By Gerald Marzorati
No tennis player had the remarkable season in 2019 that Bianca Andreescu had. She began the year ranked No. 152 in the world and ended it ranked No. 5. She arrived in Indian Wells in March of that year to play the BNP Paribas Open as a wild-card entry, an 18-year-old Canadian on a hot streak, having reached the women’s final in Auckland and won a small tournament in Newport Beach. She went on to win the title at Indian Wells, defeating four top 20 players in the last four rounds. She became the youngest woman to take the trophy in the California desert since Serena Williams in 1999. She excited the tennis world with her all-court game, and her exuberance. And she kept winning: the Rogers Cup in Toronto, and, in September, in a tumultuous match with Williams, the US Open final in straight sets.
But there was another aspect to her remarkable year, a shadow season. When she wasn’t winning, she was mostly sidelined with injuries. After winning at Indian Wells, she followed the tour to Miami, but retired during a fourth-round match with a right-shoulder injury. (She’s right-handed.) It proved to be a muscle tear in her rotator cuff. She tried a comeback at the French Open two months later, but withdrew after one match. The shoulder was obviously sound as she hoisted the big US Open trophy in Flushing, but two months later, at the year-end WTA Finals in Shenzhen, she was forced to withdraw with an injured left knee. The knee did not require surgery, but she skipped the Australian Open at the start of this year. The knee continued to trouble her, and she pulled out of Indian Wells, unable to defend her title. Indian Wells, of course, was canceled, wisely, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States in mid-March. Women’s tennis was more or less canceled in the following months, giving her more time to rehab. But earlier this month, Andreescu announced she would not be defending her title at the US Open. By the rules the WTA has established for this COVID-affected season, she will not be losing the 2,000 ranking points she earned by winning that championship, which surely made her decision to stay away an easier one. It’s likely, though, she would have stayed away regardless. She reportedly is nursing a foot injury she sustained while practicing; she was still not physically ready to play. Only 20, she has spent a good deal of her young and promising career not physically ready to play.
It’s sad and troubling whenever a star athlete is injured. Athletes live for and in their bodies as the rest of us do not; and our connection to them, through fandom, is to a great extent through those splendidly honed bodies of theirs. That’s why social media photos of them in hospital beds (Andy Murray) or wheelchairs (Serena Williams) seem so jarring. But there are those top athletes, injury-plagued from the start, then laid up again and again, who disconcert especially. It doesn’t seem fair or even possible that someone so strong and fit could break down so often. But break down often some of them do. Bianca Andreescu was a phenom on the junior circuit, but she missed months of play as a result of recurring injuries to her left adductor and right ankle. There was a stress fracture in her foot early in her pro career, and in 2018, the year before her breakthrough, a debilitating back injury. Is Andreescu, such a terrific and refreshing talent, one of those condemned to an injury-scarred career?
As it happens, there was published as the COVID lockdown began an English translation of a book about the most injury-damned tennis player of our time, and maybe any time. Juan Martín del Potro: The Gentle Giant was written by Sebastián Torok, an Argentine tennis journalist who’s been following del Potro’s career since his emergence as a teen from Tandil, a very tall kid with a very imposing forehand. Torok’s is an intimate look at the Delpo we understand him to be: the best of his cohort who never was; a warm, noble soul who didn’t deserve his fate. The book reads like Butler’s Lives of the Saints: lots of goodness and hope, along with lots of suffering. Del Potro, at age 20, won the US Open in 2009, upsetting Roger Federer in the final after defeating Rafael Nadal in the semifinal. Within months he’d withdraw from a match with the first of a string of wrist injuries that, over the next seven years, would require multiple surgeries and keep him off the court more than a third of that time, including a two-year-long stretch that began in February 2014. Torok describes del Potro’s pain and resulting depression, the hours and hours of rehab not getting him anywhere, the mulling of retirement at 26. “He could not,” Torok writes, “find a way to recover his skills, his vocation and the encouragement that accompanied him since he was a boy when he began to hold a tennis racket on the brick dust courts of the Independiente club in Tandil.” He quotes del Potro saying, “I was very sad, very lost, very empty.” There was a comeback in 2017 and into 2018, and then another string of injuries: leg, wrist, and, most recently, last summer, a fractured kneecap, suffered on the grass of London’s Queen’s Club, that he has yet to recover from, amid doubts, at 31, he will.
Tennis wears on a player. There are the hard courts, on which most tournaments are played, which punish the hips and knees. There is the power you’re expected to generate and absorb, resulting in strains and tears to the muscles developed to create that power. There’s the length of the tennis season and the travel entailed, which fatigue and leave the body vulnerable. There’s the liability of spending too much time training, or spending too little. There are the mechanics of certain players, and the particularly grinding physical nature of the games of others, that expose them to injury. There are the smaller hurts players attempt to play through, often overtaxing other parts of the body in the process: When, say, you can’t comfortably use your legs to push off while serving, because of a sore knee or ankle, you may try to maintain your service speed by swinging harder, and so injure a shoulder or wrist. The biomechanics of a fine-tuned machine are frightfully complex.
Are there great athletes whose bodies simply cannot hold up—who can’t, on some deep, deep level, avoid injuries? Think of the NBA’s Derrick Rose, with his range of sprains, strains, and pulls; or the onetime Cubs pitcher Mark Prior, with his—both promising stars whose bodies let them down. Did genes play a role? Perhaps. There are, for example, gene combinations believed to lead to stress fractures, and variations of a collagen gene named COL1A1 underrepresented in study subjects who’d suffered traumatic ACL injuries.
The study of gene function and behavior is a young science, and only time will tell to what extent it can help hobbled athletes glean what afflicts them. Time will tell, too, if Bianca Andreescu winds up residing for us—please, no!—in the perfect continuous conditional, among the other ghostly would-have-beens who summon quiet grimaces, and the slow shaking of heads.
Gerald Marzorati writes regularly for newyorker.com about tennis and is a contributor to Racquet.
Above: Bianca Andreescu is attended to by medical staff during her match against Simona Halep at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, 2019. (Getty Images)
Issue No. 14
Our solitary pursuits issue, conceived and executed during quarantine. Andrea Petkovic on holiday, selfies from Stefanos Tsitsipas a.k.a. Steve the Hawk, and Serena and Venus singing karaoke on the Lower East Side.