Australian Open kicks off with a few stars on the limp
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA -- The banged-up, bandaged brigade of international players has assembled for the year's first Grand Slam event, beginning on Monday.
With several players, including Rafael Nadal (groin), Nikolay Davydenko (foot), David Nalbandian (knee), Lleyton Hewitt (calf) and Nadia Petrova (abdominal), nursing niggles, and others, including Venus Williams (wrist) and Mary Pierce (knee), absent, tennis is obviously a very rough game for a non-contact sport.
While various theories abound about why it is so gruelling, explanations go beyond there simply being excessive stress on ligaments and muscles.
There is the international travel -- distances that make hockey and basketball players look, by comparison, like local commuters.
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Last year, Kim Clijsters arrived in Sydney after a long flight from Hong Kong and soon felt a tightening in her back that later hampered her play at the Australian Open.
This year, Nadal felt the first twinges of his groin problem during a flight after playing in India.
Add to the travel the imponderables of weather -- the forecast temperature for Tuesday, the second day of this year's Australian Open, is 39 -- as well as the repetitive motion of hitting tennis balls and it is surprising more players are not in the casualty wards.
Australian Open and Wimbledon champion Amélie Mauresmo says having a full-time physiotherapist with her for the past 2½ years has been a big help.
Canadian Davis Cup captain Martin Laurendeau of Montreal believes that thinking is trickling down to lower-ranked players.
"There's been a trend over the past 10 years of players using physios more," said Laurendeau, who coaches the top-ranked Canadian man, Frank Dancevic of Niagara Falls, Ont. "They may choose between a coach or a physio travelling with them. A physio can really help in preventing and treating injuries."
The physical price of matches, including game styles, can also be a factor in a player's durability. Hewitt, for whom running and retrieving is the bedrock of his game, has begun to wear down and had foot, ankle, knee and calf injuries.
A researcher using a global positioning device measured Hewitt's movement during a five-set match against Nadal at the 2005 Australian Open. It turned out he covered more ground in one match than Andy Roddick did in reaching the semi-finals (five matches).
Certainly one of the most efficient players in terms of managing his physical resources is world No. 1 Roger Federer.
This week, during an exhibition event in Melbourne, he said he would prefer an Australian Open held in March to create a longer year-end break. But that is not going to happen because the event is held at the very end of school summer holidays in Australia and before Australian rules football begins to steal the media spotlight.
It makes as much sense to move the Australian Open to March as it would to change the U.S. Open from straddling the Labour Day weekend to October.
"I don't think that's ever going to change," Federer said of the date. "You are going to have to clean up the entire schedule to make everybody happy, and then people will still not be happy."
In what seems to be an oxymoron, he added: "I'm not complaining. I play all the four [Grand] Slams, and usually as many tournaments as I can. So I like it when the season is longer. It gives me the choice to choose."
Last Wednesday, the No. 2 seed, Davydenko, pulled out of the Sydney ATP event with a foot problem and explained other injury withdrawals by declaring, "It's a small tournament, so I don't think anybody cares about here."
The next day, the ATP slapped him with a $10,000 (U.S.) fine under its "unsportsmanlike conduct" rules. There was a buzz about Davydenko until that night, when Carlos Moya defeated Marcos Baghdatis 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (3) in a thoroughly entertaining quarter-final.
Not for the first time, great tennis was the best advertisement for the sport and quickly overshadowed talk of injuries and athlete withdrawals.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Known as Aussie Kim when she was engaged to Lleyton Hewitt, the popular Belgian, 23, is set to retire as early as July. This is her last chance to win Down Under.
Probably the gutsiest of the emerging Chinese players, Zheng, 23, could play defending champion Amélie Mauresmo in the third round.
On an impressive 9-1 run in 2007, after losing the Sydney final to Clijsters yesterday, the 21-year-old Serbian reached the U.S. Open semi-finals and could as well at Melbourne Park.
An Australian Open quarter-finalist and French Open semi-finalist last year, the 27-year-old Croatian possesses the well-rounded game to win a Grand Slam event -- if a certain dominating Swiss player was out of the way.
The runner-up to Ljubicic in the final at Qatar last week, the 19-year-old Scot has the feistiness and firepower to go a long way.
Renowned for his crazy-good shotmaking and for once being Jennifer Capriati's boyfriend, the 26-year-old Belgian won in India last week. He may finally be getting a handle on his explosive temperament. Tom Tebbutt