Sunday, August 17, 2003

Bigger, faster, stronger, and hurt

Players trade grace for power, but many pay steep price with injuries

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MASON - Not even a quarter-century ago, professional tennis was a graceful game played by artistic shotmakers.

Now there is power. And pain. As the sport has become a blur of bullet serves and ferocious forehands, it has been beset by unavoidable attrition - hips, shoulders, wrists and backs bowing under the pounding absorbed in tennis' never-ending season.

"Tennis is much more violent now," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. "It's much tougher on the body, because the ball is being hit so hard.

"The injury rate is a big problem."

Over the years, strength training has given rise to a new breed of player. The current predominance is of "power baseliners" such as Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Fernando Gonzalez, who swing from their heels for hours.

Combinations of the increased power in the game, changes in racket technology, heavier balls, slower courts and the effects of sustained shotmaking have resulted in a gradual increase in the number of injuries.

What's most visible is when prominent names are affected.

"It's serious," Tennis Week columnist Richard Evans said. "Who wants to go into a sport where if you reach the top by the age of 25, you're in the hospital?

"It shouldn't be happening. The attrition rate on the body is obviously too much."

The lone statistic the ATP tracks is retirements/withdrawals. ATP Tour trainer Doug Spreen, a Terrace Park native, said those have accounted for about 3 1/2 percent of all singles and doubles matches this year and last. That's up from the annual average of about 2 1/2 percent.

Spreen, in his ninth year, said the most common injuries are to the back.

"That would only make sense, since guys are playing the game with more power," Spreen said. "Where you generate all your power from is from the middle of your body."

The sport was dominated in the mid-1990s by big-serving titans, so the International Tennis Federation and ATP made balls heavier in an effort to reduce the number of quick points caused by aces.

"I disagree with the method profusely," veteran player Todd Martin said last year. "The difference in the weight of the ball affects the amount of stress the arm absorbs."

Courts also have been slowed. The cumulative effect, if rallies that used to last just a few shots now last 10 or 12, might mean thousands more times hitting balls over the course of a year.

Today, light rackets enable players to blast away from the baseline, while the players add extra topspin to ensure the ball won't sail long. That style takes a toll.

"The whole thing is exacerbated by (using) the extreme grip that enables you to hit enormous topspin - which puts extra strain on the shoulder and elbow and wrist - and the torque of hitting open-stance forehands," Evans said.

The rankings system rewards players for playing as much as possible, so some try to endure despite nagging injuries. That can backfire.

"When you get the slightest injury, if you're off even 5 percent, you can't win out here," McEnroe said. "And you look at (Tommy) Haas - he was (No.) 3 in the world last year and tried to play through it. Then he needs surgery and he's out; he's paying for it."

The only way to handle injury concerns, McEnroe said, is to limit your schedule, making time for rest and conditioning. He said Andre Agassi's decision to withdraw from the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters, while unpopular, was probably best for Agassi.

Said Thomas Enqvist: "Every player has to take responsibility to know their body, how much they can play."

What change could help? Well, there's a movement worth watching. John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova headed a group of 35 mostly former players that wrote to the ITF last month, calling for smaller rackets.

The letter protested the demise of serve-and-volley tennis, saying the sport had become one-dimensional because of the wide-bodied rackets available today - with a larger "sweet spot," the part where maximum power can be attained. They recommend that the ITF reduce the width of rackets to 9 inches, from 12 1/2.

The corresponding theory is that if players abandon the baseline, they could finish points quickly at the net and save themselves wear and tear.

"We watch the statistics very closely," ATP Tour CEO Mark Miles said. "When you express that increase in injuries (in 2002-03) as a percentage of all matches played, it isn't huge. But it's important.

"If players are getting hurt more because of something that can be managed, then I think you have to look at it. If there is a trend, whether or not the racket head would be the appropriate treatment, I'm not sure."

Taking a toll

A quick look at whom the injury bug has bitten.

Price of No. 1

• Former No. 1s Gustavo Kuerten (hip) and Marcelo Rios (knee, back) haven't been able to get back to their previous form.

• Another former No. 1, Patrick Rafter, retired after constant shoulder problems.

• Yet another, Marat Safin, is out perhaps the rest of the year with a wrist injury.

Career disruption

Other players who have had their careers stall because of injury.

• Goran Ivanisevic (foot, shoulder)

• Tim Henman (shoulder)

• Thomas Enqvist (shoulder)

• Magnus Norman (hip)


• Tommy Haas (shoulder) and Thomas Johansson (knee) haven't played this year.

• Guillermo Canas (wrist) hasn't played since January.

Under the knife

• Kuerten, Norman and Harel Levy all had hip surgeries at age 25 or earlier.



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