Tennis is too tough for its stars

The ATP’s flagship event rolls into London this November with the preview shows and column inches dominated not by the attendees, but by the absentees. Injuries are par for the course in tennis and in sport, but the ever swelling injury list for the event must be of the upmost concern for the powers that be. Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and home favourite Andy Murray will be viewing the action from court side as they all recover from ailments that have seen them cut their season short. Injuries also leave substantial holes in the chasing pack as Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Tomas Berdych all miss out.

The gravity of the crisis was never more apparent than at August’s US Open in New York where the highest seed in the bottom half of the draw in the fourth round was 12th seed Pablo Carreno Busta: an area of the draw in which Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka habitually prowl.

“players’ off seasons are not spent on a far flung beach sipping cocktails”

The combination of the sheer volume of tournaments and lack of off season is taking a heavy toll on the sport’s biggest stars. With sixty-two tournaments on the calendar, and a brief off season at Christmas, the tour is relentless. Andy Murray’s 2016 schedule consisted of eighty-seven matches finishing on 20th November; he started his 2017 on 30th December. It is important to add that players’ off seasons are not spent on a far flung beach sipping cocktails. Rather, training blocks are completed to get up to speed for the Australian Open looming in January.

“The most indelible matches in the sport have been played over the five set format”

The issue of five set matches in Grand Slams still rumbles on in men’s tennis. Whilst, yes they are gruelling and unrelenting and without a doubt contribute heavily to wear and tear on the players’ bodies, they are the beating heart of the sport. Five set matches which progress deep into the night on outside courts with crowds straining every sinew to catch a glimpse – is tennis. Grand Slams need them, tennis needs them. The most indelible matches in the sport have been played over the five set format. The great Wimbledon finals of 2008 and 1980 featuring the Borg-McEnroe and Federer-Nadal rivalries produced a sprinkle of magic that their three set counter part would struggle to conjure.

The ATP have been proactive in improving player welfare. The heroic five hour battle between Nadal and Federer at the Rome Masters in 2006 triggered the ATP to abolish five set matches in the finals of ATP Masters 1000 events, as both players withdrew from a tournament in Hamburg the following week. The ATP announced in April a new radical format of the sport which will be trialled at November’s inaugural Next Gen Finals in Milan. Sets first to four games, sudden death deuce and no service lets will be introduced not only to make the game more attractive to a younger audience, but to reduce time players spend on court. The new laws are not for everyone, but to the ATP’s credit, the issue of burn-out has been highlighted and is being treated.

Currently on 63 consecutive Grand Slam appearances, No. 33 Feliciano Lopez looks set to break the king’s record when he competes in Oz, France and SW19 in 2018

As so often in the sport, Roger Federer sets the trends. For a player who has played on the circuit for nearly twenty years, the injury record of the Swiss is remarkable. Not only does his technique put minimal strain on his body but the management of his schedule has been exemplary. Admittedly his age has had a impact on his choice of tournaments but Federer also knows how to manage his body. After having being plagued by knee and back injuries during early 2016 Federer decided to end his season in July. A bold decision. A brilliant decision. Federer returned to the tour in 2017 revitalized and took his Grand Slam tally to nineteen. Many believe the number of players cutting their 2017 seasons short has been influenced by Federer’s hiatus. Well, if it works for Roger…

Luca O’Cleirigh

Images courtesy of  Kurt via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here. 

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