Tennis Needs a Change

Tennis is a brutal game on the body. Whether you’re a recreational player or a professional player, today’s game is not what it used to be. In recent memory, it seems that not a week goes by before we hear of players sustaining new injuries or having to re-address past injuries. Gael Monfils has suffered innumerable ankle and knee problems. David Nalbandian, Lleyton Hewitt and Tommy Haas all underwent hip surgeries this year alone. Rafael Nadal has experienced not only severe abdominal tears, but knee injuries that kept him from defending his title in Wimbledon last year.

In contrast, take the Champions Tour. While traveling the world and earning fame beyond their grand slammin’ years, retired tennis pros take combat in friendly matches and exhibitions for viewer pleasure. The likes of John McEnroe, Goran Ivanisevic, Mats Wilander and Jim Courier have been staples of this tour and are not likely to go anywhere soon. In fact, while watching some of these players on court, it’s daunting to see that their mentality, physical strength and tennis abilities have only been slighted to a minimal degree. They are not ‘young’ anymore, but they are all still in great shape and playing tennis well into their fifties! Most of the players on the Champions Tour sustained relatively few injuries during their time on ATP Tour, with the exceptions of Jimmy Connors (hips) and Andre Agassi (back). What gives?

John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg at the Champions Cup in Boston on May 1, 2010

How did they stay away from the injury bug while Marcos Baghdatis, Juan Martin del Potro and even Roger Federer can’t? Each player achieved elite status and was pitted against the toughest opponents of their era, so why the injury overload in today’s generation?

I think a better question to ask is: What has changed since then in the game of tennis?

The answer? Plenty. From the advancement in technology affecting racquets and strings, to the increased physicality of the sport, to the never-ending calendar of tournaments and commitments. Often times players laugh when asked about what they did in their ‘off-season.’ An off-season in most sports is several months. For top ATP pros, they’re lucky if they get a couple weeks at the end of the year before hustling back onto a tennis court. Others are plagued by injuries that cut their season short.  Tennis racquet material has also gone from laminated wood to aluminum to heavier carbon fibre composites. Strings have been given a makeover and have allowed players to tighten or loosen their strings to unthinkable tensions putting strain on their wrists, elbow, arms, and shoulders.

More interestingly, the height of the tennis player has increased. During the 80s and 90s, the average height of a top player was hovering around 6′. During the Sampras-Federer era, it was about 6’1”. Now, with John Isner, Sam Querrey, Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych leading the next round of elite players, the average has risen to 6’2.5.” We are seeing the optimal height of a tennis player look more like the expected height for a volleyball or basketball team. And with height comes stronger and more angular serves with some guys consistently serving in the 120- to 130-mph range.

American ATP standout, John Isner, measures in at 6′ 9” towering over Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells this year.

This raises questions about how much more physical can tennis get and what other technological advancements could possibly occur to make this game even more harsh on the human body. It’s tough to imagine a player that can retrieve more balls than Nadal, hit faster serves than Roddick or move as quickly as Andy Murray, but the evolution of tennis continues and we’re bound to see players surpass these already-amazing feats.

David Nalbandian, Lleyton Hewitt and Tommy Haas were mentioned at the beginning of this post. What do these three players have in common? They are all long-time veterans of the game and all three required hip surgeries earlier this year. They could be a good indication of where today’s guys will end up in five or ten years: broken down and battered.

I’m afraid one day I’ll wake up in 20 years, excited to go watch a retired pro play at a local venue, only to be disappointed that he can barely move on court because of all the beatings his body took during the pro tour. I wouldn’t be surprised to not see any of today’s top pros going into the Champions Tour or doing exhibition events like they once did.

Something needs to change in the game of tennis to preserve these players’ bodies, but what is it? Is it the scoring setup, the length of the season, technology or a combination of several things? Many players advocate for a shorter season with less necessary event commitments, others think that Davis Cup should be every four years instead of every year, yet others think that nothing needs to change and that the best win because they can balance and organize everything. What’s your take?