The ‘freak movement’ that ended Alex de Minaur’s Wimbledon and why grass courts are uniquely risky

Australia World

In short:

Alex de Minaur suffered his Wimbledon-ending injury while sliding to reach a ball on match point.

He said he had been “a little bit scared” of sliding on grass in the past because the force needed to do so was so great.

What’s next?

De Minaur said he was unsure of his recovery time but will likely miss the Paris Olympics starting at the end of the month.

From the moment he came onto the tour, Alex de Minaur has been recognised as one of the fastest and best movers in tennis.

He was immediately compared to grand slam champions like Lleyton Hewitt, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray for the way he fought for and got to seemingly impossible balls.

They were fair and flattering comparisons, but now he has another uneasy thing in common with them: hip problems.

De Minaur was denied a chance to play in his first Wimbledon quarterfinal, against seven-time champion Novak Djokovic, by what he described as a “freak” hip injury sustained in his fourth-round win over France’s Arthur Fils.

The Australian number one said he “felt a loud crack” as he slid to reach a ball as he has done thousands of times before.

“I only did this because it was match point,” he said as he announced his withdrawal mere hours before the scheduled start of his match with Djokovic.

“I just went for a slide that was probably a little bit more than normal. There was no signs of any fatigue, any problems beforehand, it just happened on a freak movement.”

There is a cruel irony in de Minaur’s brilliant movement on the court being his undoing, heightened by his warnings a couple of days before his withdrawal.

De Minaur barely celebrated his win over Fils, limping around the court to acknowledge the fans before sitting in his chair and looking up at his box with concern.

In the immediate aftermath, he tried to play it off as a “jarred” hip and said he was feeling a bit “ginger”, but it was more of a scare than anything else.

We now know he was smiling through the pain and desperately hoping the power of positive thinking might give way to “some sort of miracle”, but he knew the dangers of a “freak movement” that caused his injury.

De Minaur said he had to generate “an excessive amount of force” on that match point and went into detail on the unique nature of movement on grass courts.

Slip, stop, crack

Novak Djokovic almost does the splits after hitting a sliding shot during a match at Wimbledon.

Novak Djokovic’s flexibility, when paired with his speed and stamina, makes him able to move in ways other can’t.(Getty Images: Julian Finney)

People have always slid on clay courts — often there are no other options to stop if a player is moving at any sort of pace — but now it’s an all-surface activity.

There were others like Kim Clijsters and Gael Monfils who semi-regularly ended up doing the splits after stretching to reach a ball, but Djokovic was on another level.

Of course, he still is, but since he emerged on the court with his ability to run at pace, slide, get low and hit groundstrokes off both wings, more and more players have followed.

“A lot of us players, including myself, are getting a lot more confidence on a grass court with being able to slide and back your movement in that way,” de Minaur said after his fourth-round win, before ominously going on.

“Whether it’s the right decision or not, I don’t know. But over the past couple of years, I’ve gone through that mental blockage of being a little bit scared of sliding on the grass and now I just kind of back myself to move almost as if I was on a hard court.”

The grass court shoes are designed to have more grip to help push off the slicker surface without looking like Bambi on ice, but that means players have to generate much more force when they do want to slide and that comes with risk.

“We’ve got to commit to the slide, which you do on a hard court as well,” de Minaur went on.

“Once you get through that scare factor that you’re going to roll an ankle or something like that, and just trust that you’ve got enough momentum to slide, it’s a game-changer on grass.

A tennis racquet hits the white shoe of a player on the grass court at Wimbledon.

The shoes worn by players on grass courts have extra grip, making sliding a more physical process.(Getty Images: Clive Brunskill)

“Because any extra inch you can get movement-wise on grass, it’s definitely a big advantage over your opponents.”

It’s not just about getting there and hopefully getting the ball back over the net; players are mid-slide, ripping forehand and backhand with top spin.

It strains every muscle in the body, and all that torque and tension has to go somewhere. In this case, it focused acutely on the fibrocartilage where de Minaur’s adductor attaches to his abs.

It ended what should have been the biggest moment of his career before it even started, with the risk too high of turning a potential month-long injury lay-off into a season-ender to justify stepping on court with the ruthless Djokovic.

Even if de Minaur makes a full physical recovery, if this injury brings back any of the hesitance he spoke about, he will be robbed of one of his greatest defensive and offensive weapons: his ability to get balls back from anywhere, with interest.

The 25-year-old is set to jump to a career-high sixth in the world after his second straight trip to the last eight at a major, both coming on polar opposite surfaces — the red clay of Roland Garros and the green grass of SW19.

But he has not been sleeping and, rather than playing the biggest match of his career, his week ended on the brink of tears in a press conference room, slumped in front of microphones.

“I haven’t really been able to enjoy what I’ve achieved this week,” he said.

Some day he surely will. And hopefully, he can have more weeks like this with decidedly different endings.

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