By David Zakhodin
As with any sport, injuries play a big factor in determining the course of both individual tournaments and entire careers. Being a non-contact sport, tennis is one that does not often attract a whole lot of attention when it comes to gruesome injuries. Usually, we cannot tell what is ailing a player until the commentators pick up the dialogue with the trainer or until the players speak in a post-match press conference. Fortunately, tennis fans rarely have to witness scary injuries that force players out for an extended period of time. Aside from an isolated incident on the women’s side like Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ blowout at Wimbledon, we have largely been unable to notice the physical ailments of many players who are now taking extended periods of time off.
With the 2017 season entering its final few months, rarely have we seen so many top male players declare themselves finished for the remainder of the year due to injury. Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, and Kei Nishikori are all dealing with different injuries that will force them to sit on the sidelines until 2018. Moreover, Andy Murray, Milos “I Wear New Balance” Raonic, and Marin Cilic have hardly spent any time on court since Wimbledon. While it does not appear the latter group will miss the rest of the season, this is an appalling statistic: six top ten players (within the last year) who all competed at Wimbledon are either absent or in doubt for the year’s final Major. And when has the U.S. Open field ever missed the previous year’s finalists and been so thin at the top? The answer is, never.
So what is the common cause of all these injuries? Are the injuries as serious as the players’ social media platforms make them out to be? Are they shutting it down for the rest of the season just because they saw Roger Federer so greatly benefit from it last year? These are all questions the ATP has to be asking itself as it constantly takes criticism from the top players regarding the stringent requirements for playing the prestigious Masters series events. Furthermore, how does the USTA feel about its premier event being undercut through no fault of its own? Unlike what happened in golf with the PGA Championship being moved to May, it does not appear the U.S. Open will ever shift from being played during its historic dates in late August and early September. Being the last Major of the year and often featuring difficult conditions, the U.S. Open exposes many players who have seemingly hit either a physical or mental wall during the “dog days” of the season.
For instance, last year that player was Dominic Thiem. After having an extremely successful first half of the season, Thiem took a slight step backward and showed it when he struggled in the third round against Juan Martin Del Potro and had to retire from the match. When you’re struggling physically more than Del Potro, a guy who keels over on a regular basis and hasn’t been able to string more than two good matches together in a row, that’s a bad sign. Unfortunately, Thiem hasn’t played well since Roland Garros this year either, and it would not shock me if he once again burned out early in New York. Clearly, the odds at the U.S. Open are stacked against guys who are running low on gas. The only difference now is that not only are younger and less experienced guys like Thiem burning out due to injury, but so are Grand Slam champions Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka. So if you’re Novak Djokovic, why risk that bone bruise in the elbow when you’ve had a down year and have seen Roger Federer’s post-injury resurgence win him multiple Majors in the next year? If you’re Stan Wawrinka, why not have knee surgery and load up for another deep run in Australia as opposed to going into the U.S. Open with the pressure of being a defending champion and not even playing at 100 percent?
The same logic does not apply to Kei Nishikori, who seems to be perpetually injured through no fault of his own outside of his abysmal body language which suggests he’s rarely playing at full speed. With regard to Marin Cilic, an abductor injury is what stands between him and an attempt to make another Grand Slam final. It is unclear whether or not he is still suffering from the blister that foiled him in the Wimbledon final or if he has yet to recover from the thrashing Federer gave him. However, his comments on being unprepared to defend his title in Cincinnati are yet another example of how players are now willing to sit out premier tournaments and fall in the rankings if it means giving themselves more time to rest and heal as opposed to putting their body on the line and risking the future.
Contrary to the philosophy of Cilic, Andy Murray is one who always seems to show up for every Major and Masters event even if he isn’t in the best physical form. What we usually see from Murray is him complaining about minor injuries whenever he starts losing, but this time around it appears a more serious hip injury forced him to give up the world number one ranking without even putting up a fight. If he plays in New York, which he says he will, and aggravates that injury in the process, I would not be surprised at all if he joined the likes of Djokovic, Wawrinka, and Nishikori and took the rest of the year off.
And last (and certainly least) in the U.S. Open game-time decisions is Milos Raonic. The guy can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to suffering injuries that seem to derail his overly ambitious goal of becoming the best in the world. Since his run to the 2016 Wimbledon final and solid performance at the 2016 World Tour Finals, Raonic hasn’t put together a stretch of solid tennis and cannot stay healthy. The bottom line is that durability is the key to sustained success in the sport of tennis when the busy schedule and grueling physical demands stack the odds against these players. One could argue that Rafael Nadal has hardly been durable throughout his career, and it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to say that considering all the layoffs he’s taken and titles he’s failed to defend because of not being fit to play. But yet the guy is the second greatest player of all time and just regained world number one status at age 31, so I’d say his blistering physical brand of tennis outweighs the costs of that particular game style.
While we may not have the answer as to why even the game’s best players are suffering numerous injuries, we do know that their void in the last two Masters series events and at the upcoming U.S. Open is creating opportunities for those willing to convert on them. The quarterfinals at Montreal had no top ten players besides Federer and Zverev, and the Cincinnati semifinal pairings were the first ones in nearly five years to not feature at least one of the Big Four. With the top ten rankings being in as much flux as they have been in recent years, this is the time for talented guys with Grand Slam potential like Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem, and Nick Kyrgios to step up and show their worth. Zverev has already done so with two top notch Masters Series victories this year; Dimitrov followed suit yesterday in Cincinnati. And even though he certainly has nowhere nearly as much talent as the aforementioned guys, Sam Querrey has a career-defining opportunity to qualify for the year-end finals. While John Isner currently sits as the highest ranked American at world number fourteen, I think I speak for many fans in saying that we don’t want to see that brand of tennis anywhere near our television. Instead, Querrey won our hearts with a remarkable run to the Wimbledon semifinals, and we Americans certainly need him to come through in New York and during the rest of the fall considering Jack Sock is nowhere near able to consistently act like a professional on court. And how about a shoutout to David Ferrer for nearly beating Roger in Montreal and making a deep run in Cincinnati when his ranking had been slipping all season, and it looked like retirement was on the horizon. The guy never stops fighting.
If you’ve made it this far and are now super bummed out about the U.S. Open, don’t be! The secret trick in the tournament’s back pocket is its ability to set up a potential first-time Federer vs Nadal final. Now, Chris Fowler mentioned during the Cincinnati broadcast that there is a 50-50 chance as to whether or not they will be placed in opposite halves of the draw (presuming Murray is seeded second). If I’m Brian Earley (U.S. Open tournament director), I’m rigging that draw for a Federer-Nadal final with absolutely no shame. Am I concerned about the apparent back injury that forced Roger out of Cincinnati? Yes. Did Rafa play extremely poorly in his losses to Shapovalov and Kyrgios? Yes. But if we’ve learned anything from these two greats, it’s that they show up when it counts. No one predicted them to face off in this year’s Australian Open final, and they played an instant classic. When you consider how disappointing many late round matches at the U.S. Open have been in the last five years, these two are bound to re-ignite their rivalry one last time on a stage where they have yet to battle. There will be plenty of points available for the Grand Slam winners of the future as a result of the high quantity of injuries. What the injuries have also shown is that the Federer – Nadal rivalry will define 2017 just as it defined 2007. With the world number one ranking on the line and more Grand Slam glory at the end of the tunnel, there is no better stage for these veterans to continue re-writing tennis history.