injuries and the quick fix

The women are doing grass in Birmingham, England, this week in preparation for Wimbledon. It sounds like a broken record, I know, how many more weekly injury reports do we need for the women but here it is: Tennis-X reports that Daniela Hantuchova, Maria Kirilenko, Chanda Rubin, and Meghann Shaughnessy have dropped out of Birmingham due to injury. I have my own injury problems.

Early last year I discovered a service motion that gave me a strong serve after years of hitting popgun serves. I shortened my toss just like Roscoe Tanner, reared back and whacked the ball. One morning, a guy wandered on to the court as I was practicing and asked if he could return my serves. After about half an hour he gave up in frustration because he couldn’t handle my serve down the middle. It wasn’t the most consistent serve in the world but I count that as one of my proudest days in tennis.

I didn’t realize, however, that I was arching my back and definitely not bending my knees. Later in the year I developed pain in my lower sacrum whenever I served and I still cannot serve without pain. That is, no doubt, the only parallel between my game and Taylor Dent’s game.

In an interview with Tennis Week, Dent discussed the injury that has limited him to five matches this year. The article reports that “He initially sustained two fractures after years of bending his back in an extreme arch during serving. The pain is primarily caused by damaged nerves now, which continue to flare up virtually every time he tosses the ball up in the air to begin his service motion.”

What’s interesting about the article is Dent’s optimism, or, you could say, denial. He thinks the problem is “just a matter of finding a solution and I mean that could be in the next couple of days, it could be in a week or two or a month or two.” And this is after a recent unsuccessful surgical procedure which tried to deaden the nerves which are causing the pain.

If you do the same movement for years, especially a movement so extreme that it produces fractures, it’s possible that you can find a treatment which will reduce pain but it’s more likely that you will have to retrain your body to do the movement differently. Changing your service motion would be a start but it also likely that the new service motion will not be as effective. One of the reasons that Andy Roddick has the fastest serve on the planet is because he has exceptional rib and spine flexibility. Evidently Dent does not and he probably has less now than he had at the beginning of his career.

Dent is not alone. Every time I get an injury, and I get a lot of them, I am looking around the next corner for the “fix” and hoping that it will be quick and easy. Last week in a New York Times section on the upcoming PGA US Open, golfer Rocco Mediate was very upbeat about the back pain that has bothered him for much of his career.

“Believe it or not, Augusta National saved me. It showed me what was wrong with my body. It saved the rest of my career. I know I can still play,” he said in the article. Mediate had been in contention till the last round at the Masters at Augusta National when his back seized up. His fix is to increase his hip strength to take pressure off his back.

A little further down the page, though, you’ll see a bracketed paragraph reporting that Mediate had to pull out of the last two tournaments leading up to the Open. Rather than asking Mediate if he didn’t seems a tad bit optimistic given the reality of the situation, the writer included that paragraph as if to let readers draw that conclusion for themselves.

I am an eternally hopeful person and I have the results to show for it. I play tennis three or four times a week and that’s after a back injury so severe that I couldn’t sit for more than half an hour without throbbing pain for the first few years of the injury. I’m just saying that a chronic problem borne of persistent movement habits, particularly in the physically harsh world of professional sports, is not likely to respond to a quick fix. The process is more likely to take months and possibly years of small improvements that will lead to incremental improvement in reducing pain over time. If a particular movement is causing the injury – in tennis, the serve is critical and in golf, obviously, the swing is everything – the athlete will have to change that movement and that will significantly change their game.

Tiger Woods managed to find a way. After knee surgery, he realized that he had to smooth his swing out and he was willing to completely take his swing apart and reconstruct it at a time when he was the number one player in the world. Another reason that he is an exceptional athlete.

But that was also his knee, not his back, and surgery was sufficient to repair the damage. If Dent is back on the tour and playing pain free and if Mediate wins the US Open, I will be wrong. If so, you can criticize me all you want. But I don’t think I am.

For you ATP fantasy people, not much is happening on grass. Andy Murray went out at Queens but that’s no too surprising. He should, as the rumors suggest, sign Brad Gilbert up as soon as possible before someone else gets him. I’ll weigh in a little more in a few days, meanwhile here are the current draws.