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A Brave New World of Pain | Muscle & Body Magazine

Photo: Muscle & Body Magazine

Advanced technology in sports like tennis come at a cost: more injuries.

Having worked as Serena Williams’ fitness coach for the last five years, I have previously alluded to the fact that professional singles tennis can be a brutal sport relative to the wear and tear on a player’s body. Many pro careers end when the athlete reaches the mid-to-late 30s as a result of damage from such factors as travel schedule, climate conditions, playing surfaces, number of competitions, length of rallies, repetitive overuse of joints and muscles, and—don’t forget—the demands from the changing technology of the game.

Like other sports, tennis continues to evolve. With the advent of enhanced racket design and construction (including improvements in handgrip and stringing technology), shoe design and fitness requirements, it appears that an increased injury rate is a byproduct of progress. Tennis, like many other sports, demands that players keep reaching for higher levels of human performance to stay competitive and win.

But there’s just one problem: We forgot to tell the ligaments in our bodies. Despite our advances in performance technology, our ligaments are often just not able to adapt. I think Clint Eastwood said it best in a scene from the movie “Magnum Force”: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

A Wristed Development

One area of the body that takes a beating in tennis is the ulna (bone of the forearm opposite the thumb) side of the wrist at the base of the little finger. “Most of the tension injuries to the wrist,” according to Duke Orthopaedics, “occur with wrist hyperextension,” which often happens when making contact with the tennis ball while gripping the racket.
These types of injuries are on the increase at the highest levels:

  • The No. 1-ranked male singles player, Novak Djokovic, had his right forearm heavily wrapped in his semifinal loss (7-5, 6-2) to Roger Federer at this year’s Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters. Djokovic then pulled out of the Mutua Madrid Open for the same injury.

  • Caroline Wozniacki, ranked No. 14 at the time, pulled out from this year’s Stuttgart, Germany, tournament due to a left wrist injury.

  • Sloane Stephens, ranked No. 17, has been bothered by a wrist injury since the beginning of the 2014 season, while Laura Robson, a promising 20-year-old, succumbed to wrist surgery and was out through Wimbledon in early July.

    From a biomechanical standpoint, contact with the tennis ball begins at the legs with power transferred through the spine, generating a powerful rotation of the hips, which allows the forearm to initiate the racket impact with the ball. As in a shotgun blast with the projectile moving forward, the “kick” travels in the opposite direction and is absorbed by the shoulder.

    In tennis, the resulting forces of ball impact travel through the wrist, which is just like an innocent bystander at a crash site with the potential for collateral damage.

    Power equals force times velocity. Simply stated, power is how quickly you can deliver your strength.

    In the case of the wrist, the resulting force—the push or pull upon an object resulting from the object’s interaction with another object—is more than the surrounding ligament structure can handle.

    More Topspin Is In

    This increase in injury risk hasn’t escaped the attention of Patrick Mouratoglou, who runs the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, located outside Paris, France. The Mouratoglou Tennis Academy receives hundreds of players from all around the world. They all come to get a unique experience and train like the pros.

    “[Wrist injuries have] increased because players use more topspin than they used to,” according to Mouratoglou, coach of No. 1-ranked Williams. “Topspin is efficient thanks to a huge use of the wrist that has to be very flexible just before the impact and accelerates at the highest speed to hit the ball going into [an]extremely low then high position.”

    Why the need for more topspin? Mouratoglou says it’s “because the surfaces have been slowed in the last 15 years, [and] the players create topspin much more than in the past, and that explains, to me, the resurgence of wrist injuries.”

    Technology will continue to influence the sport. It’s only a matter of time before the game of tennis will have a player look at his or her opponent’s tendencies in game situations diagnosed by a computer, such as they do in the National Football League and Major League Baseball.

    Not just great players, but all athletes need to learn how to use their power wisely. The tools that we use on opponents are going to be used on ourselves. Learn how the demands of your sport are changing, and create a training program that will help you adjust.