Stars that keep on going back to the well
TENNIS:Tennis is not just beautiful, it is hell. Ask Rafael Nadal, who still does not trust his wounded knees after seven months hobbling in the shadows.
Listen to John Isner, whose body has given up on him on the eve of the Australian Open. Maria Sharapova’s collarbone aches. Heather Watson is nursing an elbow strain. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s hamstring nags him, as does Victoria Azarenka’s toe, Tommy Haas’s groin, Kei Nishikoris knee, Janko Tipsarevic’s wrist and Richard Gasquet’s mind.
The only given about the first Major of the year is that both champions will suffer in the extreme, more obviously in the men’s tournament. The winner could spend more than 25 hours on court over the next fortnight, much of it in draining heat, all of it stretching his resolve and muscles to the limit.
A year ago, Novak Djokovic took 10 minutes short of five hours to beat Andy Murray in the semi-final and, after the briefest of rests, a further five hours and 53 minutes to win the final against Nadal. Within six months, the accumulated stress from that match and thousands of others had so wrecked Nadal’s crumbling knees that he was being hustled out of Wimbledon in the second round by Lukas Rosol, who was ranked 100 in the world at the time.
It was the last time we saw the Spaniard on court and, after his recent decision to delay his comeback until next month in Acapulco, there are growing concerns that, at 26, he might be entering the final phase of his career.
Full working order
As for those glad of his absence in Melbourne and still in full working order, they have arrived like marines fresh from boot camp, their drill sergeants still barking out instructions. Without backup, they could not compete – which is why players outside the elite often struggle to keep up.
Djokovic relies heavily on Gebhard Phil-Gritsch and Miljan Amanovic to maintain his fitness; even the languid Roger Federer bends to the regime, the longest-serving member of his team being the conditioner Pierre Paganini, who has been with him on and off for more than 15 years; and Murray has Jez Green.
Green, who works alongside Matt Little, looks at Murray as not just a friend and fine player, but a maturing tennis machine the team have to ensure reaches maximum efficiency at the right time. “Andy is moving towards his physiological peak from 25 to 28,” Green says. “He achieved a 200 beat-per-minute maximum heart rate. His maximum minute ventilation is indicative of a highly trained athlete and has increased since last year’s test. His oxygen pulse, which is an indication of how much blood and oxygen he can consume for every beat of his heart, is still extremely high.