Wimbledon 97: Hard courts giving players a tough time

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The constant rain in south London has meant that the call for "New balls, please" has not been heard on the Wimbledon lawns for days. For those in the tournament, it is a chance to rest their aching limbs. But away from the courts, many former professionals, some only in their 40s, have found that the ache never goes away - and have begun visiting surgeons to make a slightly different request: new hips, please.

The list of those who have had an artificial joint includes the 58-year- old Rod Laver, the winner in 1962 and 1969, who had a hip replacement last year; Victor Amaya, the 6ft 7in American who almost beat Bjorn Borg in 1977 and the legendary American Jack Kramer, who has now had three hip replacements.

A number of other former players - including the former Wimbledon semi- finalist David Wheaton, Eddie Dibbs, the 26-year-old Australian Sandon Stolle, and Brian Teacher, who now coaches Britain's Greg Rusedski, are also understood to be suffering from the early stages of the problem. Some are seeking alternative therapies to surgery, which they view as a last resort. Many prefer to take non-prescription drugs which may stave the problem off for a while.

The revelation makes the enormous financial rewards available to today's players look less like winning the lottery and more like a Faustian bargain. For Americans especially, who cannot rely on free health care, hip operations can mean an initial outlay of more than $40,000 (pounds 24,000) plus the costs of further treatment. If it is necessary at an early age, it is likely to wear out during the person's lifetime, and need replacing again.

The reason why tennis players are beginning to suffer can be traced back to the sport's boom in the 1970s. The number of professional tournaments, especially on hard concrete courts, mushroomed, as did the number of players, attracted by the prize-money on offer.

But hard-court tennis, of which Kramer was a noted exponent in the 1950s, is particularly wearing on the joints. There is little give in the surface, and so the shock of the foot's impact during the hours of sprinting involved in a match are transmitted up the leg to the pelvic joints. There, the collagen tissue which lubricates the head of the thigh and the hip socket is gradually worn down until the bone is exposed. Then, the surfaces begin grating, causing constant pain.

The number of cases is likely to grow in future because players today are starting younger, often playing for hours every day from the age of four or five, and then, once they turn professional, playing more events without taking weeks off, and competing more frequently on hard, concrete courts which are principally blamed for the ailment

Richard Krajicek, the current Wimbledon champion, has already suffered knee problems. "Moving too much wears things out," he said. "Hard courts are particularly tough on the hips. On grass, you feel stiff afterwards in your quadriceps [the muscles on the front of the legs]; on hard courts, it's your hamstrings. And none of this is helped by switching between surfaces so often. The trouble is, everything about moving comes from the hips."

Dr Roger Wolman, consultant in rheumatology and sports medicine to the British Olympic Medical Committee, said: "There is intense stress loading of the joints in any sport but I didn't realise that people were having replacements at that age. It's about 15 or 20 years before you would expect it in a normal healthy person."

He says that tennis can have some benefits: "A few years ago we did a survey of former professional players who are now in their 50s and 60s, and found that they have built up denser bones in the spine than than a comparable sample of people who had done other sports. So it can be protective in some respects but it can put the joints at extra risk."

John Barrett, the BBC commentator and former David Cup player, said: "I don't think it's any surprise when people are playing on such unyielding surfaces and the shoe manufacturers have improved their products so that they grip better.

"Playing on clay and grass was much more comfortable. Today, it's a much more physical game, so you see more physical problems."

The former champion Martina Navratilova has, so far, managed to escape the problems but she found the diagnosis of the cause easy to make. "Hip injuries?" she said. "Simple. Hard courts. More people playing at a younger age."

Some players think there is a chance that growing awareness among today's players, and equipment suppliers, will stave off problems in the future. "Hard courts now do have a rubber cushioning layer on top, they're not just concrete," Luke Jensen said. "There is some give to them. And guys are taking better care of their bodies while they're on the circuit: they have massages, get warmed up. And orthotics [shoe inserts] are really important.

"Even so, guys like Sampras and Agassi who are playing and winning a lot - they're really taking a battering."

It would be a less vicious battering if the circuit returned to the days when three of the four major championships were played on grass (and the other, the French Open, on clay) but while it might offer some respite for the players, it would not solve the problem of what to do on a rainy day.