How 'tennis abs' struck down Andy Murray and Emma Raducanu

·4 min read
Andy Murray and Emma Raducanu are both battling the same injury - GETTY IMAGES
Andy Murray and Emma Raducanu are both battling the same injury - GETTY IMAGES

That Emma Raducanu and Andy Murray, Britain’s only two currently active grand-slam singles champions, are seemingly destined to be below their best at Wimbledon due to strikingly similar abdominal problems is not quite the freak occurrence it might initially appear.

For one player at the start of their elite career and one close to the end, susceptibility to such core injuries are an everyday hazard of the gruelling demands tennis places on the body, according to those in the know.

“It’s a load issue,” said Machar Reid, head of innovation at Tennis Australia. “The abs - or trunk - are rotated in all three planes, at high speeds, and repeatedly in forehands, backhands and when serving.

“Cricket bowlers might bowl 20 overs in a six-hour day, but tennis players can hit that same number of serves, and then double the number of forehands and backhands, in matches that last half as long. That density and violence of rotation is just brutal.”

Although such overuse is largely unavoidable, the British pair are suffering from the demands of their respective unique situations.

Faced with her first full year on the WTA Tour, US Open champion Raducanu, 19, had already retired from matches with hip and back injuries prior to her latest mid-match withdrawal in Nottingham earlier this month as her body struggles to cope with the step up in competition from the junior ranks.

Two-time Wimbledon champion Murray, 35, sustained his abdominal injury after a rare run to the Stuttgart Open final, which tested his fragile body with a higher frequency of matches over a short period than at any point over the previous half-dozen years.

“Without knowing the injury details, that seems a viable conclusion because he’s trained quite similarly over the past few years and knows his body better than just about anyone on tour,” said Mark Kovacs, founder of the Kovacs Institute and former director of coaching, education and sports science at the US Tennis Association.

“His body just isn’t quite ready to do that yet. Hopefully over time, he can get back to that level. But it’s very hard when you’re coming back from a significant extended time of limited matches.”

Kovacs details three main reasons for abdominal injuries to flare in tennis players: “There could be a physical limitation, which means they are weak in a certain muscle or group of muscles, there could be a poor technical movement, which is the inability to sequence the energy transfer from the ground up into the ball, or there could be an ineffective training or competition schedule, which causes excessive overload.”

Murray has described his injury as “not significant” but “tricky”, revealing that although he is back training with coach Ivan Lendl, he has not been to practise certain shots, which almost certainly includes the all-important serve.

“The most common form of abdominal injury in professional tennis is often a strain on the non-dominant side - the side of the tossing arm - in the serve,” said Reid.

“Players can feel it as they toss the ball and in the early part of the drive to impact, as those muscles eccentrically stretch or lengthen.

“That part of the service action is critical to sustained high-speed serving, and being able to hit different spots, so if you’re constrained in any way, it’s incredibly frustrating and even debilitating.”

As Murray suggested, such a relatively minor injury should not prove troubling in the long term. However, the close proximity to British tennis’ showpiece event means neither player is likely to accept missing their moment in south London.

Kovacs explained: “It’s a soft-tissue injury so there is a natural muscle recovery cycle. You can use various devices to speed the recovery timeline compared to just sitting and resting, but the biggest challenge is that you can’t train it until it’s healed. If you try to train it while still injured, it slows the process down.

“It’s really challenging. As a tennis player you might feel like you can do just about anything else, but you may not be able to serve at full speed.

“Unless it’s severe, people will try to give it a go, especially at a tournament like Wimbledon, and then hope that it doesn’t make it worse. It’s unlikely to make it significantly worse by playing on it, but it will delay the recovery for weeks.”

Both Raducanu and Murray will be desperate to accept that risk.