Since the beginning of the fall season, the general trend towards slower surfaces and/or heavier balls seems to be even more evident. So much so that some players, and not the least, are starting to complain about it. This is because these playing conditions cause physical damage and pose a problem of consistency in the nature of the game. Explanations.
From the Moselle to Kazakhstan, via the O2 Arena in London, the observation is the same. Perhaps never before have we seen so many exchanges of 15, 20 or 30 shots on indoor hard courts. Traditionally a temple of speed, the realm of the great gunners, waiters, volleyers and other backcourt attackers, the surface has followed the trend of uniformity in recent years, with rare exceptions such as the 2010 and 2011 editions of the Masters 1000 in Paris-Bercy. But this year, the visual impression has something extreme.
On the court at the Laver Cup, former British player and consultant Tim Henman was struck by the slowness of the ball after rebound, while his French counterpart Fabrice Santoro emphasized the effort the players put into moving it forward. As the season draws to a close and bodies are logically tested, the risk of injury increases. And it is the main players who are now pointing this out.
DJOKOVIC: “YOU HAVE TO USE THE SAME KIND OF TACTICS AS ON CLAY”
Novak Djokovic himself stepped up to the plate after his first practice at Nur-Sultan last week. “It’s hard to get ahead on the court here. You have to use the same kind of tactics as on clay to build points. It’s going to be a lot more physical.” An opinion shared by Carlos Alcaraz, who went out at the start in Kazakhstan, who had lamented his inability to adapt to the slow surface. And while he triumphed in this Astana Open, the facts unfortunately legitimized Djokovic’s concerns: while the battle was fierce in the semifinals, his opponent Daniil Medvedev had to throw in the towel before the third set, suffering from a hamstring injury.
In Tokyo, Nick Kyrgios withdrew before his quarter-final match because of his knee. In Gijon again this week, Constant Lestienne benefited from the withdrawal of Sebastian Baez at the end of the second set, unable to walk. But why is this slow indoor hard court so problematic? “A surface is defined by two main parameters which are its rigidity and its adherence. The worst of the worst physically is when it’s very stiff and it grips a lot. Clay and grass are much less traumatic because the slipperiness is very high and it is not very rigid”, explains Jean-Bernard Fabre, doctor in physiology, as a preamble.
JOINT AND MUSCLE PROBLEMS AND NERVOUS FATIGUE: A LONG LIST OF DAMAGES
Before going into more detail about the parts of the body that are solicited, or rather over-solicited. “When we move on these surfaces, the body acts as a shock and vibration absorbing system: it starts with the foot, the ankle, the knee and it goes up to the hips and the back, especially the whole lumbar spine. A hard, very abrasive indoor environment increases the friction in the shoe. The foot is the last interface between the ground and the rest of the body, so it’s put to the test especially when friction increases.”
In addition to these joint problems, there are muscular concerns because muscle contraction is more abrupt in these playing conditions. Not to mention other lesser-known consequences, such as nervous fatigue. If these indoor hard surfaces are becoming slower and slower, it is mainly because they are more and more sticky. In order not to add insult to injury, manufacturers have made them less rigid. But another trend – also seen at Wimbledon in recent years – is proving just as harmful: the use of increasingly heavy balls. With always the same objective: to slow down the game to lengthen the exchanges.
Here again, the physical price to pay is potentially very heavy. “When the string hits the ball, there is a system with two energies that meet: the one generated by the player with his racket and the one of the ball that arrives. So there is a collision. The energy of the ball depends on its speed and its mass. So the heavier the ball, the more energy there is, the tighter the player will have to grip his racket to hold it at the moment of impact. Mechanically, there will be much greater muscular constraints. And that’s a problem, especially on the small muscles of the wrist,” says our doctor of physiology.
A BETRAYAL OF THE VERY NATURE OF INDOOR
The problem becomes even more acute for players who print a lot of spin. In order to generate the same number of rotations on a heavier ball, the wrist is necessarily put under more strain and the violence of the impact is increased. Novak Djokovic said it best after his Laver Cup loss to Felix Auger-Aliassime: “The conditions here were really slow and the balls were heavy. So you have to work the ball a lot with your wrist, which could be the cause of the pain I felt.”
Yet, one can’t suspect the Serbian of pushing for faster conditions since the beginning of his career. His flawless tennis, ability to hold the rally and exceptional return quality have allowed him to dominate this era characterized by the general slowing of surfaces. But Djokovic knows that the richness of his sport also lies in its variety, in the profusion of styles.
Restoring the original characteristics of indoor tennis would give a certain coherence to a sport that tends to betray its deepest nature. In the fall indoors, we should not see the same tactical battles as on clay, simply because the properties of these surfaces were, by design, quite different. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was not uncommon to see players playing on carpet or parquet indoors. Is a return to these practices possible? Probably not, even though it would not be without sense to preserve the health of the players.
PROTECT THE PLAYERS AND GIVE VARIETY BACK TO TENNIS
“Why is a team sport like basketball played on a floor? Precisely to avoid that it sticks too much when there are very brutal changes of direction. The floor is slippery and not very rigid, so we use special shoes to play on it. It’s not bad because it protects the joints quite well, and in the 90’s, indoor tennis was so fast that there were less exchanges. On the other hand, the supports were necessarily more slippery and it was more dangerous as far as sprains were concerned. But overall, it was more protective”, says Jean-Bernard Fabre.
Since then, the equipment has improved and allows a multitude of effects to be applied to the ball more easily. The players on the circuit are also more powerful and physically better prepared. Without going back to the tennis of yesteryear, a reflection on the tendency to slow down at all costs would be beneficial. The ball is in the players’ court, the only ones able to apply pressure. To protect themselves and to give back its identity to a sport that no longer associates the show with the duration of the exchanges.
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