15 Aug 2013

Why is professional tennis so tough at the top?

As Wimbledon ladies champion Marion Bartoli announces her retirement from tennis at 28, Channel 4 News looks at the real impact of life at the top for players on the professional tennis circuit.

The retirement of Wimbledon women’s 2013 champion Marion Bartoli has stunned the world of tennis.

The Frenchwoman, who announced on Wednesday she was quitting, blamed a succession of injuries for her decision to call it a day – citing in particular an Achilles problem which was troubling her on the hard courts.

“My body just can’t do it anymore,” she said.

“I’ve already been through a lot of injuries since the beginning of the year. I’ve been on the tour for so long, and I really pushed through and left it all during that Wimbledon.

“I really felt I gave all the energy I have left in my body. I made my dream a reality and it will stay with me forever, but now my body just can’t cope with everything.

‘I just can’t do it anymore’

“I have pain everywhere after 45 minutes or an hour of play. I’ve been doing this for so long, and body-wise I just can’t do it anymore.”

She’s not the only top-flight player to struggle with the game. Former Wimbledon winner Rafael Nadal has missed seven months of play this year with a persistent knee injury, while this year’s champion Andy Murray did not compete in the French Open as he picked up an injury in the Rome Masters.

But does her tender age reflect life at the top of the game, or a growing strain on sportspeople to exceed their body’s limits?

Sports physiotherapist Rebecca Symes said: “There are ever increasing amounts of pressure and the toll on athletes’ bodies and minds can be immense.

“Injuries are incredibly tough both physically and psychologically especially when they are persistent.

“The intensities of training are so high so being physically and mentally fit is an absolute essential.

‘Retiring is one of the most difficult decisions’

“I think young athletes are sacrificing more and more to reach their dreams as well, so the levels of competition coming up behind older athletes is higher.

“Retiring is one of the most difficult decisions an athlete will make and it is a very individual choice and especially when retirement is forced upon an athlete through injury it can be emotionally very tough.

“In many sports the pressure to recover from injuries quickly is pretty high, which can increase the use of pain killers.”

But what could be the psychological reasons behind a relatively short career on the tennis circuit?

Dr Steve Bull is a chartered psychologist and author of “The Game Plan – your guide to mental toughness at work”.

He said: “There are three key reasons why tennis is so demanding on players.

“Firstly, the physical demands of the sport are incredible – players now have physical conditioning programmes which have raised the pace of the game.

‘Immense’ pressure on players

“You only had to watch the Djokovic -Murray final to see the number of rallies the players were having – that simply would not have been the case years ago.

“Secondly, the pressure on players is immense – if a player makes a mistake, it is replayed 100 times instantly.

“There is also the sponsorship issue players have to perform for the sponsors, who expect them to represent the brand in the best way possible.

“Lastly, there is the prize money to consider – some players have earned enough to give them financial security, so they can afford to do other things.”

Elsewhere, Olympic bronze medal-winning swimmer Rebecca Adlington announced she was hanging up her goggles at the age of 23, saying her all-too-brief career had taken its toll both mentally and physically.

For other sport stars, retirement has come much later.

Champion jockey Lester Piggott rode competitively until he was 50 years old, and former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton retired after playing 1,005 league games, at the age of 47.

But what can be given to stars in a bid to boost their performance? When England football manager Glenn Hoddle approved vitamin-boosting injections for the England team during the World Cup in France in 1998, it raised concerns with Alex Ferguson, who deemed the jabs “mysterious”.

Whatever their beneficial value, England went no further than the last 16 in the tournament that year.