Richard Evans: What Is Causing All These Player Injuries?

We saw how hard you need to hit the ball; how far you have to run and stretch and how long it takes to reach a goal like the semi-final of the US Open as Kevin Anderson and Sam Querrey battled on into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Anderson, South African-born, Illinois educated and now a resident of Delray Beach, Florida, upset his more fancied opponent in a three and a half hour duel that provided riveting entertainment. The victory took Anderson into his first ever Grand Slam semi-final where he was due to meet Pablo Carreno Busta, the 26-year-old Spaniard who is also treading new ground at this level.

Good for them. They saw the opening in a half of the draw that would normally have been occupied by two members of the all conquering Top4 and they grabbed it. If Carreno Busta can be considered a little lucky to have faced four qualifiers in the first four rounds, so be it. You can only play the guy in front of you and win. That’s what Pablo did and looked a very sound performer while doing it.

However, it is no good pretending that the absence of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, along with Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori presents anything but a huge problem for the game. With Murray now intimating that he has hit his last ball this year, the ATP tour is faced with the unpalatable fact that five members of the top ten have been unable to last past August. It is possible we might see Raonic again but the other four have said good bye to 2017, realizing that complete rest is the best option if their bodies are ever going to be able to handle the physical demands of the modern game.

Is this sustainable? Can we go on having the game’s top stars unable to survive through a full season? Look at the facts. Apart from the five who have already pulled out, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were in the same position this time last year as, indeed, was Anderson who had to take a long time out through injury. The attrition rate is simply too high.

Solutions are needed and band aids will not do. A thorough assessment of the equipment players use and the courts they play on is required. There is little doubt that surfaces and strings are the two major culprits. “The strings we use today are a nightmare,” says Ivan Lendl whose radical fitness regime took the game to new levels of physicality when he was winning Grand Slam titles in the 1980’s.

Today Lendl is closely involved with the game, not only as Andy Murray’s coach but also in his role at the new USTA training headquarters at Orlando, Florida where he spends 60 days a year coaching teenage squads. “The synthetic strings enable you to get maybe half as much extra work on the ball as the spaghetti strings which were banned after Ilie Nastase beat Guillermo Vilas using them because the spin you could generate was so ridiculous. Not many people realize that because they look just the same as gut or anything else. But the effect they have on how we play the game is enormous. The ball moves so much in the air, you just can’t get in to the net because it is so difficult to judge the dip. So players stay back and engage in these long rallies, hitting each ball a ton and killing themselves.”

Engaging in those rallies on clay is one thing but hardcourts magnify the problem. Lendl thinks the synthetic indoor surfaces are even worse than outdoors. “On the courts here at the US Open and elsewhere, the smoothness of the surfaces allows your foot to move a bit on impact. Indoors, you put your foot down and its sticks, sending shock waves right up through the ankle to the hip.”

You won’t get any argument from Rafa Nadal on this subject. He was talking about it at the press conference after one of his matches at Flushing Meadows. “The young players are playing a lot on hard and I don’t know if that is going to be very healthy for the future, no?” Nadal said after suggesting that hardcourts were “much more aggressive” than grass in all respects.

“For the hip, the knees, for the ankles, for the back.” Nadal reeled off all the parts of the body that feel the strain of big, muscular athletes pounding balls at 80, 90 mph again and again for hours on end. And he might have added the wrist because that has become an area of serious concern. Just asked Juan Martin del Potro and Laura Robson.

Considering the problem he had with his knees, it is a miracle Nadal has managed to return to full fitness. But he is not complacent, arguing that the future needs to be taken care of for the next generation.

“It is true that tournaments use this surface [hard] because it is probably easier to maintain and probably less expensive for the organization, but at the same time” The expression on Nadal’s face told you all you needed to know. The unanswered question is this: Are we going to put money ahead of the welfare of the players? Because if we do, the best players, the players who win; the players people want to watch, the players who sell tickets – they are all going to be on the beach, recovering from surgery.

Five of the top ten men didn’t make it to the US Open this year. Twelve months from now, how many will we get?

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