Daria Saville was in great form in the months leading up to her match against former world number one Naomi Osaka at the Pan Pacific Open in September last year.
Such was her impressive play, the Australian had made a steep climb up the rankings. She had skyrocketed more than 500 places in the first half of 2022 following sensational performances in Indian Wells, Miami and the French Open after coming back from an Achilles tendon injury in 2021.
But then in a tragic twist, the Aussie affectionately known as ‘Dasha’ suffered a cruel bitter blow when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in just the second game of her match against Osaka.
The then world number 55 yelled out “my knee” as she fell to the ground in agonising pain.
After scans confirmed the worst, the long journey back to recovery began.
Fast forward almost 12 months and the Aussie is back strutting her stuff on the circuit.
Dasha is six tournaments back into her latest comeback going 7-6 with the highlight being the semi final in Hamburg post Wimbledon, ahead of her her first round US Open match in the early hours of tomorrow morning against 17-year-old American Clervie Ngounoue, who won the Wimbledon girls’ singles title earlier last month, but there’s been a lot of work done behind the scenes to get her body fit again.
An ACL is a common injury in team contact sports such as football and soccer. It’s a long arduous process to get back to full form from a knee rupture. It is often heartbreaking when a player suffers a serious injury like that as it’s usually a 12-month recovery.
Saville took to social media to express how she felt about coming back from a long-term injury and the difference tennis players face as opposed to other athletes where they have the luxury of being eased back in.
“It’s crazy how in tennis no matter how much we track our loads when building up after an injury, it’s still so hard to replicate match intensity. I have friends that do soccer and AFL and they told me if they would come back from an ACL, they would play like 10 minutes in their first game and then have a few days off and then play 15 minutes in their next game.
Where as in tennis, it’s off you go, you might play three sets in your first match back which I did and this morning I felt like I’ve been hit by a double decker bus and then I played three more sets but at least I now know I’ve been able to play six sets in two days after a long a** injury,” the 29-year-old tweeted in mid-June.
In tennis, ACLs may be less common, but they still require careful management. The comparison between team sports and individual sports such as tennis, albeit tennis does have a team aspect in things like doubles, mixed doubles, the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup now known as the Billie Jean King Cup, can be quite stark.
The ACL is in the middle of the knee. It’s one of the key ligaments that stabilizes the knee joint. A torn ACL is considered a nightmare as it usually requires a longer period of rehabilitation than other injuries.
In team sports, a player can return and play limited minutes. They can be eased back into the side and afforded time to find form while only playing portions of a game but in tennis, players are not afforded that luxury.
Ryan Cope, Saville’s physiotherapist revealed, “There are different strategies that we use in team sports and individual sports such as tennis.”
He said it’s crucial to understand what works best for the player. “It’s important to know your player.”
Cope said it’s a team effort between the physio, agent, coaches, hitting partners and others on a player’s team who combine to help the player recover and achieve their peak performance.
He said that advancements in technology have equipped them with data to review important metrics pre-injury, helping them set key milestones on the path to recovery.
“We have so much information and data available. We can review vision from past matches. Then when she is back training, we look at Swing view using the Swing Vision app at the back of the court. It allows us to review training vision and measures all the shots the player hits. We also use another program called Catapult that measures the player’s movement on court.”
Cope said Catapult is a handy tool as it is used to review training loads. Key measures include shot count, serve count, serve intensity, high speed efforts (accelerations).
This vital information is then used to compare the player’s training loads to requested match loads.
“We can then manipulate training sessions to replicate a desired match load,” he said.
And they have to prepare for worst case scenario (I.e. the match could go to three tight sets in women’s or five sets in a men’s Grand Slam match).
Cope said they often have to train harder than what they might eventually face in a match to avoid any further injuries. “In many cases a player’s training loads are higher than their match load. If they have under trained, there is a risk of a spike in load which increases injury risk (poor performance).”
The experienced high-performance physiotherapist said with Dasha’s ACL injury, he worked closely with the rest of her coaches and support them to prepare an individualised program to help her not only return to playing tennis but thriving and winning.
He said unlike a football player who can come back on limited minutes, it’s vital for tennis players to keep training at a higher intensity so they can regain trust with their bodies and confidence in their game, knowing they won’t break down upon returning to compete.
This process can take months depending on the severity of the injury and how the athlete’s body adapts to their loads.
Then there is the rehabilitation.
“The tennis player’s rehab session plan reflects the priorities of the player,” the 41-year-old Cope said.
He said they try to train using open drills and test the player in a fatigue state while also mixing sessions up with on court conditioning and back-to-back match play scenarios at times. “It’s important to expose the player to tournament conditions and practice with other professionals so they experience those tournament nerves and pre match anxiety,” the experienced sports physiotherapist said.
“Some players may choose to play doubles events before singles.”
In tennis, not only is there the physical challenge of recovering from a serious injury but significant time on the sidelines leads to a huge drop in rankings. It can be demotivating. This emotional mindset test is another compounding challenge the player has to contend with.
This means that a player must start from scratch when they do return and try to find form to quickly climb up the rankings again.
Dasha’s shown some good signs since her return in June.
The 166cm Aussie ace won the US Open girls’ singles title as a junior in 2010. Time will tell if the 29-year-old can emulate that achievement after recovering from her knee injuries.
Meanwhile fellow Aussie Ajla Tomljanovic is making her own comeback from a knee injury suffered in January just before the Australian Open. The 30-year-old was leading her compatriots as Australia’s top ranked female tennis star prior to her knee injury.
She will face Hungarian Panna Udvardy in the opening round of the US Open.