Tennis injuries present serious challenges to top players

It didn’t take long for Alexander Zverev to realize that his situation was dire.

After hours of scintillating shooting, Zverev and Rafael Nadal were set to start a second tiebreaker in their semi-final match at Roland Garros last year.

But suddenly Zverev ran wide for a forehand, rolled his right ankle to the side and let out a bellow. He stumbled to the ground, red clay stuck to the back of his black sleeveless top, and took his ankle in his hands.

“I knew immediately that I was done because my ankle was basically three times bigger than it normally is,” Zverev said by phone of the injury that sidelined him for the tennis. rest of 2022 and dropped his ATP ranking from No. 2 away from home. the top 20. “It was not a pleasant feeling.”

Zverev is not the first player to be forced into an extended layoff due to a serious injury.

His opponent that day, Nadal, hasn’t played a tour match since injuring the psoas muscle between his lower stomach and upper right leg at the Australian Open in January. After repeated attempts to rehabilitate the injury over the past four months, Nadal – who has also suffered from chronic foot pain, a cracked rib and a torn abdominal muscle for the past 18 months – has withdrawn from the French Open on May 18. He is the 14-time Roland Garros champion and has played the tournament every year since 2005. He also indicated that he has no plans to play at Wimbledon and that 2024 will likely be his last year on the professional circuit.

Emma Raducanu, who won the US Open in 2021, has been injured frequently since and recently underwent surgery on her wrists and ankle. Wimbledon and US Open champion Andy Murray announced ahead of the 2019 Australian Open that he would be retiring after the tournament, only to return to play first doubles, then singles after surgery. successful hip resurfacing.

Bianca Andreescu, who beat Serena Williams to win the 2019 US Open, suffered injuries to her adductor, ankle, foot, back and right shoulder which left her wondering if she had to stop competing. And three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka was considering retirement after multiple knee and ankle surgeries. Once ranked No. 3 in the world, Wawrinka is now fighting to stay in the top 100.

Injuries, surgery and rehabilitation are dreaded words in any athlete’s vocabulary. For professional tennis players, who are not protected by the full rehab cover of a team sport but instead are treated like independent contractors, returning to the ATP and WTA Tours can be physically, mentally and even financially draining. .

“I had never had an injury from the time I started, and I played with high intensity every day,” Dominic Thiem said by phone. Thiem, who beat Zverev to win the 2020 US Open, suffered a debilitating wrist injury in June 2021 and was sidelined for months. Once ranked No. 3, Thiem lost seven consecutive matches in his first return to the ATP Tour, and his ranking dropped to No. 352, forcing him to play lower-tier Challenger tournaments.

“With an injury the whole system shuts down,” said Thiem, who is now ranked just in the top 100. “You can’t do your job and you don’t have a clear plan anymore. It was like never before. You have to lower your expectations, but it’s very difficult because during all these years you have set a certain standard for yourself, not only from the tournaments you play, but also from the way you feel the ball. In short, everything changes.”

The process of returning from a layoff can be just as difficult as the injury itself. Readjusting to the rigors of constant travel and the pressure of playing matches at all hours of the day and night, as well as worrying about the possibility of re-injury, can impact a player’s recovery .

Andreescu knows it. Plagued by back issues for much of 2022, she had finally started to bounce back at the Miami Open in March. But in her fourth-round match against Ekaterina Alexandrova, Andreescu fell to the court, clutching her left leg and screaming in pain.

“I’ve never felt such pain,” Andreescu said over the phone as she prepared to resume touring three weeks later in Madrid. “The next morning I knew what had happened, but I just hoped I woke up from a bad dream. Then I felt the pain and knew it was real.

Andreescu has rehabilitated her body several times before, but she also believes that the mind-body connection is just as important.

“I believe it all starts in the head and we create our own stress and, in a way, our own wounds,” she said. “There may be freak accidents, but if you can think things through, it’s easier to recover from those injuries.”

The WTA takes injury prevention and rehabilitation seriously. The tour has programming and staff dedicated specifically to the physical and psychological well-being of athletes. According to Carole Doherty, the WTA’s senior vice president, sports science and medicine, all of its players receive comprehensive medical care, with services including cardiology, checkups with dermatologists, bone density exams and counseling. in nutrition and hydration.

When a WTA player is injured or pregnant for at least eight consecutive weeks, she can request a special ranking, which means that when she returns, she will be ranked where she left off and can play in eight tournaments on a 52 week period. duration with this classification. The ATP has a similar protocol called Protected Ranking.

WTA Vice President of Mental Health and Performance Becky Ahlgren Bedics is well aware of the psychological toll an injury can have.

“Injuries take you away from training and competition and force you to regroup and prioritize your life differently,” said Bedics, who encourages players who aren’t on the tour to delete WTA rankings from their phones. , so they don’t see where they are. compared to their peers. “It’s tough for an athlete whose only thought is, ‘How can I get back, and what if I don’t?'”

Bedics and his mental health team encourage players to manage their expectations when they return to play.

“There are so many stressors in this game, including financial factors,” Bedics added. “Our athletes are usually very young and won’t do this for 50 years. Sometimes they support their family. So what we help them do is listen to “what is”, not “what if”. We want them to look forward, but also to the past to see how far they have come.

Daria Saville understands the paying nature of tennis. She has been suffering from repeated Achilles tendon and plantar fasciitis issues since 2016. She had surgery after the 2021 Australian Open which kept her out of action for almost a year. Then, during a competition in Tokyo last September, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament, requiring further surgery.

“Every time I get injured I think about my life and wonder what it would be like without tennis,” said Saville, who also underwent ACL surgery in 2013. “On tour, life is not not so difficult. Everything is done for you, so you don’t have to think too much. The worst thing that happens is that you play badly and lose a match.

Fortunately, for Saville, the financial burdens have been reduced thanks to the support she receives from her national federation, Tennis Australia, which pays for her physiotherapist and strength and conditioning coaches. She also receives pep talks from her coach, former tour player Nicole Pratt.

When Thiem thinks back to his wrist injury, he makes the connection to winning the US Open. Having achieved this goal, Thiem said, he suddenly lost his passion and motivation to play, which prompted him to train with a reduced level of intensity, which ultimately led to the injury. Trying to come back was difficult.

“I can’t forget,” Thiem said, “that all the time I wasn’t playing the other players were playing, they were training, improving and advancing ahead of me. That makes it even harder to come back.

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