<
>

Incessant injury talk has become a pain

I pulled into Denny's the other night (that senior citizen Early Bird Special is not to be believed!), but I got aced out of the last space reserved for those with a handicapped parking permit, so I had to go around back and park by the big green dumpster.

The vehicle that beat me to the spot had one of those white oval bumper stickers (it read "CH"). And who should get out of that sedan but Roger Federer -- with his pal Rafael Nadal, who was riding shotgun, no less!

"Hey, boys! How you doin'?" I called out.

"Pretty good," Roger replied. "But I've got this kink in my lower back. The doctor told me it probably …"

Rafa waved his arm, cutting off his buddy. "That's nothing. Why, my knees, every time there's a cloud with a gray belly, they start to act up …"

I walked away from them. You know the old rule? Never ask someone over 65 how he or she is doing, because he'll tell you? Well, it seems that a variation of the rule now applies to tennis players between the ages of 20 and 30.

Injury, or some trace thereof, is not just the topic du jour each and every day, it's corrupted and clouded the relatively straightforward art of figuring out and communicating what happened in any given tennis match, and why.

You'll remember that right after Roger Federer lost to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon about two weeks ago, practically the first (unsolicited) words out of his mouth in the postmatch press conference were that he had a bad back and a sore leg.

And although Nadal played and looked fit, we weren't very deep into the postmatch dialogue when one of the ink-stained wretches called out, "How are the knees, Rafa?"

I felt like smacking the guy. Here we go again. There's nothing more straightforward than a tennis match. There are only two guys -- or women -- out there. One of them wins, the other loses. That's the beauty of the game. One of them makes 82 percent of his first serves, the other makes 25 and adds 22 backhand unforced errors, just in case you thought he might still win. It isn't rocket science. So it's all the more pity that players, as well as the press, spend so much time discussing injuries.

I will give Nadal a break on this (hence, I'm accused of having a double standard by foaming-at-the-mouth Federer fans), because we know the guy has had trouble with his pins. You don't miss the chance to defend your Wimbledon title, earned in what many call the greatest tennis match every played, unless you have a darned good reason.

Federer's case is a little different. Often when he loses a big match, injury becomes a critical element in the narrative -- sometimes through no fault of his own. You'd think he were 650-0 in matches played in the full bloom of health. There was the mono thing and the bad back at different times down in Australia. (I've gotten lengthy e-mails from Federer fans who swear -- swear! -- that they could tell that Federer was borderline crippled by the look of his service motion.) At Wimbledon, it was the back and leg.

Me, I see these guys running like gazelles, leaping like salmon and firing serves like they were Hellfire missiles and I think, This guy's hurt?

I'm sure you remember the old Aussie code: If you walk out on the tennis court and play a match, you're fit. End of story. Today's pros, from the top down, never got the memo.

Part of this is the fault of the press. If you like the sound of your own voice and can't think of an intelligent question to ask, you can always shout out, "Hey, Andy, how's that shoulder?"

To their credit, many players will respond to that question with, "Fine, anybody else?" Apparently, some of those players know that niggling or even painful -- perish the thought! -- injuries and sore spots are part and parcel of the athletic way of life. You just deal with them as best you can and put it down to the cost of doing business, at least until they force you to take a break.

But all too often, today's players are more likely to reply to that question with something like, "You know, it's funny: When I was down break point in that first set, I felt this little twinge in my serving arm, something I got last week in practice …"

Enough already.