For Tennis Players, Twists, Turns, Topspin and Oh, the Pain
As diverting as the Australian Open was last month during its 100th anniversary, it was hard to forget the guests who never made it to the party. Among the absentees were last year's women's champion, Justine Henin-Hardenne; her opponent in that final, Kim Clijsters; and the 2001 and 2002 champion, Jennifer Capriati.
All three were once ranked No. 1, and all three were forced to skip the first Grand Slam event of 2005 because of significant injuries.
The men have hardly been spared the litany of pain. Of those who have reached No. 1 since 1998, five have had major injuries: Marcelo Rios, Carlos Moya, Marat Safin, Patrick Rafter and Gustavo Kuerten.
In the past three years, such forced layoffs have been as much a part of the game as grunts and ground strokes, disrupting emerging rivalries along with overwrought tournament directors' sleep patterns.
The most obvious explanation is the lack of a true off-season and the increasing depth and power of the professional game. But there are also risks caused by modern, trunk-twisting technique. Some players and trainers say the trend toward slower surfaces and balls in men's tennis, along with stiffer, polyester strings, have also been detrimental.
"It's a brutal game now," said Wayne Ferreira of South Africa, who retired from the Tour last year. "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."
Two other top women's players, Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport, have had major knee surgery, with Davenport missing most of 2002 and Williams missing eight months in 2003 and 2004.
"It's a shame, but it does seem like we all end up taking our turn getting hurt," Davenport said. "The women's game could be going through this amazing period, but we haven't been healthy at the same time."
In the men's game, Rios and Rafter retired before their 30th birthdays, as did Magnus Norman, a former French Open finalist from Sweden who reached No. 2 but was never able to recover fully from a hip condition.
It is a similar condition to the one that has forced Kuerten, the elastic, charismatic Brazilian, to have two hip operations.
Other former top-five players who have missed several months or more of play the past few years include Guillermo Coria and David Nalbandian of Argentina; Tommy Haas of Germany; Greg Rusedski of Britain; and Mark Philippoussis of Australia.
The sport at the professional level has, until now, not done a complete job of studying and cataloging injuries. There are no studies of the number of injuries in the professional ranks 10 years ago.
"But it does appear that more professionals are disabled," said Dr. Ben Kibler, the medical director of the Lexington Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Kentucky and a leading authority on tennis injuries and biomechanics. "At a participatory level, in terms of people who are serious players but not professional, I'm seeing a larger number of injuries than 10 to 15 years ago."
Officials with the WTA maintain that the rate of injuries is not increasing in the women's game. Henin-Hardenne, the world's No. 1 player in 2003, missed much of last season because of a virus, not an injury, although she did miss the Australian Open with a knee injury.
"I think what we've seen is a cycle," said Kathleen Stroia, the Tour's vice president for sports science and medicine. "It's some of the top players right now who've had injuries, so it's in the forefront in the media.
"What we are seeing are different types of injury."
Stroia, who joined the WTA Tour 16 years ago as a trainer, said that chronic conditions, like knee tendinitis, were rarer now but that "episodic injuries," like leg strains and wrist sprains, were on the rise.
Relatively new techniques - the open-stance forehand; the semi-open-stance two-handed backhand; and the abbreviated service motion - are also creating health risks.
"The biomechanics have changed, and when that happens, the training has to change," said Dr. Brian Hainline, chief medical officer of the United States Open. "For the training to change, sports science has to determine what's happening. The problem is that this lags behind.