has never been so physically demanding than it is nowadays, the game has been hardened in last ten years by making the surfaces slower and using miraculous stringings that prolong the rallies while condoning late placement and aiming errors... Richard Berger, the surgeon who has just operated Juan Martin del Potro’s wrist has a strong opinion on the matter: « I think that we can say that all very high level athletes will experience, at one time or another in their career, injuries which will be severe enough to keep them away from the courts for an extended period. Not that their elders were better prepared than them, but I think that the intensity requested in the exercise of their discipline requires current players to have superhuman abilities.»
Increasingly used to see tennis players with ligaments or tendons in distress, the surgeon, who treated the same injury for the English Laura Robson continues: "The body has to absorb a supersonic ball impact and its added effects such as the topspin. At each touch, the energy transfer can be felt inside the whole body: legs, spine, arm, forearm, wrist... At some point, the structural integrity of one of these body parts has to be at risk, a point when the tissues can’t keep up. This is when the injury occurs. »
Twenty years ago, Goran Prpic who was playing with a huge kneepad looked like Elephant Man. Today, nobody is surprised to see many players - and not the oldest or the most brutal (think of Agnieszka Radwanska) play an entire season with multiple straps to the shoulder, thigh... Some, like Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal, even officially said that their careers will be at the expense of their own health, interspersed with periods of interruption that would, on aggregate be more than months, but rather years...
3 / The players: they don’t know when to stop
It was a long time ago since Jimmy Connors or Pete Sampras weren’t hesitating to take a little break once they felt the need, by physical or moral fatigue. The current champions bear their responsibility in this accumulation of injuries at the top of the pyramid: despite prize money constantly increasing and advertising contracts making them free from want, the fear of financial and accounting fines (a zero in the calculation of their ATP points, which is like a bad transcript at school) as a punishment for an unjustified absence at a mandatory tournament, is often stronger.
There are few Swiss watches attentive to their bodies, such as Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, who maintain consistent schedules with mandatory breaks... and are rewarded for this thoughtfulness by the absence of serious injuries throughout their careers. Since January, Rafael Nadal for example, has already played seven more matches than Wawrinka (30 against 23), even though he has to deal with persistent discomfort in his back... Like the Spaniard, most of the elite has opted to push themselves to the limit, using (and abusing?) of anti-inflammatory injections... until the day where overdoing will be too much for their bodies.
Masochism? From the outside, it surely looks like it. But we must understand how the injury has become something fully accepted by players. It is part of their lives. Such as training or a strict diet, pain is part of their life. Rafael Nadal puts very accurate words on the acceptance of this premature physical deterioration: « playing sports is a good thing for ordinary people; sport played at the professional level is not good for your health. It pushes your body to limits that human beings are not naturally equipped to handle. That's why just about every top professional athlete has been laid low by injury, sometimes a career-ending injury. There was a moment in my career when I seriously wondered whether I'd be able to continue competing at the top level. I play through pain much of the time, but I think all elite sports people do. We have to learn to live with pain, and long breaks from the game, because a foot, a shoulder, or a leg has sent a cry to help to the brain, asking it to stop. »
An ode to fatalism, then. The body has to adjust to the requirements of its owner, and not the contrary. Used to dealing with injury, a tennis player finally consider his body as a tool like any other, which you can torture, knead, push to the limits... in the image of a driver on his computer screen. The body of tennis player is just seen as some high precision mechanics... but where the mechanic no longer listens to the signs of overheating.