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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: October 29, 2008

10/29/2008 6:56:00 PM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Main Page

Oct 29, 2008

So after my rant about bogus late-match retirements, I (okay, and you) thought it was only fair to acknowledge real honest to God injuries.

Real honest to God injuries suck. I know, I lost almost an entire year with a bad back and didn't know when or if I'd ever make it back on court. And if I did, what would I even be able to do? Would I just go ahead and injure myself again? These are questions that nag most any recreational player, whether it's shoulder, knee, ankle, whathaveyou. Now imagine if tennis isn't just your love, it's also your livelihood. I couldn't possibly sit here and type away on what that must be like. 

So I flew in some special guest stars to do it for me.

"You feel so bad," Juan Martin Del Potro shares with the Sweet Spot. The Argentine's chronic back trouble saw him miss two months at the beginning of the year and retire in tears against Andy Murray in Miami. "The first five weeks I was doing nothing. Just sleep until twelve, then be with my friends or with my family. And that's all because I cannot run, I cannot do any machine, I cannot play tennis. I cannot do anything. That time was very complicated for me. My mind was completely bad."

It's a sweet spot threesome.
The mind was the first thing to go for Nadia Petrova as well. She of the infamous clay court run of '06 that saw her win back to back to back titles (taking Henin out along the way) en route to the #3 ranking and role as a favorite to take home the French Open trophy. Then came the ankle injury that would pull the rug out from under her.

"It really knocked me out mentally," Petrova recalls. "I've been a step away from my goal and really was looking forward to do well at the French and succeed there. Suddenly when I felt I was almost there, I got an injury and was out for a couple months."

According to both Petrova and Del Potro, the psychological toll of injuries doesn't end with just disappointment. 

"It's quite frustrating because we try to do everything possible to avoid them," says Petrova. "When we do get injured, then we start asking lots of questions. Why, where is it coming from, I've been doing everything right, how was I not able to see that coming?"

Adds Del Potro, "Last year I retired many many times, 5 or 6, and it's not good for me, not good for the tournaments. For the people also. The people start to speak bad things about me."

And then there's the added thrill of watching your competition pass you by, reaping all the rewards. "That's money [and] points that you're going to be giving up," shares Bethanie Mattek, who had to take three months off last year for a bum knee.

The important thing to do when you're laid up is to try and stay active if you can. If you can't hit balls, train. And for God's sake, try to fix what broke ya.

"I changed who I was training with," says Mattek. "The trainers I now work with in Arizona, basically it's all injury prevention. Everything they had me do physically was strengthening the right muscles so my knees wouldn't hurt. I was working out three times a day. I didn't play tennis for three months, I just did training. It was hard, but I'm here now."

"I changed my serve for my back," says Del Potro. "I'm serving better but not too strongly." He also mixed up his tactics, with a little help from his coach. "He changed a little bit, my game. I don't run a lot. It's better for me, for my body. 

However, know this: just because you feel better doesn't mean you're going to just pick right up where you left off.

"When I came back I was thinking, you know, I'm going to be playing exactly the same tennis," says Petrova. "So I made a mistake there. It was a fool's thinking of me and I became a bit frustrated, how come this happened to me at this very important moment of my career, why me, and really just got very down on myself. Not only physically, but also mentally I had to get out of it. And it took a lot of strength and courage to do that. It's very important when you come off of an injury, you don't set any expectations. You should just give yourself some time to get back into it."

Get back into it they have. With his game tweaked and his back not, Del Potro rode an incredible win streak that saw him become the first player in ATP history to win his first four career titles in as many tournaments. And he hasn't slowed down, finding himself inches from qualifying for Shanghai. Petrova's a spot away from the top 10 after a killer fall, making the semis of Bali and Tokyo and the final in Stuttgart. And Mattek is having the best season of her career, making the Round of 16 at Wimbledon and reaching a career high #42 last month.

"When you're healthy and you feel like you're fit and all you have to think is your tennis, it makes it so much easier," says Petrova. "You don't have extra thoughts in your head. I do feel good, I do feel fitter."

Adds Del Potro, "When I'm playing, I try to just play tennis. I don't want to think about my back or my problems or my injuries. Because if I am thinking about my back, I cannot play. But at this moment I don't feel nothing when I play, so that's very important. I'm very happy for this."

Still, that time off wasn't all bad for everybody.

"It was great," laughs Mattek. "I don't think I've taken that much time off in like six years." She considers. "Towards the end you get the itch. I got the itch more for competition. It wasn't so much just practicing. I like to compete. I was really competitive with, you know, games. We'd be playing a board game and I'd be getting all into it and they'd be like, you need to get back on the court ASAP."

See. They really are just like you and me.

Check out Petrova and Mattek still very much in play this week in Quebec, while Del Potro is still very much in the hunt for Shanghai this week in Paris.