Limping to the finish line

8/27/2006 - Tennis

The phone rings in the trainer's room at the Rexall Centre in Toronto. Pardon Bill Norris if his hands are full of, well, Rafael Nadal's ankles and a spool of tape.

"It's a bit crazy right now," says Norris, an ATP trainer since 1979. "Can I get back to you?"

An hour later he is on the line, detailing the numerous physical challenges faced by professional tennis players who have competed on the hard courts of North America. It has been a long, hot summer, beginning in Newport, R.I., and continuing with Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Cincinnati, New Haven, Conn., and, finally, the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.

"We took one guy to the hospital for IVs in Washington," Norris said. "We don't have the trauma from contact that other sports do, but over-use is always something you worry about. The joints -- shoulders, ankles, wrists -- and feet are at risk. The lower back is another one.

"The attrition, the wear and tear of the game is inevitable."

Consider Andre Agassi, the 36-year-old warrior, as the symbol of tennis' collective stagger toward the finish line that is the U.S. Open. After losing to Nadal in the third round at Wimbledon, Agassi has split four matches, the most recent a straight-sets defeat at the hands of Andrea Stoppini. Once the epitome of fitness, he withdrew from Cincinnati complaining of chronic back pain, which does not bode well for a long final run at the National Tennis Center, which opens for play Monday.

He isn't alone.

Kim Clijsters (hip, ankle) missed time early this season, while fellow Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne passed on the Fed Cup semifinals and pulled out of San Diego in an attempt to heal her fragile body. Clijsters was the top seed last week in Montreal but retired from her match with Stephanie Dubois when she fell on her surgically-repaired left wrist. The defending champion will not get to defend her title and could miss up to two months.

Serena Williams, who took six months off to nurse a tender knee, has played fewer than a dozen matches and her ranking fell as low as No. 139 -- forcing her to accept a wild card just to play in the Open. Sister Venus, troubled by a variety of arm, elbow and wrist ailments, also has kept a low profile. Lindsay Davenport, now a wheezing 30-year-old, missed nearly five months with a sore back and lost in her comeback in Los Angeles to Samantha Stosur.

Andy Roddick has been sidelined by ankle and back issues and even Nadal missed serious time (and the Australian Open) after injuring his foot last November.

Tennis Week Magazine senior correspondent Steve Flink, who has covered the sport for more than three decades, said the trend worries him.

"They have the most sophisticated trainers around the players and yet they can't prevent these injuries -- they can't solve it," Flink said. "Whether it's a smooth-stroking guy like Roger Federer, or a guy who throws himself around like Rafael Nadal.

"Last year, Federer's ankle injury was scary. It cost him seven weeks leading up to Shanghai. Last fall Nadal was scared by the foot and has picked his spots better this year. He could have raked in a few more clay titles after Wimbledon and he chose not to. If he hadn't overdone it last year, he might have played the Australian Open and we might have had a real battle for No. 1.

"Ten months is too long for the season. Nine months would give them more time to recover. Today's tennis is a tough sport -- it's almost a contact sport."

Kathleen Stroia, the WTA's vice president of sports science and medicine, insisted that injuries are not on the rise in women's tennis.

"It's important to note that there is no clear pattern with respect to the player injuries that we have seen," Stroia wrote in an e-mail. "Injuries are an element of all professional sports, and certainly physically demanding sports like women's professional tennis.

"Ask yourself, would a track star or a triathlete, taking advantage of the opportunities to perform, complain about competing too much? Jerry Rice set the bar when it comes to workouts in fitness-based sports and tennis players come nowhere that bar."
Peter Bodo, Tennis Magazine

"What we are experiencing are more acute injuries, prompted by the extremely competitive game. There is also a growing concern that 'too much, too soon' for child athletes is pre-disposing them to degenerative injuries. The tour finds the best way to combat any injuries is through a preventative approach and therefore we promote healthy play and make available to the players a team of highly qualified sports medicine experts."

In recent years the WTA, where women are viable competitors at an earlier age than men, has instituted age-eligibility rules. According to Stroia, a recent longitudinal review showed that this rule and educational programs have increased players' careers by 24 percent and reduced burn-out to less than 1 percent.

There is another WTA initiative, dubbed "Road Map 2010." In addition to the Grand Slams and Fed Cup, players are presently required to commit to 13 tournaments in a year. The goal is to reduce that number to 11 in an attempt to reduce the number of broken commitments that invariably come with over-play.

"That could go a long way to reducing injuries," said Anne Worcester, tournament director of New Haven's Pilot Pen and former WTA CEO. "The objectives are sound, but the strategies are still being debated."

In some ways, Worcester's professional health is intertwined with player injuries. As the last event on the U.S. Open Series calendar, Pilot Pen traditionally picks up a marquee player or two when injuries leave them looking to firm up their match fitness. This year, both Williams sisters and Henin-Hardenne were on Worcester's short list of wild card prospects, with Henin-Hardenne accepting one last week.

"It's quite a list," Worcester said. "The players play quite a bit and injuries are a natural consequence. We have three players in the field -- Davenport, Bovina and Molik -- who are all making comebacks from injury."

Todd Martin played on the ATP circuit for 15 years before retiring after the 2004 season.

"It is an issue, for sure," said Martin, who is playing a modest senior schedule. "Our best players who progress through every tournament they play have to be very conscious of not playing too much. It's impossible to do it for 10 months.

"That's why it requires discipline to schedule smartly. Each of these guys should have at least two fairly substantial self-induced off-seasons. I always tried to take a month after Wimbledon and another month after the U.S. Open. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do the math: Four matches a week, 20 tournaments -- you're at 80 matches in a heart beat."

Peter Bodo, a senior editor at Tennis Magazine with a wildly popular on-line blog, believes that rather than working too much, today's players don't work hard enough.

"I've been around some players like [Jim] Courier and [Pete] Sampras for extended periods of training and I don't think the level of effort is even close. I spent some time with [Carlos] Moya a few weeks ago and he'd do five crunches and then talked to his trainer for five minutes. Running? He'd jog 150 yards.

"Ask yourself, would a track star or a triathlete, taking advantage of the opportunities to perform, complain about competing too much? Jerry Rice set the bar when it comes to workouts in fitness-based sports and tennis players come nowhere that bar."

Bodo pointed to the unilateral decision of Federer and Nadal to pull out of the Hamburg Masters Series tournament in May after playing an epic final the week before in Rome.

"You almost appreciate that they're being honest, but was that week in Rome such a death march?" Bodo asked. "I think not. The more people give them a pass, the more they do it. With so much attention on injuries, the coin of the realm is if you don't want to play somewhere, you just pull out."

Certainly, the high-ranked players seem to withdraw from tournaments with more frequency than lower-ranked players -- perhaps because they can afford to. There is almost fanatical attention by the ATP and WTA training staffs in terms of educating players on the importance of stretching, hydration and not overextending themselves.

"Every year the game grows more and more physical," said Norris, who was a trainer on the New York Knicks' staff in the 1960s. "Guys are benefiting from advances in the sports sciences, but they have to be conscientious, and a little lucky, about saving themselves.

"Players are playing more, too. If you don't play and keep up with your peers, some other guy is going to take your ranking."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.