The big news in sports, or at least U.S. sports, is elsewhere today, but here's a look at a couple of questions that have been making the rounds of our readers. If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This year we see that Rafa is human on clay. Do you think we could see something like that happen with Serena, too? How long do you think she can dominate on clay?—Adela
It’s a good question, and something I wondered about when Serena, after losing early in Charleston, said she was exhausted after playing and winning so much over the last two years. During her recent run of dominance, the only time that I can remember her saying something like that was in Istanbul last fall, and that was at the end of the season. I was surprised to hear her repeat it so soon in 2014, when she had only played five tournaments. But maybe it was just a passing moment of frustration. In February, Serena added a tournament to her schedule, in Dubai, because she said she was bored, and this week she maintained that she's still "hungry" for more success.
In a tale of the tape between Rafa and Serena on clay, each has advantages and disadvantages. It’s Nadal’s favorite surface, and it isn’t hers; he’s won Roland Garros eight times, she’s won it twice. He’s also five years younger than she is. In her favor is the fact that she has no real rivals the way Rafa does; she doesn’t have the equivalent of a Novak Djokovic breathing down her neck. Serena’s collective record against Li Na, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka is 41-6; Nadal’s record against Djokovic is 22-18.
It’s obviously impossible to predict these things; even if you thought Nadal was due for a clay slide, it’s doubtful anyone would have foreseen his loss to Nicolas Almagro in the Barcelona quarterfinals. But I do think, like Rafa, that Serena’s grip on clay could be loosened this year. She has already lost her title in Charleston, where she was the two-time defending champion, and clay wasn’t her specialty before 2012. Serena will be 33 in September; it wouldn’t be a shock if she found it harder to get motivated to prove herself again on dirt.
But one thing Serena will always have going for is her attitude. No matter her age, no matter what surface she’s on, no matter who she’s playing, she’ll believe that she should win. For all of his success on clay, Nadal has never felt that way. Sometimes it seems he feels the opposite way. This spring, Nadal has been sounding especially cautious about his chances. He has said that he isn’t “eternal,” and that he won’t win tournaments on clay forever. In the past, that self-inflicted need to prove himself again and again has helped him. But when he talks like that and starts to lose, his words begin to sound like self-fulfilling prophecies, as if he’s convincing himself he can’t keep winning the way he once did.
Nadal, in one of the funnier anecdotes from his autobiography, describes how his Uncle Toni, after hounding him for years to be humble, now laughs at Rafa for not being cockier, considering everything's he achieved. Maybe Toni, and Serena, have a point.
Do you think the new string technology has anything to do with the recent wrist injuries?—Rich
You must be referring to the pros’ use of Luxilon and other polyester strings, even though that's not a new development. Gustavo Kuerten was the first player to win a Grand Slam with them, back in the 1990s.
But you’re right that poly has become much more prevalent since then, and, as Ben Rothenberg wrote in the New York Times today, there have been several high-profile wrist injuries recently. Juan Martin del Potro just had his second wrist surgery, Laura Robson had her first, Novak Djokovic was bothered by right wrist pain in Monte Carlo, and Caroline Wozniacki and Sloane Stephens have been sidelined this year with wrist problems.
There’s no question that today’s baseline game is physically taxing. As Del Potro’s Mayo Clinic surgeon told the Times, “I do sense that more of the top players, the very elite touring pros, are probably experiencing injuries sufficient to take them out of the sport for some period in time at a higher rate.”
Polyester strings, which help players create more spin, make the sport even more physical by encouraging them to hit the ball harder, knowing that the spin will help bring it in. A few summers ago I tried poly, which is less forgiving than gut and other synthetics, in both my main and cross strings; I enjoyed the extra topspin, but didn’t enjoy the buzz of pain that developed in my shoulder. Since then I’ve used it only in the mains and haven’t had any problems. Djokovic also uses poly in half of his strings; Del Potro, like Nadal, uses it in all of them.
More power and more topspin means more wrist in every shot, so it would make sense that the joint would be stressed. But for years, and as recently as last October, it was thought that the combination of poly strings and the modern, open-stance, heavy-topspin game was especially damaging to players’ hips, at least on the men’s side. That injury ended Kuerten’s career prematurely, as well as Magnus Norman’s. Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian, Tommy Haas, and Brian Baker have also struggled with hip injuries.
There’s no reason that I can see why the biggest point of stress on players’ bodies would have migrated from the hip to the wrist in recent years. Does the number of wrist problems we’ve seen in 2014 qualify it as a widespread problem, unique to that part of the body? I don’t think we can say that yet.