Breaking Point for Andy, Nole
A few hours before his loss to Fabio Fognini in Rome, I saw Andy Murray in the tunnel amid photographers scurrying to get to court-side positions. Tied to some type of wiring, Murray was stretching and wincing, like a man tortured in chains. It was a startling scene, and I asked Murray’s trainers if I could photograph it. They firmly said no, and I respected that.
But I was struck by the worried look on their faces. They knew something we didn’t know. That image stuck with me through Rome, Paris and Wimbledon, where Murray fought valiantly with seemingly mysterious demons.
Throughout the clay court season, I also couldn’t figure out something about Djokovic. Other than his errant backhand, he didn’t play badly, though he lacked his vaunted “extra gear”. He tried to be funny and philosophical in press conferences, but something wasn’t quite right, and journalists couldn’t figure it out.
At Wimbledon on Wednesday we began to learn more about injuries plaguing them in recent years.
“I’ve been dealing with it (hip issues) for a very long time during my career,” Murray said after staggering through his fifth set loss in the semi-finals to Sam Querrey. “Obviously as you get older, things are a little bit tougher to manage than they are when you’re younger. There’s a bit more wear and tear there. I’ve managed to deal with it for a very long time. I’m sure moving forward I’ll be able to get through it. I just need to do all of the right things and be even more diligent and professional than I have been recently.”
Djokovic said his elbow has been bothering him at times for “over a year and half” and doctors haven’t been “clear” about remedies. Down a set and a break to Tomas Berdych, he said he retired because the pain was increasing, especially during his serve and forehands, despite medications and two and a half hours of treatment on a table before the match.
“We both had a very long, very tough year, a lot of matches, a lot of emotions, a lot of things in play,” Djokovic said about he and Murray. “Our bodies have taken a lot physically. As an athlete, one way or another, at a certain stage of your career, you’re going to experience these kind of things. Injuries are part of this sport, unfortunately. Professional tennis is getting very physical in the last couple of years. It’s not easy to kind of play on the highest level throughout the entire season, then be able to do that over and over again every season, and then stay healthy.”
Djokovic said his retirement from the match was “really hard to swallow” because he was playing his best in 10 months, and hadn’t dropped a set at Eastbourne or Wimbledon.
“But it wasn’t to be. For an athlete, especially in an individual sport, there is no way out. If you don’t feel fit, unfortunately that’s it. There is no one to come instead of you.”
Djokovic told Serbian media he might require surgery and miss the rest of the year.
If so, his rise and fall the past 18 months makes sense. At the peak of his career, Djokovic won Madrid in May 2016 then lost to Murray in a rain-soaked Rome final. Djokovic never really hit top gear in Paris, and lost the first set to Murray in the final before Murray got distracted by spider-cam and a TV crew in his coaching box. It wasn’t Novak’s best tennis, but it was good enough to beat Robert Bautista-Agut, Dominic Thiem and then Murray and complete his career grand-slam.
Then things got weird. Djokovic lost to Sam Querrey in the third round at Wimbledon amid unproven speculation about his personal life. He won Toronto but lost early in the Olympics to Juan Martin del Potro. His backhand, normally impenetrable, failed him, especially down the line. Still, Djokovic was good enough to reach the finals before losing to red-hot Stan Wawrinka.
Djokovic struggled enough at the end of the year to lose his top ranking to Andy Murray. He never regained the backhand form that made him a moving wall during his peak years, and he’s won no titles in 2017. Media speculated about the influence of his “guru” Pepe Imaz preaching “Amor y Paz” (Love and Peace) to the warrior Djokovic.
In retrospect, Djokovic should have taken time to recuperate after Wimbledon, even if it meant sitting out the rest of the year alongside Roger Federer.
Questing for his career slam, Djokovic probably made the right decision to play through pain on European clay in 2016. But his insistence on playing through Toronto, the Olympics and New York, as well as late 2016 events, probably cost him longterm.
If his elbow requires surgery, can Djokovic return to dominance? That’s a big question facing not only Djokovic but the world of tennis in general.
The game is facing the prospect of both Djokovic and Murray needing time to recover, as well as Roger Federer’s recent penchant to miss events and rest up for slams.
Without elaborating on details, Murray told a Wimbledon presser on Wednesday that he’s suffered from hip issues throughout his career. It’s likely his back surgery didn’t help, or may have caused or exacerbated those hip issues.
His limp — often the source of jokes about him — might be no joke. In retrospect, Andy wasn’t faking it when he ambled around the world’s biggest stages; he was courageously playing through pain.
Even though he himself should have been resting, he seized the top ranking from the injured Djokovic. Did Andy realize, more than others, that his longtime friend and rival Novak was wounded? Is that why Andy played through pain, rather than resting, in order to seize the top ranking late in 2016?
Djokovic, Murray and other players also feel they can’t afford to take months away from the game and lose the rankings points they fought for.
Milos Raonic, no stranger to injuries, says he has to squeeze an ATP 500 level event — probably CITI in Washington — into his schedule in order to avoid losing ranking points.
“Over the last few years, there’s been this standard that if you’re above a certain age, have played a certain amount of matches, or certain years of service, you can start missing out on Masters, these kind of things, without any penalties,” said Raonic, answering my question after his loss to Federer. “I think it should be the same rule for everybody. As long as you’re playing on tour, for obvious equality, everybody should be expected to show up at each and every tournament if that’s the standard, or nobody should have to have it as a mandatory event. I don’t think there should be any differential, which there is at this moment.”
Ultimately, the health of players should trump other issues. Though organizers and fans suffer when players such as Federer, Murray, Djokovic and Raonic can’t play events, Djokovic and Murray probably need to take the rest of the year off, as Federer did last year. Players could have longer careers if they could play fewer events annually.
But even more — not fewer — events are scheduled for upcoming seasons. The Laver Cup in Prague in September this year, and counter proposals by both the ATP and ITF for a “world cup” of tennis will likely mean even more pressure on players to play hurt.
(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media all rights reserved)