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The Big Hurt
Before the French Open, fifth-seeded Gustavo Kuerten told friends that he hoped to be the last man in the draw standing. He could have been speaking literally. Consider the list of top male players who belonged on injured reserve by the end of the tournament's first week.
Andre Agassi, the top seed and defending champ, got a blister on his right big toe midway through his second-round match against Karol Kucera. Barely mobile, Agassi lost 16 of the last 17 games. Marcelo R�os, a former top-ranked player, retired two sets into his first-round match after aggravating a groin injury. Patrick Rafter, the world No. 1 less than a year ago, is battling back from surgery on his right rotator cuff last October and lost in the second round. Carlos Moya, the 1998 French winner who is fighting a chronic back injury, lost in Round 1. Then there was No. 2 seed Pete Sampras, who has had a litany of ailments in the past few years and lost in the first round to Mark Philippoussis. Says Rafter, "I don't know if it's an injury bug, but it seems staying healthy is as important to being successful as playing good tennis."
The women aren't immune. Earlier this spring the top four players from last year—Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis and Venus and Serena Williams—were sidelined with various ailments. In Paris, Davenport, seeded second but hampered by a back injury, lost her opening match to Dominique Van Roost. Serena Williams was home in Florida recuperating from a knee injury. Fourteenth-seeded Anna Kournikova, hobbled by a sore ankle, lost in the second round.
How did tennis become so hazardous to the players' health? As with most of the sport's ills, blame technology first The current rackets discourage touch and finesse and seduce players into smacking the bejesus out of the ball on every stroke. In a best-of-five match on red clay, the smacking can persist for hours. "If you do any activity repeatedly for a long time, it's going to cause stress on the body," says Per Bastholt, a trainer for the ATP tour. This generation's players are the first who never used wood rackets, which means they've been swinging for the fences all their lives. "Let's not kid ourselves," Bastholt says, "this is a demanding sport."
The rash of injuries can also be attributed to playing too much. For years players have bemoaned the jam-packed schedule and the lack of a true off-season, but the lure of ranking points and ever-increasing prize money, coupled with the demands of sponsors, makes it difficult for players to curtail their schedules. The ATP tour tried to alleviate that problem by creating the Masters Series format, which puts heavy emphasis on 13 tournaments, including the Grand Slams. Oddly, this change may be having the reverse effect "So much is at stake at those [Masters Series] tournaments that you feel you need to play them even if you're not 100 percent," says a top 50 player. "You miss those ranking points and that prize money, and it's like someone's taking bread off your table."
What's more, the depth of talent, particularly on the men's side, means matches are more grueling. Time was, seeded players breezed through the first few rounds of a tournament. In Paris last week, fourth-seeded Yevgeny Kafelnikov had to play 14 sets to survive his first three matches. The tight competition compels players to train harder, causing even more wear and tear on their bodies. "Sometimes you just need to rest," says Rafter, "but if you don't keep up the training, your results often show it."
Despite the wealth of anecdotal evidence, trainers on both tours question whether there's an increase in injuries. Doug Spreen, a Cincinnati-based trainer for the ATP tour, claims that the rate at which players retire in mid-match with injuries has hovered at around 2% for the past decade. (Through three rounds in Paris, however, six of the 116 men's matches ended when an injured player threw in the towel.) Still, those who have been around the sport say they can't recall a time when tennis players were more injury-prone. "We used to get tennis elbow, but that was about it," says 1966 French Open champion Tony Roche, who's now a coach. "Today you see everything."
De Los R�os Is Back
While most WTA players were preparing for the French Open at events in Hilton Head, Hamburg and Rome, Rossana De Los R�os of Paraguay was playing in slightly less exotic locales. In hopes of earning enough points to get a spot in the qualifying draw in Paris, De Los R�os, 24, spent this spring on the challenger circuit in places like Sarasota, Fla.; Norcross, Ga.; and La Canada, Calif. "They all blend together," says her husband, Gustavo Neffa. "I just know we stayed in a lot of motels."