Top seed Justine Henin Hardenne and her compatriot Kim Clijsters have ankle injuries; Venus Williams has not played since July because of torn stomach muscles and Lindsay Davenport had to withdraw from a tournament in Sydney last week with a shoulder injury. Indeed of the top five women’s seeds at the Australian Open, which begins Monday, only Amelie Mauresmo (4) is not carrying an injury.
And that is just the women who have made it to Melbourne – four former Australian Open winners including defending champion Serena Williams are all absent – from what is fast becoming a game of “last woman standing” rather than the first grand slam tournament of a new season.
The injuries threaten to undermine in particular the women’s event in Melbourne but the men’s tournament has also been hit as a combination of unforgiving surfaces, more powerful play and a tennis calendar that allows little respite start to damage the major competitions.
No fewer than eight of the world’s leading women have suffered serious injuries in the past 12 months. Four of these, all former champions, are absent from Melbourne. Serena Williams has not recovered from knee surgery last August; Jennifer Capriati, has not played since injuring her back in November; four-time champion Monica Seles is still recovering from a foot injury sustained here last year while Mary Pierce is just not fit after a long layoff.
Henin – who was due to start her pursuit of a third grand slam title on Monday against the 15-year-old Australian Olivia Lukaszewicz – twisted an ankle and had treatment for blisters during her winning run in Sydney last week. She will play with a heavily strapped ankle but the surface used in Australia may ultimately cost her the chance of adding to her US and French Open titles.
Her main rival will be Venus Williams’ whose only match since recovering from the serious stomach muscle tear that hampered her in losing to sister Serena in the Wimbledon final, was a recent exhibition event in Hong Kong, where she beat Mauresmo in the final. That is scant preparation for a grand slam tournament even for Williams who has won tournaments on the back of little match play before. But ranked 11th in the world at the moment she is seeded third in Melbourne.
According to WTA Tour Supervisor Pam Whytcross, who spent 14 years playing on the tour in the 1970s and 1980s, there are several strands contributing to the present injury situation. “Power, harder surfaces and increasing competition are the main factors,” she thinks. “The whole game has become more physical. Players are having to train harder and longer to keep up with the pacesetters – women like the Williams sisters, Davenport and Capriati. I’m blown away how hard they hit the ball. There is little chance for the finesse players today.”
For that, racket technology is partly to blame. Because today’s lightweight, wide-body rackets are easier to wield than the old wooden rackets, it is possible nowadays to produce greater racket-head speed and therefore more topspin. This allows players to hit hard and fast to acute angles with shots that force opponents to chase further and faster. It is this sort of violent movement that causes injury, especially at those moments when a wrong-footing drive forces a player to make sudden changes of direction.
This is especially noticeable on the Rebound Ace courts in use throughout Australia. Ankle injuries are common in extreme court temperatures as they often are in high summer. Not only does the thin layer of rubber beneath the surface reflect the heat to cause serious dehydration, it also makes the surface soft and tacky. If players do not wear old shoes with smooth soles (as they are advised) there is always the danger of excessive grip.
“The whole circuit used to be played on grass and clay, the two surfaces that are kindest to the body,” said Whytcross. “Today’s hard surfaces now predominate and they are much tougher on the physique.”
The trend towards hard courts has been driven by commercial necessity. Until 1974 three of the grand slams were played on grass, a costly and labour-intensive surface.
In 1988 the Australian Open followed the US and forsook grass when they came here to Flinders Park (now Melbourne Park). Rebound Ace was selected, because the new centre court with its sliding roof doubles as an entertainment centre.
Who, then, will survive these next 14 days and six testing rounds to reach the final? In the top half, Henin-Hardenne is the obvious choice, despite her ankle. The test will come in the quarter-finals against Davenport whose soft draw should let her survive to that round so long as her shoulder does not flare up. The winner there should proceed to the final unless Mauresmo can reproduce her 1999 form when she was runner-up.
Bravely as Clijsters is talking I shall be surprised if she survives to the second week. If she does I believe Williams will still get past her to reach the final again. Venus has proved before that she can produce her best on a light match diet. Last year her sister was too good for her. This time she might decide to keep the title in the family.