It Happens

Let’s talk about injuries.

Not the catastrophic, career-ending kind. Not even the kind that takes a player out for a month. The minor kind, which the player can negotiate with over the course of a tournament, maybe even winning in spite of it.

The way tennis discourse operates surrounding these injuries is a problem. You’ll often see a player take a medical time-out to get treatment, then emerge from the break at least slightly revitalized. The player will begin to play better, and they might win. Then fans accuse the player of faking an injury to disrupt the flow of the match.

First of all, isn’t the point of a medical timeout, its very purpose, to produce this outcome? The physio or doctor or trainer is supposed to make an ailing player feel better so that they can continue playing at a high level. Medical time-outs are in the rules. Players are allowed to take them. So why the anger when they do?

It all starts with a misconception of sportsmanship. There have been many moments in the past when a player, especially in a final, is injured but elects not to talk about it after a match, so as to keep the spotlight on the winner. This is a nice sentiment, but it’s created a host of problems in injury discourse. Many now expect players to keep mum about their injuries, saying that if they don’t, they are somehow “classless.” That’s obviously insane — it’s not a player’s responsibility to not talk about an issue that affected a match they just played, no matter how awkward it might be to hear about.

This leads us into the second problem: many tennis fans would rather not acknowledge the fact that a player can win while injured. The reality is that some matchups have a skill gap big enough that even if the favorite is hurt, it may not affect the eventual result. At the 2021 Australian Open, Novak Djokovic tore an abdominal muscle in the third set of his third-round match against Taylor Fritz. Having won the first two sets, Djokovic started to struggle with his forehand and movement, and Fritz evened the match. The Serb managed to stage a comeback in the fifth, and swept through it 6-2.

After the match, Djokovic said he knew he had an ab tear (he was right), though he hadn’t been medically evaluated yet. This was met with widespread criticism — even David Law, an esteemed journalist, expressed doubts about the nature of the injury. Some fans accused Djokovic of faking.

In the case of those accusing Djokovic of faking, the issue at heart is that acknowledging a player can win while severely compromised, especially one you don’t like, is an incredibly unsexy thing to talk about. However, it’s an occasionally necessary and insightful truth. Some acted as if the match had been stolen from Fritz. How, exactly? Did anyone in their right mind think that he was going to beat Djokovic at the Serb’s best tournament? There were even takes saying Djokovic had tanked the third and fourth sets only to pull the rug out from Fritz in the fifth, which is even more insane. With no disrespect to Fritz, a fine player who has only improved since this match, the gulf between the two players is so wide that it’s really not shocking at all Djokovic could overcome injury to beat him. Tennis is always hungry for competitive matchups, but at some point reality has to be acknowledged.

“If he was really, really injured,” Fritz said after the match, “he wouldn’t have kept playing.” Some saltiness after a loss is inevitable, but taking it out on the victor is hardly ever appropriate. The desire to simplify the issue is evident: if you’re hurt, you don’t play. But it’s more complicated than this — the pain an athlete feels from competing while injured is not linear; it can improve without much warning. Djokovic is also capable of playing incredible tennis while compromised. He’s that good.

Let’s look at another example. At Roland-Garros in 2020, Kiki Bertens beat Sara Errani 7-6 (5), 3-6, 9-7. Bertens was ailed by severe cramps towards the end of the match, but managed to struggle her way to victory anyway. She left the court in a wheelchair, then got 45 minutes of treatment after the match. This apparently wasn’t good enough for Errani, who insinuated that Bertens had been playing possum. Bertens was obviously compromised — why make a match more complicated than it needs to be? — just not by quite enough for her to lose the match. It happens. It doesn’t mean a player is faking.

When a player believes they can’t compete any longer, they retire. Some seem to have the misconception that if a player chooses not to retire, it means they’re not injured. This is not the case. More minor injuries can affect a match greatly, even if a player decides to compete through them. Taking the available options to stay on court — a medical time-out, a massage on the changeover, even something as simple as visibly showing pain — is not a failure in any sense of the word.

The reason I bring all of this up is that yesterday, Rafael Nadal lost the Indian Wells final to a brilliant Taylor Fritz. He cited a needle-like pain and difficulty breathing after the match, at which some fans jumped on him on Twitter to accuse him of making excuses. Well, today we found out that Nadal had stress fractured a rib, rendering him unable to play for four to six weeks.

Here’s a crazy idea: what if we believed the players? What if we took their word for it when they said they were injured? They are the ones inside their bodies, after all. Maybe, just maybe, when a player is visibly not right on court, we should worry about their well-being before trying to identify “patterns” of them taking medical time-outs. Popcorn Tennis’s very own Scott Barclay sarcastically tweeted that Nadal’s commitment to faking injury was so strong that he was willing to skip part of his beloved clay season — an obvious joke — and some people took him seriously, probably because there are fans out there who unironically believe what Scott tweeted.

It would be really nice if every tennis match were a clash between two fully fit players, but it’s time to come to grips with the fact that not only is this not the case, but injuries probably happen more often than we realize. Our fantasies of an injury-free world are making ailments taboo to talk about, which harms the players and stigmatizes legal medical time-outs. So it’s time to take the misconception that injuries don’t play a huge role in the tennis world, shred it, then throw away the shreds and set the trash can on fire.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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