London: At this rate, the men’s draw for the US Open will soon resemble the qualifying section for the Surbiton Trophy. To the ailing body parts that are Novak Djokovic’s elbow and Andy Murray’s hip, we can add the knee of Stan Wawrinka, the wrist of Kei Nishikori, and even the back of Roger Federer, whose annus mirabilis has come aground on the acrylic-topped concrete of Montreal.
All it needs is for Rafael Nadal, somehow world No 1 again despite losing before the quarter-finals at his past two tournaments, to be crocked in Cincinnati this week to complete the least appealing New York line-up since Floyd Mayweather showered Conor McGregor at Madison Square Garden with one-dollar bills.
That Federer is among the casualties marks a watershed. For a shade over 16 years, through 65 consecutive slams, he treated his body, as per the old Gary Player wisdom, like a sacred temple. Wear and tear, or so we thought, could never diminish this imperishable force. Ultimately, it took the perils of domesticity to derail him, as Federer missed last season’s French Open after hurting a knee running a bath for his twin daughters. Now that he has finally succumbed to a workplace-related injury, it seems apt to ask whether it is tennis itself that is doing its stars a disservice. For it is not only the veterans who are suffering.
Nick Kyrgios is 22 and has a posture like a character in a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. Hunched and slumped even at the best of times, he has accumulated the kind of recent medical record that would alarm a man two decades his senior. From Queen’s to Wimbledon, from Washington to Canada, the Australian wild-child has beat a retreat at four successive events — three times by retirement — because of a misbehaving hip. Understandably, he still regards surgery as a last resort, but a question mark hovers over his longevity before he has even begun to realise his potential.
It is no coincidence that three players ranked inside the top five this year have chosen to shut down their 2017 campaigns by August. Nishikori played 79 matches last season, Djokovic 74, Wawrinka 64, and all have now fallen by the wayside.
Murray managed a staggering 87, borne largely of his surge to the No 1 spot by winning 25 times in five weeks, but now even his mother Judy acknowledges that he is paying the price.
“The last two years have taken a lot out of Andy,” she said. “The tennis calendar is relentless. It’s 11 months a year, there are hardly any gaps to have a rest, and I feel it has all caught up with him.”
The alleged ‘off-season’ in tennis is a misnomer. From the World Tour Finals to the lucrative Gulf state exhibitions that herald the start of a new year, the period in which players should be convalescing lasts just six weeks. Even in that narrow window, Murray is usually to be found flogging himself at his Miami boot camp with the latest gyrotonic pulley exercises, all complemented by a careful diet of banana smoothies and cantaloup melons.
His is a regime that combines the fitness ethic of a trainee marine with the self-denying food fads usually prescribed by a Gwyneth Paltrow cookbook.
Tennis has long been a sprawling grind of a tour, but it is only in the last five years that authorities have compiled a comprehensive database of the types and numbers of injuries among players. One clear trend, according to Todd Ellenbecker, the ATP Tour’s vice-president of medical services, is an upsurge in hip damage to right-handers, who strain from side to side in endless exchanges of groundstrokes.
Murray and Kyrgios, both right-handed, have both fallen foul of this occupational hazard.
The attenuation of Kyrgios’ powers is perhaps the more surprising, given his notorious mid-match impatience and his penchant for bailing out of a rally with an absurd trick shot.
Murray, however, is the classic case of an athlete worn down by repetitive strain. His is a game based on running, scampering and contriving the most improbable retrievals. Plus, he is wedded to the art of trying to outwit his opponents from yards behind the baseline.
Where Federer has saved on effort with his ‘SABR’ (‘Sneak Attack by Roger’) technique, taking advantage of a distracted server to move halfway up the court and dictate play, Murray still insists on going for the sucker-punch from 100 feet. It is not a physically sustainable approach. Nor, come to that, is that of Djokovic, who has all the suppleness to bend his body like one of Yuri Geller’s spoons and all the scientific savoir faire to recover between marathon matches in hyperbaric oxygen chambers, but who has ultimately been laid low by a condition as prosaic as tennis elbow.
All the while, as these elite men are forced to recuperate, a certain lady at home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, is adopting a refreshingly different outlook. Yes, Serena Williams, eight months pregnant with her first child, is contemplating a comeback aged 36.
“It’s the most outrageous plan,” she said in Vogue this week, announcing her intention to play the Australian Open in January. “It’s just three months after I give birth. I’ll tell you this much: I won’t win less. Either I win, or I don’t play.”
We should know better than to doubt her. After all, she won a seventh title in Melbourne without dropping a set and with the embryo already growing inside her. At a time when tennis is strewn with the walking wounded, Williams is once again breaking the mould.