MELBOURNE—Oh Rafa, you stole my opening line. As the highly anticipated Australian Open gets underway, there is a very large elephant in the locker room.
“There are too many injuries on the tour,” said Rafael Nadal, the tournament's No. 1 seed, voicing the problem in the most succinct fashion.
Elaborating, the man who has battled knee problems throughout his long career went on.
“I am not the one to say but somebody should have to look about what’s going on. When something is happening too often, (there is) something we are not doing well. I am not saying what to do. I am just playing tennis. But something is happening, you have to analyze why.”
The strings, balls and courts—that should be the focus of the analysis, coupled with the players’ schedules. It is no coincidence that Roger Federer is the fittest of the top title contenders here. The 36-year-old played a very canny schedule last year, opting out of the entire clay-court season and ending up with two Grand Slam titles.
I am loathe to emphasize the negative when previewing what promises to be a fascinating Australian Open, but this injury problem won’t go away, and it keeps getting worse. There was justification for calling it a crisis from the moment five of the ATP Top 10 quit for the year on the eve of the US Open in August. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic all listened to sound advice and decided to give their ailing bodies a break until 2018. The game cannot stand that attrition rate, but it will only get worse unless something is done about it.
So what to do? Limiting the effectiveness of strings might take the game from playing courts into courts of law, but there is no reason why surfaces—especially indoors—should not be made faster and balls lighter. Both would help to limit the length of rallies. And we might actually see players volleying. That wouldn’t phase Canada’s precocious teenage talent Denis Shapovalov. “I enjoy it at the net,” he told me.
Few people live with the problem at closer quarters than the British physio Jez Green, who built Murray into the physical specimen he became and is now tasked with the job of putting some meat onto Alexander Zverev’s lean frame.
We chatted at the ATP Finals in London a few weeks ago and Green highlighted a very basic fact: “The human body was not designed to play tennis.”
“It was designed to run very fast in a straight line," Green went on. "It was not supposed to run laterally for three hours, stamping one’s foot down on a hard surface and pivoting before pushing off at speed. The ligaments take a terrible beating. The same is true for the shoulder and wrist which have to take the strain of players serving at 130 m.p.h. and pounding the ball off the ground as they turn the wrist to generate top spin.”
“Basically,” Green added, “the top players have become too good for the power they can generate with the equipment they use. A few years ago–certainly before the Big Banger strings were introduced–no one could sustain 25 to 30 stroke rallies hitting the ball with such power.”
Ivan Lendl, who set new standards for fitness and power hitting in the 1980s, was in agreement. “It’s the strings,” he said. “They enable you to produce rallies that kills the body.”
This has got to be addressed. All the game’s leaders need to need to put aside political affiliations and do what is right for the sport and its players. The elephant has got to be recognized.
Under the circumstances, it is amazing that only two of those top players, Murray and Nishikori, are unable to play in Melbourne. But it was touch and go whether Nadal, Wawrinka and Djokovic would take the court, and no one really knows how long they will survive. On the healthier side are Federer, 36, and an in-form Grigor Dimitrov, who has never reached a Grand Slam final. Ant of these players could win the tournament; they could also go out early. So it offers the opportunity to move the focus onto the next generation of players, many of whom played in the exploratory NextGen tournament in Milan last fall.
Zverev and Nick Kyrgios were not in Milan, and although they would appear to be the two most likely young talents to do something substantial in Melbourne; their Grand Slam records to date don't reflect their vast potential. Kyrgios, who clearly has the talent to win anything, has only made a Grand Slam quarterfinal twice in five years, but he seems happier within himself lately, and the results are beginning to how. Winning Brisbane over Dimitrov with all of the home Aussie support should have been a big boost to his confidence. He certainly has a Grand Slam title within his reach and it could come this year—even this month.
Zverev, who turns 21 in April, has not even reached the last eight of a Slam after ten tries. That streak will not last. The German won five ATP titles, including the Rome Masters on clay, the Montreal Masters on hard courts—along with an appearance in the final of Halle on grass to highlight his versatility. The talent is there, we're just waiting for the next step. Zverev, the No. 4 seed, plays Italy’s Thomas Fabbiano in the first round and is in the same half as Austria’s Dominic Thiem, seeded fifth.
The draw has not been kind to three of the youngsters who should be enhancing their reputations as the year unfolds. The powerful Korean Hyeon Chung, who crushed some of his contemporaries on his way to the NextGen title in Milan, has to play the older Zverev—Mischa—in the first round. It was Mischa, remember, who served and volleyed Murray off court in the fourth round here last year.
Should he win, Chung will have to play the winner of Daniil Medvedev, the articulate Russian with the smooth game, or Thanasi Kokkinakis, the Australian who, hopefully, has put his injuries behind him. There are those in Australian tennis who once touted Kokkinakis as a better prospect than Kyrgios before injury struck. And Australia may have discovered a third contender for the big time in Alex di Minaur, who has been given a wild card on the basis of excellent performances in recent weeks. He opens against No. 19 seed Tomas Berdych.
The changing of the guard becomes noticeable when David Ferrer, a permanent member of the Top 10 from 2010 to 2015, plays here unseeded and, in the first round, will face 20-year-old Andrey Rublev, a US Open quarterfinalist last year who is seeded No. 30. Along with Medvedev, Rublev is the future of Russian tennis.
Canadian tennis is positively aglow with promise, and Shapovalov is just the most eye-catching member of what appears to be a golden generation. Shapovalov beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on his way to the fourth round of last year's US Open and will play fellow teenager Stefanos Tstitsipas, who has the potential to become the best Greek player of all time, in the first round.
America also has young players of promise, but two of them will have to play above themselves to survive the first round. Jared Donaldson plays the No. 21 seed, Albert Ramos Vinolas of Spain, while Frances Tiafoe plays former US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro.
Youth intrigues—perhaps more so than ever given the physical state of many veterans. But the tournament could very well end like it did last year, with two of the great, older guard. Federer probably has a tougher path to the final than Nadal. The defending champion may have to contend with David Goffin, who finished last season so strongly, in the quarterfinals. There are also the likes of Fabio Fognini, Tomas Berdych, del Potro, Sam Querrey and Raonic who could block his path. Thiem or the younger Zverev are his most likely semifinal opponents.
Tennis fans will be hoping Nadal and Federer can meet in another final and re-create the excitement of last year’s classic, when the Swiss turned the match around from 1-3 down in the fifth set. It would be something of a miracle, but these two have been flirting with those for years.