Even Superman Federer feels the Kryptonite of injury
By Alan Attwood
January 13, 2006
Agassi, Safin (both former champions): out. Rising star Nadal: out. Crowd favourite Clijsters: out of sorts.
And this is meant to be the start of the season. Players should be refreshed. At least the casualty list isn't quite as long as it was at the end of last year, when four of the top five men players in the world were no-shows for the season-ending championship. The only one there was Roger Federer. He had a sore foot and lost.
This week Federer's the poster boy for the Kooyong Classic. Next week he will be hot favourite at the Open. And he's still not quite right. The evidence is the bulky black brace he wore yesterday on his right foot while playing Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic. He won yesterday — something he didn't manage on Wednesday. He has declared himself fully fit, but that ankle brace may give his opponents hope. Superman has some flecks of Kryptonite on his cape.
Federer regards the present spate of injuries as a coincidence. Players can avoid injuries, he says, if they're in good shape and sensible about their schedules.
Others take a harder line. Tommy Haas, Federer's conqueror on Wednesday, describes tennis as "a brutal game". All that running and changing direction takes its toll.
Andy Roddick, Open semi-finalist last year, insists that the season is too long. Something needs to be done about this in the interest of players' health.
He acknowledges, however, that for every top gun calling for fewer events "there's another guy that says, 'Hey, I need those two extra weeks at the end of the year for prize-money'." There's a big difference in life on tour for No. 3 in the world (Roddick) and No. 103. And the attrition rate among those in between has led to a perception that modern players have a tougher time than their predecessors on tour.
One who doesn't buy this argument is the tournament director of the Classic (and formerly the Open), Colin Stubs. Back in the 1960s, he was a circuit player himself, taking on the likes of Rod Laver. It is possible, Stubs says, that modern tennis is a bit more demanding because of advances in equipment, but players can pick and choose their events.
In contrast, his memory of life on tour 40-odd years ago was "getting on a boat in February and coming back here late in October. In between you'd play week in, week out. I can't remember taking a week off. There was no money in the game, so you had to play to get by. And that meant playing singles, doubles and mixed. Sometimes two matches a day."
The difference, says Stubs, is modern court surfaces. In the '60s all of the major tournaments apart from the French Open were played on grass. Now Wimbledon is the only one sticking to the green, green grass of home — much easier on players' joints.
Injuries are nothing new. "Players got injuries in my day," Stubs recalls, "though perhaps not the debilitating ones of today."
What has undoubtedly changed is players' longevity. There will never be another Ken Rosewall, contesting a Wimbledon final in the year he turned 40. Instead, we have prodigies such as Seles, Hingis and Capriati, who peak in their teens and are out of action in their early 20s.
Rafael Nadal is 19. Too young to be limping. Marat Safin is 25, but too sore to defend his Open title. The casualty list grows. Victory, it seems, sometimes goes not to the last man or woman standing, but the last player still standing up.