Tennis’ Big Little Lie: The Prevailing Narrative is one of Longevity, But…

What’s on your tennis highlight reel? We all have one. A collection of images, shots, moments. We memorialize them, we use them in arguments, we re-watch them time and again. Serena Williams’ serve,  Federer’s artistic backhand, Monfils ‘athletic globetrotter like feats… Among my most prominent tennis memories is a troubling and growing phenomena, rubbernecking injuries. We watch the injury occur in slow motion over and over. Mary Pierce‘s career ending knee injury, Li Na‘s near-concussive fall, Shuai Peng‘s heat stroke, Jack Sock‘s fainting, the cirque du soleil like ankle bend of David Goffin and most recently Johanna Konta‘s harrowing head thump on grass. What does the rise in injuries mean for tennis?

I’ve had numerous surgeries, and we do get beat up and we’re all candidates for knee replacements and hip replacements one day.  Liezel Huber 

In reviewing the top ten or even the top twenty-five players, it is impossible to find a player who has not been sidelined by a career-threatening injury. However, neither the APA nor the WTA, the sport’s gendered organizations, report, track or document injuries. Reportedly in 2005, “Officials with the WTA maintain that the rate of injuries is not increasing in the women’s game.” In 2017 the sport still lacks transparency in this area. The WTA did briefly post player injuries on its website in 2016, but this quickly disappeared.

Though there is a paucity of research and data in this area, it is clear that  the prevalence of injuries on all surfaces is growing and the type of injuries are also changing. The once common tennis injuries (tennis elbows, rotator cuff tears, stress fractures in the back, jumper’s Knee and ankle sprains) are now less prominent than wrist, knee,  foot, and abdominal tears. The severity of injuries are now career and sometimes even life-threatening. There is an explosion of wrist, ankle, back and foot surgeries. From Robson, Keys, Del Potro and now Belinda Bencic, who is out indefinitely, the sport is taking a major physical and likely mental toll on players. Long after their last career match, players will experience pain as a result of  acute, chronic, musculoskeletal, or overuse injuries. top ten career threatening injuries

Tennis is not a contact sport, yet it is one of the most physically taxing sports. Tennis has the longest calendar among professional sports, group or individual. With eleven months of weekly tournaments,  players are susceptible to overuse and acute injuries. Combined with their invincibility and will to win committment, the professional athlete’s psyche welcomes if not accepts pain. 

It’s painful, really painful. It was painful in the ’90s; now, nearly 20 years later, the amount of sliding on hardcourts that these players do is something that’s foreign to me. Players these days are moving faster, they’re stopping faster, and that’s putting more pressure on their feet. Jim Courier,  Former world No. 1 and 1991 Open finalist

Acute or chronic. Steady, throbbing, stabbing, aching, or pinching. These players reject the premise that pain is a message for investigation and response. Pain is now a central part of tennis. Player after player has shared their experiences with play, injury and recovery. Most striking was Jelena Jankovic’s, “If you don’t have pain it’s weird. If you wake up in the morning and you don’t have pain anymore, you haven’t done a good job.” Madison Keys recently revealed that she had been playing in severe pain for fifteen months and was relieved when her doctor confirmed her largely, privately held pain. 

I was coming out of anesthesia [after my surgery] but I wasn’t quite awake yet and the doctor was talking to my mom. He said ‘I don’t know how she was playing. It was so bad.’ I was awake enough to hear him and in a weird way I was like ‘Oh, thank God. I’m not insane. My brain is still working. I wasn’t making it up.'”The relief of hearing the doctor say it was so bad was so huge. Keys Optimistic After Second Surgery Ahead of Wimbledon

This is not the narrative we are being fed by talking and writing sports commentators. Instead they reiterate a stories of longevity and committment.  They point to better tools (racquets, shoes, etc…) and sports science (nutrition, conditioning). We are expected to be awed by the ‘advanced age’ of elite players like Federer (35), Serena (35), Ivo Karlovic (38) and of course the now retired Kimiko Date-Krumm and Dick Norman who played into their forties. These players are the exception, buoyed by unique talents and marred by injuries. The average age of the current ATP top ten is 29.4 and the WTA is 27.5. Tennis has its share of Vince Carter and Tom Brady but at what cost?

It’s a brutal game now. Guys have become stronger; the points are lasting longer. You’re having to run a lot more, and the rallies take a lot more out of you. –Wayne Ferreira, Former No. 6

The longevity narrative is short-sighted, misleading and simply illogical. This is the sport’s big-little lie.  Injuries are now more frequent and severe among players on both tours; this is never included when the tightly held longevity narrative is spewed. Of the sixty-eight ATP and fifty-nine WTA tournaments during the eleven month calendar, players are required to play frequently based on a seemingly arbitrary but agreed upon formula linked to their ranking. As defunct independent contractors, players push beyond reason to play in spite of fatigue, injury and pain. Like tennis, golf has a long calendar and ever-evolving playing requirements. Golfing injuries have also been on the rise. The list of injured is endless: Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Rory MMcllroy, Jason Duffner, Jim Furyk, John Peterson… It is impossible to believe that two of the most wealthy and global sports is unable to either document its injuries or find systemic prevention and treatment for an issue that is arguably altering the sport.

sport seasons

The career of a professional athlete has never been secure or lengthy. The average career of a professional athlete is typically three to five years. With a longer calendar and career, tennis players need breaks to heal and re-group. It is not surprising that this year’s slams have been won by players who have had significant time off for injuries, Federer, Serena, Nadal and even Ostapenko. Tennis commentators feign surprise when after an extended absence players return invigorated, energized and motivated to excel, with deep runs for titles. Even Petra Kvitova‘s forced five month break ended with a successful title even though she reportedly still cannot make a fist with her injured hand.

Push aside closely held tennis memories, narratives, hopes and dreams. The truth. The fact. The reality is, tennis is becoming as dangerous if not more so than contact sports. Injuries and the resulting pain is a valid tennis narrative. This is to be embraced, not shunned or skirted. Even when injuries are televised in abundance like the multiple falls at Wimbledon 2016 or the heat calamities at the US Open 2014/16, the narrative has morphed to that of conditioning or the environment. Now the number of retirements is steadily rising at Wimbledon 2017. A sport with foresight and character would investigate and implement changes to ensure the health and well-being of its athletes. What will it take for tennis to streamline its calendar and player requirements?

 

For more, check-out

  1. Fan Series: Organizing Fan, Player and Sport Well Being
  2. Will Haggerty’s Proposal Improve Our Davis Cup Experience?
  3. Should Consistency be Tennis’ Holy Grail?
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4 thoughts on “Tennis’ Big Little Lie: The Prevailing Narrative is one of Longevity, But…

  1. great piece. it seems that commentators, writers like to celebrate the “toughness” of the players. that players should play through niggles, instead of listening to them. it is as if they are shoring up their own past of wooden racquets etc by pushing the tough athletes the sport has. almost as if they are trying to get it to a point where it does rival contact sports especially the men-so they can be MEN like in other sports. almost in an apologetic fashion-stats: “look how fast they run, how far, the speed of groundies, serves etc, see they Are real men, real athletes.” this translates to the women’s game. pam shriver once said you shouldn’t retire from a grand slam unless you have a broken leg or something like that. the players MUST get the points, the money, the endorsements. it is so poor on the itf circuit that the “greed” is understandable. Thank you for your insights.

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    1. Thanks for your insight Sunnynine. I had not considered this as an approach the sport has taken to rival contact sports. It does seem to be a vicious cycle. When will they learn that pain does not make you a better man or woman. It only hurts now and maybe forever. I’d love to see the data on tennis players’ health after retirement. Can you imagine the number of niggles if not surgeries they need? I love this sport and I truly worry about them. I had a car accident as a young kid and some subsequent injuries that leave me with niggles and I am not an athlete so I can’t imagine their lives. I know this life is to be lived fully, but balance in all things is necessary. Let’s wish them well.

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