Note: For the fifth year in a row, I am serving as Chief Tournament Physician of the Family Circle Cup. Each day of the tournament, I am writing an article for The Post and Courier and Family Circle Cup.
This year the Family Circle Cup moved up a week in the Sony Ericsson WTA tournament schedule. In recent years, it followed a tournament in Ponte Vedra, Florida and preceded the tour moving to Europe for the clay court season that culminates in Paris at the French Open. Now the Charleston tournament falls directly after two WTA “Premier Mandatory” events. Fans here have been hoping that by moving up a week in the schedule, Charleston might be able to attract more of the top players leaving Miami before returning to Europe.
The players at the Family Circle Cup this week transition from the hard courts at Indian Wells and Miami to clay courts. What effect the playing surface could have on injuries makes for an interesting debate.
In general, clay courts are widely believed to be associated with fewer injuries than other surfaces, namely grass and hard courts. There is little evidence in the scientific literature to support or refute this claim other than older, retrospective studies, but many tennis pros, coaches, and players share the belief.
One dramatic change players face transitioning from hard courts to clay is the change in the type of tennis played. On clay, ball speeds are generally slower, so players often have more time to get to shots and hit their preferred shots. Consequently, rallies tend to be much longer on clay. With longer rallies during points but no increased rest time between points and between games, cardiovascular endurance and stamina become more important. In theory, fatigue and cramping could be factors playing on clay so soon after several tournaments on hard courts. However, the hopefully cooler weather and one less week on the swing trough the U.S. might counteract those factors.
Another major change is the players’ ability to slide on the court. Many coaches feel that sliding to get to shots or slow down after them is a skill that requires practice. Could the balance required to slide effectively be decreased because players have been on hard courts for weeks? If we see players falling frequently, that point might be made.
Fortunately, not only the ability to slide on clay but the fact that clay is a softer, more forgiving surface might be beneficial. Both factors might decrease stress from the repetitive impact of running and lunging on the lower extremities. Less repetitive impact hopefully means less knee, ankle, and foot pain.
Unfortunately injuries are part of the sport of tennis, and I’m sure there will be some that occur here this week. The surface may or may not be a factor, but it is something for fans to keep in mind as they watch these top athletes sliding across the green clay of the Family Circle Tennis Center stadium.
Read my daily posts from the 2011 Family Circle Cup!
Day 1: Tennis players among world’s elite athletes
Day 3: What’s on the menu for pro tennis players?
Day 4: Best Tennis Town in America
Day 5: Wind hurts more than players’ games
Day 6: Is kinesio taping hype or helpful?
Day 7: The sun can be dangerous for tennis players
Athletes must take meds, supplements with caution
Day 9: Medical aspects of professional tennis