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TEBBUTT: FITNESS IS FOREMOST

May 06, 2014
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

TEBBUTT: FITNESS IS FOREMOST

Mutua Madrid Open

There are ominous signs as men’s tennis heads toward the short strokes part of the season with Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open taking place over the next five months.

The withdrawal of Novak Djokovic from this week’s Madrid Open with an ongoing right wrist injury is a concern for the world No. 2. And world No. 1 Rafael Nadal has not won a tournament (0-4) since having an injection for a troublesome back just before the Masters 1000 in Indian Wells in March.

Over the past decade, it has been uncanny how rarely the final rounds of Grand Slams have been significantly affected by injuries.

There are a pair of notable exceptions – in fact they are the only times players other than the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic-Murray axis have won a ‘Big One.’ The most recent was this past January when Nadal (above being made an honorary citizen of Madrid this week) injured his back in the warm-up before the Australian Open final and went down in four sets to Stanislas Wawrinka while visibly physically impaired.

Mutua Madrid Open

The fact that Wawrinka had beaten three-time defending champion Djokovic in the quarter-finals, and has since won his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo, added credibility to his stature as a Grand Slam champion.

Juan Martin del Potro’s 2009 US Open triumph is the only other interruption in the hegemony of the Big Four. He won that year by beating Nadal by the improbable score of 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinal and Federer 3-6, 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 in the final. Nadal had an abdominal strain that diminished him in an awkwardly one-sided match and Federer was bothered by a back issue in the final.

Since Federer won the Australian Open in 2004, the only two other interlopers as Grand Slam champions were Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open and Gaston Gaudio, the surprise winner of the 2004 French Open over the favoured Guillermo Coria. That year, an fledgling Federer appeared psyched-out by three-time Roland Garros champion Gustavo Kuerten, losing 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to the Brazilian in the third round.

Also in 2004, Nadal, who had a stress fracture after persisting in a match against Richard Gasquet in Portugal several weeks earlier that he probably should have withdrawn from, was unable to post in Paris. We will never know if, at almost 18, he was ready to do then what he began doing about 10 months later – totally dominating clay-court tennis with titles in Monte Carlo, Rome and at Roland Garros.

atpworldtour.com

It’s beginning to look as if injuries could be a key factor in the changing of the guard from the current dominant players to the younger group coming up behind them.

Federer, Nadal and Murray (the only one requiring surgery) have had back issues, and Djokovic’s wonky wrist is certainly worrisome considering the significant impact that joint takes every time a ball is hit.

Over the next three years – through 2016 which includes the Olympic Games on hard courts in Rio de Janeiro – it’s entirely possible that three or four new Grand Slam champions could come from a group that includes Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, Dominic Thiem, Bernard Tomic, Federico Delbonis, Pablo Carreno Busta and others.

Ernests Gulbis and Jerzy Janowicz are not included on that list because just the thought of a Grand Slam final surely would be enough to produce a mega meltdown from the volatile Latvian and the impulsive Pole.

Closer to home, there has to be concern about Vasek Pospisil and his back problem, which began as a bulging disc in the first month of the 2014 season.

Pospisil, who ended the 2013 year at No. 32, won his first four ‘completed’ matches in 2014 – but has gone 0-6 since the back began bothering him.

Currently at No. 31, he had to pull out of this week’s Madrid Open after withdrawing from a doubles second round in Bucharest two weeks ago because of back spasms.

The plan is for him to return next week in Rome and then to play Nice the following week before competing in the third Roland Garros of his young career.

atpworldtour.com

Tennis has been spoiled by the relatively good health of its headliners for the last 10 years. Federer, who withdrew from Madrid on Tuesday to be with his very pregnant wife, leads the way. He broke Wayne Ferreira’s consecutive Grand Slams played record with his 57th in a row at the Australian Open in January.

The sport can only hope for similar good fortune over the next decade, but it won’t be a surprise if fitness and health play an increasingly large role in the outcome of the major championships.       

WOMEN’S THREE IS NOW TWO

Mutua Madrid Open

Injuries have also been a significant factor on the women’s side, with the Troika of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka reduced to a duo as a result of Azarenka’s ongoing left foot injury.

The Belarussian, 24, has only played one match (and she was unfit) at Indian Wells since her 6-1, 5-7, 6-0 loss to Agnieszka Radwanska in the Australian Open quarter-finals in January.

Williams had a back injury when she was upset by Ana Ivanovic in the 2014 Australian Open round-of-16 and Sharapova is gradually rounding into form after rehabbing a troublesome shoulder all last fall.

Azarenka, currently ranked No. 4, is missing in Madrid this week and will also not be able to play Rome next week. That will likely drop her ranking to No. 5, behind current No. 5 Simona Halep, and potentially make things more difficult for her if she is indeed healthy enough to play Roland Garros and progress through the early rounds.

As with the men, a group of women including Halep, Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard, Madison Keys, Donna Vekic, Belinda Bencic and others are surely going to break through sometime before the end of the 2016 season.

 

ELENA BALTACHA

The tennis community was saddened Monday by the news that Elena Baltacha had died of liver cancer at age 30 on May 4.

Baltacha, who had a career high ranking of No. 49 in 2010 and represented Britain in Fed Cup for more than 10 years, retired from tennis last fall.

There was a moment of silence for her (above) before the day’s play began at the Madrid Open on Monday.

Baltacha had married her longtime coach Nino Severino just weeks before being diagnosed with the cancer in January.

wtatennis.com

She played the Rogers Cup three times in the qualifying from 2009 to 2011. Her best result was reaching the main draw in 2009 in Toronto before losing to Kim Clijsters in the first match of the Belgian’s second tournament of her comeback following childbirth.

In a statement, Iain Bates, head of Women’s Tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, said: “Today we have lost a shining light from the heart of British tennis – a true role model, a great competitor and a wonderful friend. We have so many special memories to cherish, but this leaves a gaping hole for everybody in both British and women’s tennis, and words simply cannot express how saddened we are by this news. All our thoughts are with Niño and the rest of Elena's family. We will miss you Bal.”

 

MANDATORY READING FOR AGASSI FANS

Bill Frakes – Sports Illustrated

Gary Smith retired from Sports Illustrated last week after 32 years with the publication. He is one of the most respected American writers about sport.

Here is the link to an exhaustive, brilliant story about Andre Agassi written in 2006 – the year he retired. It’s a must for Agassi/tennis aficionados but probably requires about a half hour to properly plough through!

 

TODAY’S TWEETS

With Mothers Day coming up this weekend, it’s only appropriate to have this picture of Milos Raonic and his mom Vesna.

This is a rather artsy shot of a great Swiss tennis player – Monsieur Wawrinka.

That’s a quote from Samuel Beckett on his left forearm: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.”