By Richard Evans
A pretty little girl walked past me at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden during the Pacific Life Open. She was all dressed up in her tennis gear, complete with rucksack and a racquet sticking out of it. She was probably 8, maybe a small 9. And her right leg was encased in a great black support from thigh to ankle.
It so happened that I had just been chatting to some friends from Santa Barbara who had driven down with their 11-year-old son, who is also a keen tennis player. But he can’t play at the moment because he has a rotator cuff problem in his right shoulder. At 11? And his older brother, who is 17 and is playing 18-and-under tournaments in California, was deprived of a victory the other day because he, too, suffered a shoulder injury during his match.
Add this to stories you hear from people who really know, like the French Open doctor who told me last year that he was appalled at having to treat 14-year-olds for injuries that he had never seen children suffer from before, and you realize that this is a problem that the game needs to address very urgently indeed. We have already noted the other problem that exists on the pro tour. A few months ago, I listed an entire Top 10 on the ATP tour who had been unable to maintain their ranking because of serious injuries. Since then, Patrick Rafter has been lost to the game forever, Goran Ivanisevic has struggled to make a comeback and Greg Rusedski has had yet more surgery. The consistency Tim Henman showed by maintaining a Top 10 ranking has been ruined by shoulder surgery. Gustavo Kuerten has taken a year to get back to something like his best and is still not the player he was; ditto for Marcelo Rios. Andre Agassi couldn’t play Indian Wells because of a recurrence of a shoulder problem, and Martina Hingis’s decision to retire at 22 was based largely on fighting what she felt was a losing battle with injuries. The list is endless, and this constant erosion of talent should be of major concern for a game that is desperately wanting to cultivate new stars with whom the public will have a chance to become familiar.
But how much worse is it going to become if hundreds of potential champions of tomorrow never get as a far as the Orange Bowl because their bodies give up long before they have reached maturity? And what kind of advertisement is it for the game in general if a young girl or boy who simply wants to play tennis for fun at a reasonable standard ends up in a leg brace?
Talk to top coaches like the USTA’s Eliot Teltchser and they immediately start talking about coaching techniques and stroke production. And that is before the other culprits are mentioned: heavier balls, slower and more abrasive courts, and either coaches or parents who either force or allow their children to hit far too many balls. “Ah, but they have to play constantly to remain competitive,” would be a common reply from the ambitious parent. But you only remain competitive if you are fit.
U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe is acutely aware of the problem in the pro ranks and was disturbed to hear of an increasing injury list amongst children. “There are a lot of factors involved,” he said. “Parents pushing kids too hard is one of them. You shouldn’t have to play six hours a day at a young age. We didn’t. John and Mark and I played soccer and basketball and did other things. The tennis academies should take a very careful look at how kids’ bodies are reacting to the amount of tennis they play.”
At the pro level, McEnroe gets a close up, in your face experience of just how the game has changed every time he hits with the players on his Davis Cup squad. “The game is a much more violent sport now,” he says. “It’s just so explosive. OK, so I’m old and not in great shape, but I worry about getting hurt when I hit with the guys on a hard court. You need to move and react to everything so quickly that it can be a problem. I don’t feel that way on clay. That is why it would be better for the kids to spend more time on clay courts.”
The subject of injuries and what to do about it should be high on the agenda for the next meeting of the Players Council. Their focus at the moment may be centered on trying to get the Grand Slams to divert more of their profits into player compensation and general promotion for the pro game worldwide, but there will not be much to promote if they are all in the treatment room. In response to the criticism that was being leveled at the game for being dominated by the big servers, which was only partially true, many indoor events have slowed down the conditions to such an extent that rallies which used to be over in two or three strokes now continue for 12 or more. Multiply that by each point played and then by a game and a match, and players – especially indoors in Europe at the end of a tiring year – are hitting the ball thousands of times more than they used to. The wear and tear on muscles, joints and ligaments is far from negligible.
It does seem that the Council, currently under the presidency of Todd Martin, one of the locker room’s wisest elder statesmen, with Todd Woodbridge as his No. 2, will be discussing ways of trying to improve the overall promotion of the game – certainly if Alex Corretja and Albert Costa have anything to do with it. And they will. Both these articulate Spaniards are on the Council at the moment, and Corretja picked up on a subject I have been banging on about for years during the Nasdaq-100 at Key Biscayne.
“We need names on the backs of our shirts,” said Corretja, who was a very effective president of the Players Council himself a few years ago. We were watching Rios play Juan Carlos Ferrero from the players restaurant, and without any prompting from me, Corretja put into words the thoughts of so many of us who see huge opportunities being missed.
“Look at Marcelo’s white shirt,” Corretja continued. “Nothing on the back. Why not ‘Rios’? What is the problem? The people who do not follow the game so closely will remember the name. I know the names of Premier League soccer players in England, and I know nothing much about them. But I know their names because I see it on the backs of their shirts. That’s what we need in tennis – name recognition. Wearing names when we play is the easiest way to get it. We are wasting opportunities to make money, too. If I wanted to buy a Manchester United shirt, I would want David Beckham’s name on the back. That makes it more fun, more interesting. We need to do this sort of thing in tennis and I am going to work at the Council level to see that it happens.”
It’s all about promotion, and as Charlie Pasarell was pointing out at Indian Wells, we have to see how other people do it. In Hollywood, if a studio spends $50 million on making a movie, they go out and spend another $50 million promoting it – even if it does star Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. The financial figures may be beyond our reach, but tennis has to start thinking the same way.
Laureus and their World Sports Awards in Monte Carlo have shown how to create an event from scratch by excellent promotion. This year’s ceremonies will take place on May 20, and once again, tennis is well represented, with Serena Williams amongst the five nominees for World Sportswoman of the Year, Daniela Hantuchova for Newcomer of the Year and Pete Sampras for Comeback Player of the Year. A global spotlight will be thrown on these players that week and they will be competing on a level playing field with peers in other sports. And that is more than you can say for the game of tennis itself.
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