Excuses are interesting things.
Some people use them to lie; to lessen the blame on themselves for some sort of mistake or shortcoming. Others legitimately believe that their explanations should indeed absolve them of that blame.
In sports, there are plenty of excuses uttered by both athletes who came up short and their respective fans. They might try to blame referees, the weather, or, as is common in today’s tennis world, injuries.
As the 2018 tennis season begins to hit its stride following an Australian Open that was somehow both historic and somewhat unexciting, one of the major issues being brought up is the health of many top players. A problem that has particularly plagued the men’s tour, injuries have run rampant in recent years and the resulting absences have caused some to call for changes to the length and scheduling of the season.
A Prevalent Problem
There’s no shortage of examples of top players who have struggled with their bodies recently.
12-time major champion Novak Djokovic’s continued struggles with an elbow injury have seen him drop to number 14 in the rankings and, after already having tried to recover with a 6-month layoff, surgery is now being discussed.
World number 1 Rafael Nadal has not experienced the same cascade in the rankings as his Serbian rival, but the 16-time major winner is probably more familiar with injuries than just about any other top player. Nadal was forced to retire in the fifth set of his Australian Open quarterfinal against Marin Cilic last week due to a hip injury. It’s the latest in a long list of ailments that have plagued the Spanish legend along with knee and wrist issues.
Former world number 1 Andy Murray’s first and only reign atop the rankings ended last summer due in large part to an injury to his hip. The Brit took the entire second half of the 2017 season off and, after attempting to play in Melbourne, finally settled on surgery, which will keep him out until at least the summer. In total, Murray’s absence could end up spanning longer than a full year.
There are many other examples of top players who have had hard times with their health hindering their ability to be their best selves on the court. Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic, etc. The list goes on and on.
So, who is to blame for the situation that the men’s tour finds itself in? Is the season too long? Are there too many hardcourt tournaments?
I’m certainly going to anger some people, but no, I reject those notions. The fault is on the players themselves.
There are a lot of pieces that go into being a top-level athlete. You have to be hard-working, you have to be physically gifted, you usually have to have been introduced to your chosen sport at a young age, and… You have to be able to stay healthy.
The Thorny Case of Derrick Rose
Consider some examples from other sports. It wasn’t long ago that 2010-11 NBA MVP Derrick Rose was becoming one of the most unstoppable forces in the league. His quickness, size, and athleticism made him a handful to deal with even for some of the league’s best defenders… Sometimes even for two of them.
And then, on April 28, 2012, Rose attacked the basket late in the opening game of the Eastern Conference playoffs with his usual reckless abandon. An awkward landing resulted in a torn ACL and, in an instant, everything started to fall apart. Rose missed the entire following season and, even upon returning in the fall of 2013, was clearly not the same player. In the years to come, the point guard continued to suffer more injuries. He has never been the same player as he was before the first injury. Not even close.
So, when we recant the best point guards of recent years in the NBA, we shouldn’t be required to use a proverbial asterisk and say “But, if Rose hadn’t gotten hurt…”
The facts are that Rose’s playing style of banging into larger players, changing direction in astounding ways, and, admirable as it may have been, punishing his own body to help his team win has to be seen as a large reason for his injury plight.
The Limits of the Human Body
Much like Rose’s situation, many of the injuries being observed in men’s tennis in recent years have been the result of players simply putting their bodies through punishment the likes of which human joints, ligaments, and muscles are not supposed to be able to take.
Observe this point from the 2011 U.S. Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal:
A riveting, awe-inspiring, 55-shot rally (Does the serve count? That seems to be where the video title and I disagree) may be impressive, exciting, and friendly to spectators, but one thing it’s not friendly on is the players’ health.
You can see both players sliding on the Arthur Ashe Stadium hardcourt, an idea that would have been seen as not only reckless, but even ridiculous as recently as perhaps 15 years ago. As both men are stretched wide, particularly to their forehand side, the long extension of their outside leg results in an immense amount of weight and pressure being put on that hip and knee. Yes, both were, and still are, incredible athletes whose bodies are capable of things that are impossible for mere mortals, but even for such physical specimens as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the body can only take so much.
What makes this rally even more unbelievable is the fact that this is only one of dozens of such incredible points that this pair alone have contested. There was 3-4, 30-40 in the third set of the 2011 U.S. Open final. There was the first point at 4-all in the fifth set of the 2012 Australian Open final, a point so exhausting that it left Djokovic sprawled on the court cringing in pain.
I understand that such points make for an incredible display of toughness and endurance, but it also is the equivalent to Derrick Rose barreling into the lane, leaping, hanging, and contorting his body with no regard for how he lands. Playing with reckless abandon is often used as a compliment to describe an athlete’s desire and courage, but the word “reckless” literally means lacking regard for the possible risks and consequences of one’s actions.
Among the notable top names who have struggled with their physical health in recent months, Murray and Nishikori join Nadal and Djokovic in playing a similar type of grinding, exhausting baseline game that dares its opponents to either go for immense shots or try to test their own physical fitness. It’s brave, but it’s also a gamble. And the thing about gambling is that eventually, no matter how good you are, you lose.
But it’s not just the players who actively employ such a grinding, Herculean style who have suffered. Raonic, del Potro, and Wawrinka play much more offensive, power-based games than the aforementioned quartet, and yet that trio has also struggled in recent months. Or, in the case of del Potro, for many years. But despite the fact that these three players are not generally those who intend to turn rallies into marathons, they are perhaps casualties of that style imposing itself so heavily on the sport.
While it’s not even half as long as the previous Djokovic-Nadal epic from before, this 26-shot rally is still both absorbing and exhausting. It is pretty apparent to me that Wawrinka is the one injecting pace into the ball, playing with less margin over the net, and overall the one trying to end the point. But the incredible defense of Djokovic simply doesn’t allow him an opening to end the rally until that outrageous backhand.
When you put your body on the line in so many points, in so many tournaments, for so long, it takes a toll on your health. And eventually that toll is extracted. For many players at the top of the game, it’s time to pay the piper.
30 Isn’t the New 20
The truth is that it’s not like there’s much that has changed in the sport in recent years. The length of the tennis season hasn’t changed in recent years, neither has the number of hardcourt events. What is different is the way that the game is played by a growing number of players.
What is also different is the expectation on older players. In 2012, Roger Federer became only the 11th man in the Open Era to win a major after turning 30. Wawrinka and Nadal have since joined him. In total, the winner’s trophy of a grand slam in the Open Era has only been lifted by a man over the age of 30 on 26 occasions. Eight of those have been by Federer, Wawrinka, and Nadal. Seven of them have been in the last four years.
Even for 20-time major champion Roger Federer, who last Sunday won the Australian Open at 36-years-old and has managed to conserve his body through more tempered scheduling and an aggressive, offensive style, over-exertion is a gamble that must be punished. Last summer, after making a last-minute decision to play the Canadian Open, Federer injured his fragile back and ended up struggling through the remainder of the North American hardcourt season as a result.
As the average basketball player has continued to get taller and jump higher, the basket hasn’t been raised. As the average football player has gotten faster, the field hasn’t been expanded. Sports should not change to accommodate players.
With players putting their bodies through hell and treating their 30-year-old bodies like they’re still as spry or sturdy as they were a decade earlier, it’s no surprise that injuries abound in the sport of tennis.
But speculating whether Rafael Nadal would have won the Australian Open had he not been forced to retire against Cilic is pointless. Wondering if Novak Djokovic would have improved on his total of 12 slams if not for his elbow is a waste of time. Imagining if the U.S. Open would have finally seen a clash between Nadal and Federer if not for the latter’s back problems is futile.
Because injuries are a result of being risky or reckless.
They’re not an excuse.