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The debate behind the debate (behind the debate)

Matt Zemek

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Danielle Parhizkaran - USA TODAY SPORTS

If you were to identify three topics which get tennis fans riled up on a consistent basis, it would be hard to top this trio: court assignments, the strength of various top ATP players’ draws, and injuries.

If pressed to choose the topic which generates the most heat — and the least light — of the three, injuries would probably be my selection.

There are some legitimate reasons for this perception, especially if you believe that injuries ARE the most divisive topic among tennis fans.  The most obvious and persistent cause of divisions among tennis fans on the topic of injuries is the dubious track record of the medical timeout. Tennis has not been able to get on top of this issue.

Sketchy MTOs are still used by players to interrupt an opponent’s momentum, get a mental-reset break for themselves, or both. They still do change the tenor of matches, and in some cases, the outcome.

This has poisoned the well and made lots of fans consistently — and rightly — suspicious of the extent to which a tennis player is truly hurting.

To be clear, this is not an attack on tennis players. If I was a professional player, and I knew there were loopholes or insufficiently specific provisions I could exploit, yeah, I would probably play that card in a few situations when I really needed it (if not more).

If you knew you could exploit imperfect rules to win several hundred thousand extra dollars in a major quarterfinal, you would at least consider the possibility. Tennis players are merely working within the structure they have been given.

A second basic point to make is that the pain and distress tennis players feel in many cases (not necessarily all, but most) is real.

The TRUE question behind pain and suffering experienced by tennis players in the heat of competition is this: Is the pain due to wear and tear, being ground down by a superior or in-flight opponent, or did an “injury” — an abrupt and significant diminishment or impairment of physical capacity — occur?

How does THAT question get litigated? It is a deeper matter which cries out for more specific standards from tennis on the subject of MTOs.

This sheds some light on why injuries are so tough to litigate and evaluate.

Let’s now broaden our discussion in light of Novak Djokovic and his retirement against Stan Wawrinka on Sunday, and how it relates to this very delicate yet potent discussion about injuries.

The above image is from a 1963 Looney Tunes cartoon titled “The Million Hare.”

Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are named as game show contestants, competing to see who will win “The Million BOX.” Daffy thinks it is a pursuit of a million BUCKS — dollars — but when he finds out that the winner is awarded a million boxes inside the big box, he gets impatient and annoyed.

He allows Bugs to claim ownership of the million boxes.

Only then does the game show host say that inside the million boxes are individual $1 bills.

The injury debate in tennis is layered like that. There is the outside box, then a million different little boxes, and a surprise inside those many boxes.

The big orange crate in “The Million Hare” is the GOAT debate. It is the huge, impossible-to-ignore debate we all can see. Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer.

The million boxes inside the orange crate are the relationships between those three players and the subject of injuries.

Nadal has a higher percentage of major tournaments won in major tournaments played, because of all the majors he has missed due to injury. He has also retired from a lot of major tournaments due to injury.

People who argue for Nadal’s GOAT candidacy will promote the former fact, while critics will cite the latter fact as an indictment of Nadal’s playing style.

As for Djokovic, he is now the bearer of this set of statistics:

Critics of Djokovic — aka, Federer fans — would also cite Djokovic’s playing style as a reason for these retirements.

The millions of boxes include a lot of $1 bills marked “playing style.”

The GOAT debate is what tennis fans litigate on the surface, but one of the underlying debates behind the GOAT debate is the debate over playing style.

David Foster Wallace’s 2006 essay on “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” remains a point of great contention to this day. The portrait of Federer as a gliding, floating god — graceful, balletic, lighter than the clouds — is an article of faith among many Fed fans.

It makes Nadal and Djokovic fans want to throw up.

I haven’t told you anything new… but I’m getting there.

Playing style is seen by Federer fans as a defense of old-school tennis aesthetics and an identity belonging to Rod Laver and the other players of his time. The sanctity of tennis is bundled into the playing-style debate.

Nadal and Djokovic fans digest what they see as this endless cult-like prattle from the Federer side and protest — reasonably — that the enormous feats of skill, mental toughness, clutch performance, and physical stamina from their men have been diminished by the media in the attempt to revere Federer’s tennis aesthetic and what it stands for.

Federer’s playing style is a proxy for tennis elitism and the old-money societies with their tennis whites  and cardigan sweater vests. Nadal and Djokovic are representatives of a more emotionally expressive and muscular tennis belonging to a modern sport in a modern age.

It is tennis’s equivalent of the “clash of civilizations,” and in Djokovic’s case in particular, that “clash” resonates because of a perceived unwillingness to give a Serbian the same deference as a Swiss. This is rooted in the old and — I might add — legitimate gripe about Ivan Lendl being portrayed as a Central/Eastern European villain in the 1980s.

Recall this Sports Illustrated cover page:

The GOAT debate contains so many smaller yet equally fierce debates within it.

The injury question — recalled once more by Djokovic’s retirement — elicits so many of those other “million boxes” in the world of GOAT discussions.

The injury question is not just a matter of playing style, either.

How to evaluate injuries in a career rests on many perceptions and the questions attached to them.

Start with this question: How can one reasonably differentiate between an injury as an accident or as a probable result of playing style?

Federer’s main injury (body) problem in his career has been his back, and the spasms which have periodically recurred.

Djokovic’s main problem: the shoulder, which acted up once again in New York. More broadly, Djokovic’s arm — shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand — has been the main locus of his injury problems.

For Nadal: knees, a clear product of the strain on joints due to an excess of hardcourt tennis.

One can plainly see that as you continue to look through these million boxes, a new debate can be found in many different places.

Is Nadal a victim of a chosen playing style, or is he the victim of too much hardcourt tennis on the calendar?

Is Djokovic somehow overworking his body, or is he merely unlucky? Keep in mind that the problem he ostensibly picked up this summer came after not playing Canada, which gave him (like Federer) a four-week break after Wimbledon. Djokovic also did not play a warm-up tournament before Wimbledon, whereas Federer did. Djokovic played only Wimbledon and Cincinnati between Roland Garros and the U.S. Open.

“Overwork” doesn’t seem like the easy answer to Djokovic’s injury.

Injury as accident versus injury as the player’s responsibility is, one could argue, the most difficult — and ferocious — argument not just on Tennis Twitter, but in sports. In team sports, an athlete’s value is measured in large part by his ability to remain healthy. Not staying healthy — if prolonged — will ruin a career.

This can easily become a verdict on an athlete. Whether that is fair or not is a different story.

Athletes in team sports get fatter contracts and more guaranteed money later in their careers if they prove they are durable. Injuries ARE part of the business of team sports, and how fans perceive those athletes is also related to durability.

What is harder to litigate and identify in tennis is the fact that when an injury occurs, it is never (for singles players) a product of a collision with another body at a high speed.

American football, international football, basketball, and baseball all involve fierce collisions between two athletes at high speeds. Therefore, when an injury occurs, it owns a recognizable crash-bang quality which can’t be held against the athlete involved, at least not that easily.

In a solo-athlete sport such as tennis, one can see when a player rolls an ankle or blows out a knee, but for less conspicuous injuries, we go back to the difference between an athlete being worn down in competition versus suffering an acute diminishment due to a traumatic event.

This is why player retirements are also such an explosive topic on Tennis Twitter, another of the “million boxes” which are stuffed inside the big orange crate known as the GOAT debate.

Novak Djokovic’s hardcourt summer and his retirement versus Stan Wawrinka elicited a strong outpouring of reaction from many corners — or should I say, boxes — of the tennis community.

Hopefully, this piece explained just how many boxes are part of the larger GOAT debate, and the immensely complicated frameworks from which people operate on different sides of the discussion.

No one side is empirically correct or wrong. I hope one can see just how complicated and fragmented this debate is… and will continue to be.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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