Missing in Action:WTA urged to cut tour.
Missing in action
By Tom Fordyce
Women's tennis has a big problem: its stars are missing.
WTA urged to cut tour
Serious injury robbed Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin-Hardenne and the Williams sisters of long chunks of last season, while Kim Clijsters says she will retire in 2007 - aged just 24 - because of the strain on her body.
On Tuesday, former world number one Tracy Austin told BBC Sport that the women's game would be left in crisis if the WTA refused to act.
A generation ago, women's stars could expect to enjoy careers stretching into their 30s. So why are today's players so vulnerable to injury?
Former Great Britain Davis Cup physio Mark Bender explains all.
"The top women's serves today are more powerful and robust - an attacking weapon, like in the men's game," says Bender.
"If you go back a few years to before the Williams' sisters and definitely before the eastern European girls started coming through, the serve was just a way of starting the point in the women's game.
"Players would use a lot of slice and only rarely go for a hard, booming first serve.
"Now, rather than just popping the ball over, they're getting a lot of air, jumping up and using their whole bodies to generate more torque on the ball.
"The change in that alone has resulted in much more load going through their legs, back, shoulders - and that makes injuries much more likely."
Case study: Maria Sharapova's back injury
"On both their forehands and backhands, the women have followed the men in adopting a more open stance," explains Bender.
"That puts a lot more load on their dominant leg.
"So if you're a right-handed player, by putting more load through your right leg you get a lot more rotating forces through that leg, which massively loads up the knee, hip and back on that side.
"The previous, more closed-style of playing groundstrokes may not have generated the same power on the ball, but at least it was easier on a player's body.
Henin hit by hamstring injury
"The rallies too are now a lot longer. Rather than playing serve and volley, virtually all the girls are standing at the back for most of the points, with the result that you're seeing rallies that are 20-30% longer than they used to be."
Case study: Justine Henin-Hardenne's knee and hamstring injuries
"A few years ago, there was no-one but Agassi doing any weight-training on the men's tour during the season," says Bender.
Sharapova was hit by back and chest injuries in '05
"But for the past three years, it's become de rigueur for them all to do power and strength conditioning during the season.
"The women have followed suit. A lot of the women's coaches are ducking and diving between the men's and women's tours, and they will use whatever experience they can to give their athlete an edge.
"That means the women players are now doing a lot of bench presses, military presses and Olympic-style powerlifting to enhance their power - because they're now playing a power game.
Chest injury forces Sharapova out
"This sort of weights work, especially when you're combining it with intense matches mid-tour, puts new strains on the women."
Case study: Maria Sharapova's pectoral injury
"It seems to be the top 20 players who are out injured more often," says Bender.
"That may well be because the fine line they walk between playing enough matches to maintain their ranking points, and then overdoing it and injuring themselves. They're constantly on that edge.
"To keep your ranking high, you have to at least keep repeating what you achieved the previous season.
Clijsters to quit
"There is also a long American hard-court season, both after the Australian Open and in the build-up to the US Open.
"And the hard courts put a lot more pressure on all of the players."
Case study: Kim Clijsters' decision to retire in 2007
THE SUPPLEMENT PROBLEM
"Female athletes, because of the menstrual cycle, need to have their nutrition absolutely perfect," reveals Bender.
"They need to make sure their zinc and magnesium levels are really well looked after, because if you're a female athlete and your levels of those minerals are poor, that will both affect your ability to recover from injury and increase the chances of you developing chronic soft-tissue injuries.
"A lot of the top players will have access to nutrition, but there's the anxiety about what supplements they can take.
Virus hit Henin's hopes
"The WTA has a very specific list of the type of supplements the players can and can't take, so the players can't just go to the counter at a high-street chemists and get ordinary zinc or magnesium supplements. They're restricted in what they can take.
"And at the level these guys are working at, you can't get what you need from an ordinary diet.
"You need supplements. Without them, it puts an extra strain on their bodies."
Case study: Justine Henin-Hardenne's problems with a virus - falling ill and being unable to recover is far more likely if your body is run-down
"There is an emotional and physical burnout that occurs when you've been thrown into intensive training from before puberty," says Bender.
"By the time such players hit their early 20s, they're dying to go out and have a normal life.
"They have all the trappings of success, but no opportunity to enjoy it.
Serena's priorities change
"And mental burnout has an effect on the physical side of things. If you're feeling tired and a bit down, on the court grinding it out every week, it has a big effect."
Case study: Serena Williams' desire to move into acting and fashion
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