Aches, pains turn Wimbledon into endurance test


WIMBLEDON, England - They're tired. They're battered. They're Wimbledon's walking wounded.

The sport's grandest spectacle is turning into a survival test as the game's top stars deal with the bruises of a season nearly without end.

Yesterday, it was Russian iron man Yevgeny Kafelnikov who was sent out of the tournament with a nick and scowl, complaining of a pain in the muscle between his ribs and losing to Thomas Johansson, 6-1, 7-6 (7-0), 6-4.

The pain wasn't too excruciating for No. 5 seeded Kafelnikov. It only hurt when he served.

"You know, I was quite proud of myself I finished the match," he said.

The big news yesterday wasn't even made on court. It was the announcement that six-time Wimbledon champion Sampras, suffering from a left foot injury, will give it a go today and meet Justin Gimelstob in the third round.

Sampras was diagnosed with tendinitis at the top of his left foot near his shin, an injury he picked up during his second-round victory over Karol Kucera. An MRI was negative.

"It has been a rough go for a while with Pete with injuries, so this is just another kind of hurdle thrown in front of him," said Sampras' coach, Paul Annacone. "It's a matter of just trying to do the best he can. He's in good hands."

Tennis' long season seems to be taking a toll on the players, and, by extension, Wimbledon. From big rackets to hard courts, unceasing travel to over-training, nearly everyone in the game has a theory for nagging injuries that have afflicted the game's elite in the past few months.

Just look at the women's tour, where reigning champion Lindsay Davenport (back), Monica Seles (foot), Venus Williams (wrist) and Serena Williams (knee) have all battled injuries this year.

On the men's tour, Sampras (hip, back, thigh, foot), Andre Agassi (back and wrist) and Todd Martin (ankle) have endured injuries, while Patrick Rafter is coming back from shoulder surgery he underwent last October.

It's not so much the numbers that are alarming - it's the names. When the stars get hurt, people start talking.

An ATP spokesman said that overall, injuries on the men's tour have been flat for several years, with some 2 percent of total matches ending in a retirement through injury.

"It's a tough schedule, no doubt about it. The tour has to come to some sort of agreement on the schedule that gives us some sort of off time. It's just not going to happen, I don't think, in the near future," Rafter said after a convincing victory over Todd Woodbridge, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

In 2001, both the men's and women's tours are planning to move their season-ending championships forward to extend their off seasons to nearly two months each.

Seles has changed her fitness regimen by trying to become more consistent in the gym to deal with tour stresses. The benefits are now on display at Wimbledon, where she defeated Els Callens, 6-4, 6-4.

"My main goal is now to just keep going at this rate," she said. "It's a very moderate rate. Nothing extraordinary. It's a very simple thing."

Former tennis star Chris Evert said players today may be over-training.

"I wonder if there is too much intense extra training," she said. "We paced ourselves a lot better," noting that even Martina Navratilova knew when to pull back from hard work outs.

"We never had an off season," she said.

Evert also noted that the depth in the game may also be taking a toll as players face day after day of difficult matches.

"You've had a physical beating as well as a mental beating," she said of today's competition.

The depth was on display when Mary Pierce, the French Open champion and No. 3 women's seed, was knocked out of the tournament yesterday by Magui Serna, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-4).

Davenport, whose season has been affected by back problems, was also pushed to the brink despite her claim of "feeling really good again, which is great news."

Down 0-3 and two service breaks in the last set, she reeled off the last six games to defeat Elena Likhovtseva, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.

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