By Andrew Lawrence
September 03, 2010

NEW YORK -- Typically when an athlete gets injured, a familiar routine unfolds: the injury is named, the severity articulated and the prescription detailed.

Such routines keep people from drawing their own wild conclusions. The exception, of course, is tennis, where players fall ill and drop out of sight without immediate explanation -- and that leads to long, meandering games of telephone.

The game got especially intense on Wednesday afternoon, when 10th-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus collapsed on the court 30 minutes into her second-round match with Argentina's Gisela Dulko at the Grandstand. Playing in triple-digit temperatures, she was helped into a wheelchair, carted off the court and vanished without a trace into a whirlwind of intrigue. Was it heat stroke? Was she hospitalized? Was she conscious?

The answers were vague and streamed in slowly. In a statement, tournament referee Brian Earley said Azarenka had "headache-like symptoms" and was taken to a nearby hospital for "diagnostic testing" (what is she, a Chevy Malibu?) before adding that "out of respect to her privacy, we can not give any more details."

Much later, Azarenka issued her own statement that filled in some blanks: She fell on her arms and head in a warm-up run before her match. She was examined by a medical team and cleared to play, but struggled to compete through a headache and dizziness. Laboring to stay upright and see, she tumbled onto the court. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with a mild concussion.

It's the kind of explanation that is de rigueur in other sports and disseminated with lightning speed. When Giants quarterback Eli Manning suffered his gory head injury during the team's preseason opener against the Jets last month, the injury's particulars -- including how it was treated -- were widely known within minutes. When center Andrew Bynum went under the knife last season, insight abounded about the procedure and his projected timetable for return.

But in tennis, sagas like Azarenka's play out like serial dramas. If the sport were serious about accelerating the flow of information and sharpening accuracy, it would adopt a system more like the NFL's or the NBA's and provide year-round health updates on all of its players. But that would require a cooperative spirit, and tennis -- a skein of disparate interests -- is hardly a tightly wound operation.

Also, there's a belief that a tennis injury wire would encourage gambling, an issue that had become particularly acute in recent years. But tennis is no more at risk than any other sport. If anything, it would level the playing field between the bettors who scout tournaments to harvest first-hand injury information and those who don't.

And then there's the competitive advantage on the court. Disclosing injuries has long been a sign of weakness in sports, and tennis is no different. But there's a difference between keeping bumps and bruises secret and playing with a major illness -- like mononucleosis. That's something Roger Federer did for most of 2008 and Andy Roddick did for some of this year.

Neither player revealed he had the illness until it could help justify poor on-court results. Though Roddick declined to use mono as an excuse for his second-round loss to Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic on Wednesday night, Roddick's resignation in defeat suggests a realization that he wasn't at full strength. "I'm gonna get some rest tomorrow," he said afterward.

Overall, medical transparency doesn't happen until it's too late. Consider the case of Virginie Razzano. Few knew of the veteran Frenchwoman -- who reached a career-high ranking of 16 in September of '09 and plays former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic on Friday -- before she sued the WTA in June for injuring her right foot during a massage at a tournament in Ponte Vedra, Fla. She claims a tour masseuse put such pressure on her foot that an edema resulted, and her subsequent efforts to play through the pain caused a hip tear.

Why did it take a court case for the extent of Razzano's pain to become public? Because most players prefer to shroud their ailments in mystery. Much of that has to do with the fact that tennis players -- unlike those in team sports -- are independent contractors, and as such don't have to share any more about their health than the bare minimum. That often leaves the tournament, tour, and federation bosses they partner with scrambling to piece together facts on their own, and the stories don't always match.

Consider the curious case of Serena Williams's bum right foot, which required surgery and ultimately forced her from the U.S. Open draw: Williams was reported to have injured it in July during a post-Wimbledon visit to Munich, but there were few specifics on how she hurt the foot, where the injuries were and what exactly was done to correct them.

That touched off a two-month-long game of Mad Libs that sucked in, among others, the WTA (which said Williams had injured herself stepping on a shard of broken glass), TV analyst Mary Carillo (who added that the injury was suffered in a bar amid the charged atmosphere of the Germany-Spain World Cup semifinal and then recanted that claim), and one coach (who relayed an eyewitness report from one of his players alleging that Williams "almost cut off her big toe").

Williams eventually set the record straight in an interview with USA Today. Still, the fact that she took so long and allowed the gossiping to become so rampant speaks to the heart of tennis' injury misinformation epidemic. Imagine the Patriots' Tom Brady waiting four months before revealing his torn ACL in 2008, or the Blazers simply saying Greg Oden has a hurt knee.

What tennis injuries ultimately reveal is who really calls the shots. Unlike the NFL and NBA, where strong-handed commissioners control the flow of information and actually wield power, tennis is more like a balkanized republic managed by a coalition of reluctant partners -- and players hold the most sway. When they get hurt, the tennis brass scurries like cockroaches for cover and leave the players to do their own damage control.

How else to explain why Earley was so vague when Azarenka collapsed, why WTA chairman Stacey Allaster was suspiciously silent during the great Williams debate or how ATP chairman Adam Helfant stays mum while his top players soldier on with mono? Really, tennis players are more than mere rank-and-file employees; they're franchises. Can you picture Roger Goodell or David Stern being as inconspicuous if the Jaguars fell into bankruptcy and the Hornets threatened to move again?

More than anything, producing timely and definitive injury updates would seem like an easy way for the WTA and ATP to win respect from a general sporting public that dismisses tennis as a sport for softies. Casual fans would likely have more admiration for Tommy Haas if he expounded on the litany of aches and sprains that have hobbled him over the course of his career. They'd have more respect for Maria Sharapova if she were more forthcoming about the state of her reconstructed right shoulder. Since her 2008 surgery, she has struggled to reprise top form.

Instead, tennis lets our imaginations run wild. As long as the sport insists on the cloak-and-dagger approach to injury disclosure, fans are pretty much doomed to an eternity of nervous waiting and needless guessing.

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