Rainy Day Roundup: Drugs, Bruises, Nalbandian

Monday, March 29, 2010 /by

Dn Greetings from a gloomy east coast of the United States. It’s been raining, heavily, according to the tournament’s web site, in Key Biscayne. It’s raining, just as heavily, outside my office window in Manhattan.

With matches just getting started and no finals to review from yesterday, I’m left with a hodge-podge of items to address. Three items, to be exact, come to mind.

“Some Jackass”

Yes, these were the words used by Andy Roddick to describe Wayne Odesnik this weekend. As you know, Odesnik, an American third-fourth-fifth-tier ATP player, pleaded guilty to trying to smuggle eight vials of HGH into Australia at the beginning of the year. Another player, upon hearing of the case, wondered what it said about WADA, the sport’s doping overseer, that Odesnik had never failed a test. The truth is, he couldn’t have failed a test for HGH, because tennis has yet to test for it. In fact, until a couple of months ago, no one in any sport had ever tested positive for the muscle-building substance. Terry Newton, a British rugby player, was the first; he admitted using it and has been suspended. This has led major league baseball’s commissioner, Bud Selig, to push the player’s union to allow HGH testing. Along with the Odesnik case, it may (it should) spur tennis to make that step as well.

ITF spokesman Stuart Miller told me today that “recent developments”—namely, the Odesnik situation—meant that tennis would have to “consider broadening” what it tests for. “We test for a wide variety of substances, and you can’t test for everything every day. It’s constantly evolving, and we’re always looking to trends in other sports and what we should be looking for next.”

According to the ITF’s records from 2009, Odesnik was tested once last year, at the U.S. Open.

The Phantom Injury

I have a running debate with another tennis writer about how much consideration we should give a supposed injury or illness when we assess a player’s performance in a given match.

My colleague is willing to downgrade the significance of any match where one player has complained of a physical problem. I go the other way; if it doesn’t force you to retire, and it doesn’t make you limp or have to powder-puff your serve in, it’s not worth considering or mentioning. The latest example of one of these situations happened on Saturday, when Andy Murray lost for the second straight time while seeming to have an issue with his foot. But niggling problem or not, it wasn't his foot that drilled that easy pass into the net to lose him the first set against Mardy Fish—he got the ball in plenty of time. Murray hasn’t mentioned any physical issue in his press conferences. He’s focused on what is likely a larger problem: His lack of mental toughness since the Aussie Open final. He looks like a deflated player at the moment.

Part of my attitude about this comes from own experience. I never pushed my body the way a pro athlete does, but I did play tennis virtually every day for a lot of years. I’ve been injured plenty of times—back, shoulder, hamstring are three popular places. But I've never finished a match where an injury was in any way the cause of my defeat. Either I I couldn’t play at all, or I had to quit midway. When any injury is mentioned, and I've seen a pro run and hit with no visible hindrance, I wonder what exactly it could have done to them. Partisans of Roger Federer claim that he was hindered by a back problem in his 2009 Aussie Open loss to Rafael Nadal. I didn’t notice it, and even if I had, I don’t know how what kind of injury is worth bringing up if it allows you to win six matches at a Grand Slam and take two sets from a guy who has a winning record against you. Ditto for Nadal at the French Open last year. I didn’t see any visible knee trouble in his loss to Robin Soderling, and I don’t know how you win three matches at the most grueling tournament in the world, before going out in four tough sets to the eventual runner-up, if you’re suffering every time you plant your foot on the ground. I know Nadal has said his knees contributed to that defeat, and he pulled out of Wimbledon because of them a few weeks later. But I’ve also heard from another source near him that it was his head—which was troubled by his parents’ separation—and not his body that hurt most. I know we don’t want to start making personal problems into excuses, because no match will ever count again. How often does anyone feel their absolute best both physically and mentally? How often are our heads totally clear?

Don’t take it from me, though. Take it from Federer. Asked in Indian Wells whether he felt as beat up at 23 as Nadal often appears to be now, he said, “Sure, sometimes you feel tired. Part of our sport, you know. You ask: Every guy has something small going on.” If every guy has something small going on, then that means no injury—no barely detectable injury, anyway—is worth mentioning over any other. Do we want to, after every match, start scientifically comparing the significance of each player's bruises and strains and boo-boos with his opponent's? It'd be a lot easier to go back to judging a match by its final score, and its final score alone.

A Daveed Sighting

It was nice to see David Nalbandian again this weekend, wasn’t it? No, he’s not in perfect shape. Yes, he faded down the stretch against Nadal. And yes, he’ll never be all he can be, because he likes his hobbies and his time away from the sport and he’s capable of petulantly chucking any match to the wind. But did you see the slo-mo replays that Fox Sports showed of his forehand on Sunday? Effortless balance, eyes glued to the contact point well after he’s hit the ball, a naturally exaggerated extension afterward: Nalbandian may be hell to root for, but every shot of his is a pleasure to watch.

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