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Broken bodies on the WTA Tour: why are so many top women so often injured?

As the 2016 WTA Tour season dawned at the start of the year, Serena Williams pulled out of the Hopman Cup exhibition with a knee issue. Simona Halep was carrying an ankle injury. Garbiñe Muguruza struggled with plantar fasciitis in her left foot, Maria Sharapova with her left forearm. Petra Kvitova had a stomach virus and pulled out of both her tune-up events.

Agnieszka Radwanska – the in-form player after winning the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore to end the 2015 season – won a small tournament, then pulled out of her next with a leg injury. Lucie Safarova, the 2015 French Open finalist, was still recovering from a bacterial inflection that struck her in the fall and missed the entire Australian swing. She still hasn’t played.

These are the top women tennis players on the planet. And nearly all of them are hurt, struggling, or simply not playing.

At the Australian Open at the end of January, Williams turned out to be fine, although an attack of nerves and a relentless opponent in Angelique Kerber cost her the title. But she hasn’t played since. Others faltered early: Halep (the No2 seed) in the first round, Kvitova in the second, Muguruza in the third.

The intervening weeks only appear to back up those early concerns. And somehow, it appears to be more than the usual collection of aches and pains: some of the injuries that are keeping the tour’s best players off the court are often the very same injuries that compromised the end of their 2015 campaigns. And that’s alarming.

“I’m not ready to compete,” Muguruza said to a small gathering of reporters in Dubai late Tuesday night after a painful-looking 7-6, 6-3 loss to Elina Svitolina. “I need to start from scratch.”

The 22-year-old spoke of playing with a lot of pressure, of everyone expecting her to win every match she plays, of possibly taking a break from tournaments until she feels 100% ready.

Coming into Dubai, Muguruza had played exactly two tournaments (four total matches) and one Fed Cup weekend in 2016.

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The Dubai tournament offers more than $1.7m in prize money – and all the duty-free goods you can stuff into your suitcase. Yet from the original entry list, six players ranked in the top 17 withdrew before they even began. All eight remaining seeds lost their first match of the tournament.

Kvitova won the first set 6-0 against American Madison Brengle before succumbing Wednesday night. Trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears during changes of ends, Muguruza made 40 unforced errors in the first set alone against Svitolina.

Defending champion Halep had originally decided not to play as she scheduled a two-month break to have surgery on a deviated septum. Suddenly, after playing Fed Cup, she pronounced herself fit, healthy and confident and all thoughts of a break were swept aside.

So much for that.

There are as many reasons as there are players for this breakdown atop the women’s game. There’s pressure to meet the criteria for the WTA Tour year-end bonus-pool money, which is considerable. There is the huge spotlight on players like Halep and Muguruza, who went from underdogs to major favourites in the blink of an eye. For Kvitova, nearly 26 and seemingly old enough to be past this point, there have been health issues and a major coaching change.

Kvitova, 26, has struggled with injuries and a change of coach.

What to make of players coming back from an off-season that is supposed to refresh only to appear hobbled, and burned out, before the first two months of the season are even in the books?

“We don’t want to miss out too much. We don’t want to lose our rankings. We want to compete at our favourite events. We just want to come back, and sometimes it’s really too soon,” said Jelena Jankovic, who had her own injury issues in 2015.

In many cases, the off-season can be the culprit, at least according to some coaches and trainers the Guardian spoke to during the Australian Open.

“They probably overdo it a little bit. And also when you take breaks, injuries happen. Your body starts to go into a rest mode and then when you get back into it with intensity, often you see people get injured right after the preseason or during the pre-season,” said Yves Boulais, who has worked with former top-40 player Rebecca Marino, Eugenie Bouchard and currently coaches American Alison Riske.

“It’s overload. In December, they still haven’t recovered from the year before and now they’re doing more than normal. The strength coach wants to get his stuff in. The tennis coach wants to get his stuff in. They also test new equipment, strings, racquets, all these things, and sometimes that’s part of the issue,” said fitness coach Allistair McCaw, who currently works with top ATP Tour player Kevin Anderson but whose client list has included Dinara Safina, Svetlana Kuznetsova and many others.

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“[The off-season] is the only time for the trainer to maximize, so they put on heavier weights. They’re doing squats now, stuff they wouldn’t do in season. Then they go hit balls in the afternoon. But then there’s a breakdown of the muscle tissue from the strength work that hasn’t recovered yet. The body’s not used to that.

“I’ve always wanted the players I worked with in December to come to Australia 80% fit, not 100%, because there are still three weeks before the [Australian] Open,” McCaw added. “The players come to Australia tired and exhausted already because they’ve been going since mid-November.”

Another issue is the way the women treat their practice time.

Boulais, who has been on the scene a long time – he coached wife Patricia Hy-Boulais in the mid-90s – said the women tend to go as far as they pushed, and beyond. “The guys might be a bit more aware of their limits and when they reach them, they will express themselves a little more,” he said. “With the women, it’s a very difficult mental process. They try to win every point, and if they don’t, there’s something wrong.

“It’s usually more difficult to play well and when you play under pressure all the time, you break down,” he added. “A big part of coaching is knowing what your players can do. It’s very easy to injure players; obviously the competition is strong, so everyone wants to be at their limit where they want to get the most out of themselves.”

McCaw agreed although he points to current client Anderson as being equally relentless. “Physically they’re not as strong as the guys. That’ s normal. But they’re doing probably more. With the guys, it’s an hour of rhythm; with the women it’s drill, drill, drill all the time,” he said. “They lose points in a match and they’re taken to the next court to get fed more balls. And they’re hard on themselves.”

McCaw said players often will pay for a top-quality coach, then try to skimp on a fitness trainer. “You can’t get quality people if you’re paying peanuts. And that’s part of the problem as well,” he said. “Some of the things I’ve seen players do with trainers at tournaments, I’m like: ‘What are you doing? Why?’”

Jankovic, considered one of the more durable players on tour, has had her own experiences with having the wrong people around her; she ended up being injured all the time. She said the current malaise on the women’s tour could be a combination of many factors.

Maria Sharapova is not expected to play until mid-March.

“Sometimes it can be bad training, wrong training. Sometimes it can be too much playing, not knowing when to stop. If you’re successful, and going deep into tournaments, it takes a toll on your body,’ she said. “I think the most important thing over the years that I have learned is to listen to your body. When you’re tired, when you think you can’t go any more, just stop.”

That’s easier said than done. There is so much money to be made, so many opportunities for the top players in the women’s game. There are increasing numbers of people around them – the ubiquitous “teams” – who depend on them to make their living.

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The motivation to keep them on court isn’t always altruistic. After all, it’s business.

More will be revealed next week when the WTA tour stop in Doha offers even more prize money and even more ranking points.

Williams has already withdrawn, as has Sharapova. But as of Wednesday night nearly all of the remaining top 20 are still entered – including those who withdrew this week in Dubai, and all those who lost early.

“Even though I think we are smart people, we are not smart when we are making those decisions,” Jankovic said. “Our will to be out there is stronger than that thought in the back of our heads, that common sense. And we should sometimes use that to our advantage better.”


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