x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

It's the tennis players who suffer in the long run

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal thrived on their pain during their grueling Australian Open final, but the toll on their bodies may shorten their careers, writes Paul Oberjuerge.

Men's tennis over the weekend seemed to become an endurance sport. If a marathon is reckoned a test of body and soul but can be completed by the elite in two hours and 10 minutes, what does it say of the Australian Open finalists, who played nearly six hours before a winner was determined?

A great match? Perhaps. A punishing one? Absolutely.

Both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal men spoke of "suffering" during their five-set battle, which seems like an alarming frontier for the sport.

"That's nice be there fighting … you know, trying to go to the limit, bring your body to the limit of his chances," said Nadal, whose English also suffers in extremis. "Something I really enjoy, and I always said, is good suffer. Enjoy suffering, no?

"So when you are fit, when you are … with passion for the game, when you are ready to compete, you are able to suffer and enjoy suffering, no?"

Djokovic was a bit more graphic.

"You … are in pain, you are suffer, you know that you're trying to activate your legs, you're trying to push yourself another point, just one more point, one more game.

"You're going through so much suffering your toes are bleeding. Everything is just outrageous … but you're still enjoying that pain."

The rise of Djokovic in 2011 certainly had a fitness aspect to it. As one pundit suggested, he seemed to have perfected a system in which he consumed not one calorie more, nor less, than exactly what he needed for maximum effort.

His results in the semi-finals and final in Melbourne seemed at least as much about stamina as shot making. He outlasted Andy Murray in four hours, 50 minutes, then slogged through 5:53 before beating down Nadal.

The latter match was the longest in the history of the Australian Open and the longest in the final of a grand slam in the Open era by a full 59 minutes.

It is not outlandish to wonder if tennis should create breaks for tea and lunch, as in cricket, to give both competitors and spectators a break. Indeed, is the modern fan of sport prepared to spend six hours sitting in a stadium?

Going forward, those who aspire to dethrone Djokovic will have to prepare for a war of attrition, unless they choose to play with particular aggression and go for winners from the first point, hoping to be out in a mere three hours.

Matches like these may be the real reason that Nadal, when not celebrating pain, essentially suggested that elite tennis may become a short, brutish career.