With all the no-shows and losses due to injury at the French Open, the game waslooking as hazardous as a contact sport
Michael Novotnymay not have played a point of tennis at the French Open last week, but hespent as much time on the red clay as any player did. Novotny, a trainer forthe ATP Tour, shuttled from court to court, tending to heads, shoulders, kneesand toes--and just about every bone, muscle and ligament in between. When RogerFederer, the men's top seed, said he hoped to be "the last manstanding," he might have been speaking literally.
Tennis hasdevolved into the sort of hazardous workplace that merits an OSHAinvestigation. This year in Paris the nonstarters due to injury included sixpast champions: Andre Agassi (back), Gustavo Kuerten (hip), Jennifer Capriati(shoulder), Mary Pierce (groin), Serena Williams (knee) and Monica Seles(foot). And many players who competed did so in less than optimal health. Fifthseed Andy Roddick retired in his first-round match with a sore left ankle.Women's third seed Nadia Petrova was slowed by a thigh pull and lost herfirst-round match. Time and again, interview sessions resembled mealtime at aretirement community, each conversation dwelling on aches and pains.
Befitting a sportthat's congenitally incapable of consensus, the explanations for the raft ofinjuries are manifold. Lightweight rackets and high-tech strings encourageplayers to overhit and put more stress on their bodies. The depth of tournamentfields eliminates the early-round cakewalks enjoyed by top players of pasteras. The tournament calendar is grueling, but many players fill their shortoff-season with lucrative exhibitions. Finally, players overtrain, and whenthey try to play through pain in one part of their bodies, they put too muchpressure on other parts (so a knee injury morphs into a thigh injury). "Thebody is like a chain--one thing will react to the other," says MariaSharapova, whose right-ankle injury kept her from playing any clay courttune-up event.
Whatever thereasons for these physical breakdowns, few of the sport's gatekeepers seemconcerned. A suggestion to eliminate the men's best-of-five-sets matches duringthe first week of Grand Slam events has fallen on deaf ears. (Never mind that59 of the 64 first-round matches in Paris would have had the same outcome ifplayed under the best-of-three format.) Though both tours have announced plansto shorten the season, top players will be expected to enter the same number ofevents. And the very agents who blow a gasket over late-arriving courtesy carsare, curiously, less outraged by an injury epidemic that might ravage theirclients' seasons--and their earning potential.
The players arenot so cavalier about this trend. As Roddick assessed his health in theinterview room after his loss, he was the picture of despondency. "It wouldbe tough to feel sorry for myself when I've seen guys blow shoulders and kneesout, miss a year at a time," he admitted. "That being said, this is notfun at all."
Get Out of My Limelight, Bro
Like PrincessAnne and Janet Jackson, Dinara Safina spent her formative years obscured by afamous big brother. When Marat Safin beat Pete Sampras to win the 2000 U.S.Open, Dinara was a 14-year-old junior player. Later, as fans flocked to watchthe likable, erratic Marat--who is capable of both spectacular andspectacularly awful tennis--Dinara struggled to find traction on the WTA tour."She needs to have a character, and she needs to be a little bit of agrown-up woman," Marat memorably said last year. "With all respect,[when I was her age] I had been Number 1 in the world."
Perhaps now it'ssis's turn to dispense career advice. As Marat crashed out in the first roundin Paris, Dinara looked sharp, relying on heavy, pace-laced strokes to upsetthe fourth-seeded Sharapova and advance to the quarterfinals. Having reachedthe final of the Rome event last month, Safina entered Paris with a career-highranking of No. 16. "I wanted to prove that I can also play tennis," shetold reporters last week, obliquely referring to her big sib. "I wassometimes trying to do too much. But then I relax. I am what I am. I amDinara."
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