Retirements, Heat and That Delicate Balance

By Jane Voigt

January 14, 2013 -- Patrick McEnroe told listeners, “you better do everything right.” Meaning what?

McEnroe's comment was a reaction to Bernard Tomic's retirement with a groin injury after 43 minutes. He had given the match to the No. 1 see Rafael Nadal after one set, 6-4.

Tomic left Rod Laver Arena to a mixture of heckles and hisses … another lost son blowing the opportunity of a lifetime for man and country. "He's a massive underachiever," McEnroe proclaimed. 

McEnroe's observations come from his tennis-playing career and coaching experiences plus hours upon hours of ESPN2 broadcasting. "Rafa has toned down [his training]," McEnroe added in his parental voice. He had to. It was a matter of court life or more suffering through rehab. Rafa likes to suffer through matches, but not in a gym. 

McEnroe's condemnation of Tomic and his endorsement of Nadal's choices alluded to the bigger quandary, the optimal mix of details that effect a pro player's life. How and when do/can players learn to juggle these in order to remain competitive? 

Nadal has learned to cut back on running. Roger Federer knows he needs 10-hours of sleep every night. Juan Martin del Potro takes ice baths. 

Bernard Tomic, one of six players that retired today, has not learned the right balance. He is 20 years old with a seemingly brilliant tennis career out in front of him or, at least, that's his perception of reality. But Tomic continually disappoints. "He uses tanking as an achievement," McEnroe scolded. 

Tomic told The Australian newspaper yesterday about his injury. That means he started the match knowing he wasn't tip-top. Whether to play probably came down to fine calculations, most unquantifiable. Does he take a couple tablets and hope the pain subsides? Does he play a couple games, win a few points and gain confidence even if there is a little pain? All players have some. Does he just go out there for love of a battle against Nadal and the glory of Australia, the way he would be expected by tournament officials and Tennis Australia? What about all that money spent on lessons since he was ten, coaching, travel?

Then, there's the money. Had Tomic withdrawn before stepping on court he would have missed out on $30,000 AD. And, he would have lost the ranking points associated with a first round appearance, which are negligible. By withdrawing, however, another more fit player could have taken his spot and entertained expectant fans with a much better match. Instead, they witnessed drama.

John Isner also called it quits because of an injury. Here's the number one American player, seeded No. 13 at the first Grand Slam of the year, and he retires in the first round from a bum ankle that initially cropped up at The Hopman Cup weeks ago. Isner then chose to play a tournament in Auckland before coming to Melbourne. He won the title. Great! But he bypassed the important step -- taking care of the ankle. The result … another American disappointment at a slam. Isner's opponent Martin Klizan wasn't disappointed, though. He came in this match a Lucky Loser and left as one, too. 

Couple these retirements with today’s extreme heat -- 41C or 108F -- and more reasons to beg off cropped up, exaserbating the injury scenarios. (Tennis Channel reported that on-court temperatures hovered near 153F.) 

"It was like an oven when I open the over and the potatoes are done," Isner said, reported by The Guardian

Canadian Frank Dancevic collapsed for a minute on court in his match against Frenchman Benoit Paire. Dancevic revived himself because of medical attention and the intense fan support that seemed to lift his spirits. But, as expected, he lost. He later blasted the tournament for "forcing players to compete in inhumane conditions," The Guardian reported.

Down The Tee's guest contributor Joe Nardini Jr. has had his own experiences tinkering with the delicate balance of details in his young tennis career. "Heat is a huge factor, when I play tournaments. I have cramped and had to retire three times during matches because I did not eat and drink enough to obtain essential elements my body needed, like electrolytes and potassium."

Nardini said that pros can travel with experts tasked with maintaining optimal levels of hydration so they compete well. 

"I now drink one or two Gatorades the day before a tournament," Nardini added. "I have pickle juice in my cooler, too, which contains lots of salt to prevent cramping. I drink that whenever I split sets." Joe also eats a big dinner the night before a tournament match. "I need plenty of carbs."

Joe is off court for the entire month of January. He has a back injury. His doctor told him to do nothing. No leg work. No treadmill. No swimming. Not even a walk. Nothing. Joe has followed these instructions, but it hasn't been easy. And it's not easy for pro players to stay away. Isner probably made a poor decision about Auckland, knowing his ankle was compromised. Federer admitted late last year that he probably should have taken time off because of his back, but didn't. 

Learning to control myriad aspects of a pro tennis career for the long-term is part education, part maturity and experience, part science, and part listening to the experts who surround a player. They guide them toward that almost perfect place where victory is more assured. When uncontrollable elements pop up, like high temperatures, more decisions are made.

Today's conditions -- air temp, wind speed, type of tennis ball, court surface -- were the same across Melbourne Park. Every single player faced them. The question was, who managed them the best. You will see their faces in week two, when the real competition begins. 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013