By Martina Navratilova NEWSWEEK
Tennis in 2008 was sometimes more like a casualty ward than a sport. Australian Open winner Maria Sharapova battled a shoulder injury for much of 2008 and did not play after August. French Open champion Ana Ivanovic hurt her hand at Wimbledon and never hit her stride again. U.S. Open champion Serena Williams finished the year with an ankle injury and played sparingly all season. Strangest of all, the woman who was widely expected just 12 months ago to become world No. 1 in 2008 ended up catching up on her studies at home. Justine Henin was about to hit her peak, at 25, but the effort of getting there had exhausted her physically and mentally, and her May retirement shocked the world. The men's game was similarly afflicted, with Rafael Nadal winning Wimbledon—and then suffering a knee injury in the fall that kept him out of the Masters Cup and the Davis Cup final. Roger Federer struggled for a big part of the year with mononucleosis.
This parade of injuries and illnesses will certainly add to the drama at this year's Australian Open, which begins Jan. 19. Only the fittest players can thrive in a tournament notorious for its difficult, hot playing conditions. And since Henin's departure there has been a vacuum in women's tennis. With everyone else at the doctor's office, Jelena Jankovic became world No. 1 last year, and that ranking whizzed around like a tennis ball in a high-speed rally. Any of eight players look like they could win the women's title in Melbourne. Among the men, Federer and Nadal both still look strong, but so does Novak Djokovic, the young Serb who won in Melbourne last year, and Britain's star, Andy Murray, who defeated Federer and Nadal to win an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi earlier this month.
Yet the drama ahead will come at an enormous cost—and has already raised serious questions about why so many tennis players are struggling or getting cut down in what ought to be their prime. When I won my 18 Grand Slam singles titles between 1978 and 1987, I was the fittest woman in tennis, but the global circuit was far less developed, and there was not the demand to play every week of the year. Even then the tour was too long. After 1989, the only way I could get the physical and mental break I needed was to stop playing in the Australian Open and start the tour in February. Today's athletes can't do that. Even players way down in the world rankings can win hundreds of thousands of dollars, and with ever greater financial incentives comes ever greater pressure from agents, organizers and sponsors to keep playing all year round. Some players don't have any kind of off-season at all, as they try to maximize their earnings during the "exhibition" season in November and December.
Moreover, athletes are now starting younger and playing harder. Some children as young as 9 are hitting balls for four to five hours a day. The modern composite racquets with nylon strings and big heads that are now in fashion have added too much power and put enormous wear and tear on young bodies. (Wooden racquets, with gut strings, would not only protect the longevity of players' careers, but add more variety to tennis.) Hard surfaces are an even bigger problem. When I was growing up we played on clay, grass, indoors and on a carpet laid on wood. We played on hard courts in just a few tournaments. Now the majority of tournaments are played on hard courts, and most of the tennis academies have hard courts as well, putting a pounding on players' feet, legs and lower back.
More injuries are likely—unless tennis's governing bodies modify the calendar, fight back against the racquet manufacturers that have hijacked the game and insist that tennis academies limit the use of hard courts, particularly for the young. But until then, we are likely to move into a new era in which there are no dominant players year after year. Indeed, the age of King-Evert-Navratilova-Graf may already be over, and the men's game will one day be similarly affected, with Federer possibly the last of a string of dominant players that began with Borg, McEnroe and Sampras.
Yes, Federer has stayed impressively fit, and at the rate he has been winning Grand Slams over the past four years—13 to date— it looks as if he could win 20. As of now, I would say that he is on track to become the greatest men's player of all time—but only if he can stay healthy. Along with big wins last year—including the U.S. Open and a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics—he has had some high-profile losses over the past 18 months, including to Nadal at Wimbledon, where he had been regarded as virtually unbeatable. It was also Nadal, not Federer, who won last year's French Open. Federer lost as well at the Australian Open, to Djokovic, and he has even acknowledged the difficulties of playing so often and so hard: "I've created a monster, so I know I need to always win every tournament," he said after his Melbourne defeat. "It's not easy coming out every week trying to win."
It is a lesson more athletes, both amateur and pro, seem to be learning with every passing match.
Navratilova, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles events, is a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy (laureus.com), a group of 46 of the greatest living sportsmen and -women.