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'INJURY RISK IS FAR GREATER': TENNIS' NEW MAJOR CONCERN



Unlike team sports that consist of teammates accommodated with the luxury of substitutions and rotating players, the unpredictability of an individual sport is one of its many fascinating elements that can leave fans and neutrals frustrated and disappointed.


The priority for any athlete aspiring for greatness is looking after their body in the hope of producing high-level consistency - tennis is a perfect example.


With tournaments scheduled almost every week of the calendar year, players are responsible for making appropriate decisions regarding physical fitness. 


Take Novak Djokovic last season. The 24-time Grand Slam champion mapped out his schedule to perfection having only entered 13 events and claimed three majors.


That same process has been followed in 2024, yet the results and performances have been anything but convincing. At 37, age is undoubtedly a factor that has impacted another 37-year-old, Rafael Nadal, through persistent injuries. That is expected and inevitable.


What is surprising, however, is the amount of niggles and injuries becoming evermore present amongst the emerging generation of stars such as Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz who were forced to miss the majority of the recent clay court swing prior to the French Open - hence why the draw is considered wide open.


Other examples include Alcaraz being forced to miss the Australian Open last year and Stefanos Tsitsipas unable to partake in the ATP World Tour Finals twice in the past three seasons.


Although the dreaded anterior crucial ligament (ACL) injury is thankfully less common on the WTA tour compared to other sports, women’s tennis is not immune to injuries as highlighted by the cases of Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina earlier this year as well as the constant fitness issues concerning Emma Raducanu (21), Amanda Anisimova (22), and Bianca Andreescu (23).


So, what is the root of the problem that seems to witness more injuries and withdrawals compared to previous eras?


Firstly, the workload and intensity demanded of current players is at an all-time high - just look at the amount of running and court coverage from Sinner, Alcaraz, and Daniil Medvedev as they train for short explosive movements.


Four weeks ago at the Madrid Masters, the men’s draw dropped like flies. Sinner withdrew before his quarter-final with a hip complaint, while Medvedev and Jiri Lehecka retired mid-match due to injury.


Is it a coincidence that many injuries are sustained throughout this time of year during the clay swing?


Shane Liyanage, a tennis performance data scientist who is currently working with Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka and two-time Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur, believes that the hard court exposure in the first few months of the year takes its toll on the body when transitioning to clay.


“There is a bigger representation of tournaments on hard court playing on the hardest surface,” Liyanage told The First Serve. “If you look at the mandatory Masters 1000 events, most are on hard court and two out of four are Grand Slams.”


“With the players I work with, we monitor the load going into the hard court more than the clay and grass. We look at how many times a particular player lands on the left or right side and changes of direction where the hip area gets impacted.


“The data we use analyses acceleration and deceleration when changing direction, so load management is extremely important to manage and keep track of each week to avoid risk of injury.”


The game has drastically evolved over the years whether it be the transition from serve and volley to gruelling baseline exchanges or the enhanced technology implemented in racquets.


But according to Liyanage, some small changes have played a part in injuries becoming more common.


“Inconsistencies of the weight of balls makes it challenging for players to go from one week playing with a ball that is heavier compared to another week where a ball is flying off the strings,” he said.


“Something that I’ve noticed working with my players is that there are more intensity direction changes than there were 10 years ago. The athletes are bigger in general as the average height has increased on both tours, so the injury risk is far greater when those types of players are expected to cover immense ground.”


In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be crazy to suggest that starting the calendar year on clay would be more beneficial for players’ bodies to cope after a lengthy off-season break. But that will ultimately disrupt the schedule and see Grand Slams like the French Open played near winter (even though the rain in Paris now would fool you that it is summer).


At the same time, the onus is on the individual and their support group to make the right decisions - not like Alcaraz at the end of last year who opted to play in an exhibition match against Tommy Paul in Mexico.


With no signs of consistent injuries slowing down anytime soon, it is a cause for concern moving forward.

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