In­jured Mur­ray with­draws from US Open

Mur­ray, Djokovic, Raonic, Wawrinka and Nishikori all miss out, but tour­na­ment di­rec­tor de­nies cri­sis

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Si­mon Briggs TEN­NIS COR­RE­SPON­DENT in New York

A tear­ful Andy Mur­ray an­nounced an 11th-hour with­drawal from the US Open last night be­cause of hip trou­ble – the same in­jury that de­railed his Wimbledon cam­paign last month.

Mur­ray had been des­per­ate to play here, es­pe­cially af­ter the pre­vi­ous with­drawal of four other lead­ing play­ers had left him with an invit­ingly open route to the fi­nal. But he was forced to ac­knowl­edge that his move­ment re­mained too re­stricted to give him a re­al­is­tic chance in the tour­na­ment.

“I was ac­tu­ally prac­tis­ing OK the last few days,” said Mur­ray, in a short but emo­tional press brief­ing at Flush­ing Mead­ows. “But it’s too sore for me to win the tour­na­ment and, ul­ti­mately, that’s what I was here to try to do.”

Mur­ray’s right hip has been a sig­nif­i­cant is­sue since his gru­elling French Open semi-fi­nal against Stan Wawrinka in early June. He woke up in agony the next day, but hav­ing suf­fered from dis­com­fort in that area since he was a young player, he as­sumed that the pain would ease.

In­stead, it has now lin­gered for al­most three months with­out any real im­prove­ment. Mur­ray has not re­vealed any de­tails of the in­jury, but has con­sulted a va­ri­ety of spe­cial­ists. The next ques­tion he must ad­dress is whether it is worth putting his hip joint through the trou­ble – and risk – of an op­er­a­tion.

“When you speak to a lot [of ex­perts], there are dif­fer­ent views on what the best thing to do is,” said Mur­ray, whose last com­pet­i­tive match was his hand­i­capped de­feat in the Wim­ble- don quar­ter-fi­nal to Sam Quer­rey. “That’s a de­ci­sion I’ll need to take now.

“I cer­tainly wouldn’t have been hurt­ing my­self more by try­ing to play. It was more a ques­tion of whether it would set­tle down in time. We were hop­ing that by tak­ing a few weeks off and rest­ing and re­hab­bing and re­ally re­duc­ing the load that I was putting through it, I would be OK by the time the US Open came around. But un­for­tu­nately that’s not been the case.”

Might Mur­ray call time on his sea­son early? “That’s some­thing that I’ll sit down and de­cide with my team,” he said. “If I can play be­fore the end of the year, then I would love to. But I need to make the cor­rect de­ci­sion.”

The prob­lem

Andy Mur­ray waited un­til the last pos­si­ble mo­ment yes­ter­day be­fore he dropped his bombshell, revealing that his painful right hip will not al­low him to par­tic­i­pate in tomorrow’s US Open.

Mur­ray’s tear­ful an­nounce­ment forced a late reshuf­fle of the draw. More alarm­ingly, it left the tour­na­ment with­out any of the five men who won the most ATP rank­ings points last sea­son.

To re­cap, No­vak Djokovic (el­bow), Stan Wawrinka (knee) and Kei Nishikori (wrist) have al­ready called time on their sea­sons, while Mi­los Raonic (an­other wrist) was also un­able to reach the start­ing line.

It is hard to re­mem­ber a longer or more il­lus­tri­ous in­jury list. (On the women’s side, Sam Sto­sur and Timea Bac­sin­szky are among the high-pro­file ab­sen­tees.) But does it count as firm ev­i­dence that ten­nis is be­com­ing more dan­ger­ous for the play­ers? The an­swer is more com­pli­cated than it might first ap­pear.

The data: im­per­cep­ti­ble in­creases

Since 2012, both men’s and women’s tours have kept com­put­erised med­i­cal records for all their play­ers. So we have a de­cent sam­ple of data points to work with.

From the end of 2014, the ATP logged a small in­crease, of be­tween one and three per cent, in re­ported in­juries over each of the next two sea­sons. But if you com­pare the first three-quar­ters of this sea­son with the equiv­a­lent pe­riod in 2016, the num­bers have dropped again by some six per cent (the Olympic Games may play a role here), so that we are al­most back where we started.

Over the same pe­riod, the WTA’s data have also re­mained sta­ble. Yet since 1994 – and the in­tro­duc­tion of the age-el­i­gi­bil­ity rule that re­stricts teenagers’ ap­pear­ances un­til they reach 18 – me­dian ca­reer du­ra­tion on the women’s tour has risen by two years to achieve an en­cour­ag­ing to­tal of 13.7. That com­pares more than favourably with Amer­i­can team sports such as grid­iron (3.1 years) or bas­ket­ball (5.5).

The pied piper ef­fect?

Cer­tain tour­na­ment di­rec­tors – es­pe­cially those whose events are staged to­wards the end of the year – must have winced when Fed­erer re­turned from a six-month lay-off to win Jan­uary’s Aus­tralian Open.

Would there be copy­cats? Did the in­flu­ence of Fed­erer – as well as that of French Open cham­pion Rafael Nadal – help per­suade Djokovic and Wawrinka to close their own 2017 sea­sons in the days af­ter Wimbledon? The ex­am­ple is such a com­pelling one that it may even have crossed sports, judg­ing by Rory McIl­roy’s re­cent com­ments.

Yet the US Open’s tour­na­ment di­rec­tor, David Brewer, ar­gues that th­ese few in­stances amount to lit­tle on their own. “I think it’s a the­ory in search of some­thing,” Brewer said. “If you ask Roger for his pref­er­ence, it wouldn’t have been to miss the US Open last year. Same story for No­vak and Stan. We know No­vak has been dinged up for a year or so, and Stan is hav­ing an op­er­a­tion, so they’re all le­git­i­mate rea­sons.”

How about the idea that the play­ers’ en­er­gies might be de­pleted by the time they reach this fi­nal fur­long of the sea­son, thus mak­ing in­juries more likely? “We’ve talked about that and we re­ally don’t think so,” Brewer replied. “Ten­nis is pretty much a 12-months-a-year sport now.”

This last point is sup­ported by Todd El­len­becker, the ATP’s vice-pres­i­dent for med­i­cal ser­vices, who says the clear­est spike in the rates of re­ported in­juries comes in Jan­uary. This could be con­nected with the in­ten­sity of De­cem­ber train­ing blocks – or sim­ply the fact that play­ers don’t have ac­cess to ATP phys­ios over the Christ­mas pe­riod, and thus bom­bard them with queries as soon as they go back to work.

The age­ing work­force

Could we be miss­ing the most ob­vi­ous fac­tor of all? Isn’t the num­ber of high-pro­file ab­sen­tees the re­sult of an age­ing work­force, es­pe­cially on the men’s side? Most weeks this sea­son, the world’s top 100 has in­cluded more than 40 thirty-some­things.

Per­haps the sur­pris­ing thing is not that th­ese long-serv­ing play­ers are get­ting hurt – given the way that tis­sues lose their elas­tic­ity over time – but that they are so de­ter­mined to keep play­ing any­way. Fed­erer acts as a pied piper here in a dif­fer­ent sense.

Ten years ago, his com­pa­triot Wawrinka might well have per­ceived his re­cent knee op­er­a­tion as a good rea­son to draw down the cur­tain. Now he is prob­a­bly imag­in­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of more big pay­days ahead.

The lu­cra­tive na­ture of mod­ern ten­nis leads to more strate­gic plan­ning. And to larger and more pro­fes­sional sup­port teams. In the words of Ser­gio Gomez-Cuesta, head of sci­ence and medicine at Gosling Ten­nis Academy in Hert­ford­shire, “Con­di­tion­ing th­ese days is awe­some. It’s the top play­ers’ at­ten­tion to de­tail that has en­abled them to last this long.”

Yet this only holds the in­jury rate sta­ble, rather than re­duc­ing it. Play­ers such as Mur­ray or Djokovic tend to cash in their ex­tra fit­ness mar­gin, train­ing even harder in search of that ex­tra one or two per cent on the court.

“I think some play­ers fig­ure out how to take a rest pe­riod to heal them­selves,” says Mats Wi­lan­der, who will be com­men­tat­ing on the US Open for Eurosport.

“But oth­ers are too afraid of do­ing that be­cause they are wor­ried about be­ing un­able to get back to the top of their game, so they run them­selves into the ground.

“I’m not wor­ried about the big pic­ture,” Wi­lan­der added, with what could be un­wonted op­ti­mism. “I think it’s a learn­ing curve and peo­ple will re­alise with Roger and Rafa as ex­am­ples that there is noth­ing to worry about. Just take a break when you’re in­jured and come back in two or three months.”

The way for­ward

The ATP and WTA tours are al­ready more proac­tive than you might think. They both sup­ply de­tailed med­i­cal screen­ings to new play­ers, and iden­tify po­ten­tial is­sues.

“Preven­tion is 50 per cent of what we do,” says Kath­leen Stroia, the WTA’s vice-pres­i­dent for sports sci­ence and medicine. Stroia works with a team of 30 phys­ios (the ATP em­ploys 18) and has also in­tro­duced a biome­chan­i­cal scan­ning tool that picks up weak­nesses in tech­nique or flex­i­bil­ity. She iden­ti­fies the lower back and pelvis as prob­lem ar­eas for many, while El­len­becker says hip prob­lems are ris­ing among the men.

More re­search, though, is needed into the ef­fects of sur­face and ball changes – even though this is tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing. “If some­one re­ports an el­bow prob­lem at Queen’s,” says El­len­becker, “has he de­vel­oped it be­cause of the pre­vi­ous six weeks of ex­tended ral­lies with heavy balls on clay courts? How can you tell whether it’s re­ally a grass-court in­jury? Hav­ing said that, this is an area we are look­ing at more. Since we started keep­ing dig­i­tal med­i­cal records, we’ve been con­cen­trat­ing on im­prov­ing our pro­vi­sion of care on the ground. But now we’re ac­cu­mu­lat­ing enough data to start think­ing about wider is­sues: sur­faces, balls, three-set ver­sus five-set matches, and all those dif­fer­ent pa­ram­e­ters.”

Ten­nis has been ask­ing sim­i­lar ques­tions over in­jury rates since the 1970s. Yet chang­ing the cul­ture will not be easy, as many who work in the sport – even some of the med­i­cal staff them­selves – re­main wed­ded to its in­tense phys­i­cal­ity. Asked to ex­plain the preva­lence of in­jury bulletins in 2017, Mur­ray’s former physio Jez Green – who now works with 20-yearold wun­derkind Alexan­der Zverev – replied: “I think it’s wear and tear over the years be­cause of the longer and very phys­i­cal points. It’s im­pos­si­ble to be su­per-fast for­ever with­out the body start­ing to break down, es­pe­cially play­ing five sets.”

So, would Green be in favour of short­en­ing the for­mat? “No way, best of five is how it should be in my opin­ion,” he replied. “No hid­ing place, men­tally or phys­i­cally.”

Did the ex­am­ple of Fed­erer per­suade Djokovic to end his sea­son early?

In most weeks this sea­son, the top 100 has in­cluded more than 40 play­ers over 30

Agony again: Andy Mur­ray pulled out of the US Open with the same in­jury that ru­ined his Wimbledon

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