The ongoing spate of injuries affecting the Australian Open raises a lot of questions about issues including the tennis schedule, the strings, the rackets and even the way players hit the ball. (Mary Carillo recently made a strong point about the impact of the open-stance hitting position during an episode of Jon Wertheim’s Beyond the Baseline podcast.)
But let’s not get into the causes of injuries in this piece. I want to explore how tennis commentators and journalists address injuries in their reporting of specific matches. (To start, I should note that I think the vast majority of the tennis journalism community does excellent work. The TV commentary, in my opinion, is better and more intelligent than it was a decade or two ago. Therefore the criticism that follows is, I admit, very nitpicky.)
My minor complaint is that commentators and journalists often seem reluctant to write/talk about whether an injury might have affected a match. That’s understandable. First of all, it’s speculative. We usually don’t know how much Federer’s back, Nadal’s knee or Madison Keys’ thigh is hampering their play. Even if we agree that the player is injured, we can’t know whether it’s worth a set, a few games, a couple points, the entire match, or what. Second, it’s not classy, as it clearly takes credit away from the other player. It makes sense that commentators don’t want to take part in that.
Sadly, the mere suggestion of injury these days gets wrapped up in partisan fandom, especially when it concerns Federer and Nadal. If you suggest that Nadal is hurting, to many it’s because you’re a Rafa fan making excuses for your man. If you say Federer isn’t moving well to his forehand side since his back is bothering him, the suspicion is that you’re in the tank for Roger. There’s also the reality, which many commentators reasonably cite, that most players are suffering from some niggling injury pretty much all the time. How do you distinguish between injuries if everyone is hurting? Why even bother trying? As the old Aussies used to say, “If you play, it means you’re fit. No excuses.” (Or something like that.)
But it feels like commentators go too far in avoiding making excuses for players. Injuries determine the outcome of matches far more often than we’d like to admit, and when we don’t recognize that, it can lead to flawed analysis and expectations. A few examples: Let’s start with Sam Querrey. I’m sorry to pick on Sam, who deserves credit for getting better with age, but he’s been the beneficiary lately of some hobbled opponents. At Wimbledon 2017, Andy Murray was a shadow of himself for much of that quarterfinal match. Murray winning only two games in the last two sets to Querrey is obviously a freakish event. On grass, at Wimbledon, Murray basically can’t hold serve against Sam Querrey, and we’re supposed to chalk that up to Querrey’s awesome return game? Seriously? To be fair, commentators mentioned Murray’s hip issues, but they were a tad generous regarding Querrey’s play. Murray not being able to move well demotes him from being the No. 1 player to basically a top 350 player. The guy Querrey beat 6-1, 6-1 in the last two sets could have been No. 337. Murray’s injury changed everything in that match. As it turns out, he hasn’t played since.
Therefore, the optimism we heard after the match that Querrey might then beat Marin Cilic in the semis was based on a false narrative — that he played well to beat Murray. But he didn’t beat the real Andy Murray. He beat someone like, say, Raymond Sarmiento. (Apologies to Raymond, who was an All-American at the University of Southern California and probably a fine human being — even if there’s not an ATP bio for him.)
Querrey also got too much credit when he beat Novak Djokovic a year earlier at Wimbledon, even though Djokovic admitted that he wasn’t 100 percent healthy.
Again, when Querrey destroyed Mischa Zverev at the 2017 U.S. Open, it spawned talk that Querrey was the favorite to win two more matches and advance to the final. The narrative was that Querrey had played out of his mind, losing only five games to Zverev. But it was evident that Mischa was suffering from a shoulder injury. Yes, it looked like Querrey was playing fine tennis, and he was. But Zverev was giving him a much easier ball to hit than a healthy Zverev would have. And sure enough, when Querrey came up against Kevin Anderson in the quarters, it was a different story. Anderson’s weight of shot was far more difficult to handle than anything the hampered Zverev had thrown at Querrey. If you discount a losing player’s injury, you are probably overstating how well the winner is playing.
Easy as it is to say now, it was always obvious that Federer wasn’t in shape to win the 2017 U.S. Open. What absolutely cemented it in my mind was a post-match interview during the tournament when he was asked about his now-famous practice session in Central Park. Federer mentioned that he was looking to hit somewhere close enough to where he was staying so that he wouldn’t have to sit in the car for long — because of his back. Federer detractors can say he was making excuses. But it’s highly unlikely he made up that story, especially after a victory. Someone who can’t sit comfortably in a car long enough to get to Flushing Meadows isn’t someone who’s going to win the U.S. Open. Not even Roger Federer. That comment by Federer should have led to more questions for him and more skepticism about his ability to play well enough to win the tournament. If there had been more scrutiny of Federer’s remark, the loss to Del Potro wouldn’t have seemed such a surprise.
The point is, these injuries matter. They determine the outcome of matches, and failure to adequately discuss them leads to unreasonable expectations about future matches. Commentators should try to get over their understandable reluctance, and address the topic head-on.