Want Fewer Injuries? Speed Up The Courts (Or the Balls)

The injury debate, which never really went anywhere, is getting even more attention after Nadal’s retirement from his quarterfinal against Marin Cilic and his post-match comments basically blaming tennis’ Powers That Be for the legions of (barely) walking wounded.

Some in the tennis community are proposing shortening matches from best-of-five to best-of-three, or using no-add scoring, or abbreviating the pro tennis schedule. In sum: I have mixed feelings about going to best-of-three. I see the benefits, but fear unintended consequences (e.g., upsets producing too many anonymous quarterfinalists or semifinalists). But I get it and could live with best-of-three. I’m not a fan of no-add scoring. I’d love to see a longer off season, but I don’t see it happening because you can’t prevent someone from putting on a tournament, and players will participate if the money is good enough.

But rather than debate any of those ideas at length, I’d like to raise what I think is a more important issue: Court and ball speed.

Put simply, long rallies on hard courts are brutal on players’ bodies. I just finished watching Chung vs. Sandgren. If you saw the way they covered the entire court, sprinting from side to side and throwing their bodies into every ball (except on that peculiar slicefest rally in the last game), you can see why so many players get injured. The wear and tear on their bodies is obvious. And that was just one match. Multiply that by dozens and wonder how they can walk at all.

Though both Chung and Sandgren were successful coming into the net, they didn’t shorten points nearly as often as they would have on a faster court. The Australian Open surface is considered quick, but it’s slow enough that players can retrieve repeatedly, forcing the offensive player to hit five or six shots that look like winners.

Those 16- to 25-hit rallies are causing the injuries. Keep in mind that players aren’t doing this only during matches. To play like that they have to practice like that. So these guys (and women) are out there between tournaments and in the off season pounding their bodies on slow hard courts. Twenty-shot rallies in practice to prepare for 20-shot rallies in the matches. I’m no doctor or smart person, but it’s pretty obvious that the cumulative stress on joints and muscles from all those practices and matches is a perfect recipe for injury.

We need to speed up the courts or balls a bit so that it doesn’t take so many full-body groundstrokes to complete a point. Not a lot faster, but somewhat. If you take a 16-shot rally and turn it into a 12-shot rally, that might not seem like a big difference, but over time it is. Make the courts fast enough that players feel they are rewarded for coming into the net and finishing off points sooner.

Contrarians will remember a short period in the 1990s, when it seemed courts were too fast and matches were getting boring. Sampras, Ivanisevic and Krajicek were taking advantage of speedy courts, and the points were too short. But that was mainly at Wimbledon and indoor tournaments. It wasn’t the case at the U.S. Open, where Sampras and Agassi played a terrific final in 1995 on a court that rewarded both net and baseline play. The iconic point of that match was indeed on the long side. But it was an outlier. As amazing as that point was, we don’t need them all to be that long.

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