We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with former two-time Australian Open Champion, Johan Kriek. Our conversation covered timely topics such as injuries among the professionals as well as the aspiring junior players he trains at his academy in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. In addition, Kriek provided some advice for the recreational player looking to stay injury free for as long as possible. Kriek has won 14 professional singles and 8 doubles titles, reaching an all-time high ranking of number 7 in singles and number 12 in doubles in the world. Kriek’s most memorable wins include victories over Andre Agassi, Guillermo Vilas, Stefan Edberg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Bjorn Borg.
BODY HELIX: With the Australian Open taking place right now, and the number of injuries we are seeing in this grand slam, as well as in many recent tournaments, do you feel like there are more injuries in professional tennis today than ever before?
JOHAN KRIEK: It seems to be that way a little bit. But having said that, I mean, I had had my fair share of injuries. In fact, I had a pretty severe injury to my elbow. I had severe tennis elbow/golfer’s elbow, which is the medial epicondylitis, which is the inside where your funny bone is. So I tore that thing off three times and I had three surgeries. But you know, when you are an athlete, you don’t believe you are ever going to be injured, so you feel like you’re invincible. I got injured in my thirties, so I already had a pretty darn full career.
It seems like obviously tennis, and sports in general, has gotten to be bigger, faster, stronger. I mean, if I could have done it in the 70s and 80s with the type of technology that we have now, I would have done the same thing. It’s, I think, just the progression of the sport. So, I don’t think it’s anything too crazy unusual.
BH: What do you think is attributing to the amount of injuries?
JK: It’s a combination of a number of things. I think technology has allowed us to hit the ball harder, causing the wear and tear on the elbow or the arm or the shoulder. Tennis is so physical now. Obviously, tennis string technology has really evolved tremendously. When I played, basically 95% of the players played with gut, now 95% of the players play with hybrid synthetic.
But I think there are also a lot of players that are playing longer. As we can see that Serena is in her 30s, Roger is in his 30s and is playing very high level tennis. The average age of the men is in the high 20s now that are winning tournaments. You can argue that the training regimen, the diets and all of the scientific approaches to the game affords players to play the game longer and at a very high level.
I can tell you that you won’t see the 16/17 year olds doing grand slam wins anymore like they did with Becker, Wilander, Chang and those types of players in the past. I think that those days are gone because it is so hard to break in and it takes such a physical demand that you must be some sort of specimen to be 16, 17, 18 years old to win a grand slam. I just don’t see it in the foreseeable future.
BH: How is the offseason for the professionals today different than it was in your career? Does that contribute to the amount of injuries we are seeing?
JK: We had a lot of the same issues back in the 70s and 80s. We had over 100 tournaments all over the world, with only 52 weeks in a year. The tennis calendar was quite packed when I played – but it’s also packed today.
Today, though, you have the demands of the tour because of the rules that players have to play a certain number of tournaments. And unfortunately, money talks and people want to play. I mean, you have this huge Indian tennis event that happens in November and they pay stupid money to the players and that’s why you see them all play. And really, that should be the time they should be off. But they are getting paid seven figure incomes for playing for a few days. Why would they pass that up? If the dollars are there, people are going to play. I think there just isn’t enough down time anymore for the players to recover from their injuries.
Honestly, though, I don’t think these professionals can play at the level they do without the incredible physios they have behind them – especially at the grand slams. These trainers are the unsung heroes that keep these guys going. A lot of them have their own that travel with them. Back in the day, I could barely afford to have my wife travel with me. So, nowadays it’s a whole different ballgame.
BH: You’re around a lot of up and coming junior tennis players with your Academy. What are the types of things that you are doing to ensure that the younger players stay healthy and injury-free for as long as possible?
JK: The problem I see in the junior world, is the fact that a lot parents are completely in the dark with technology and they just go to a pro shop and buy a racket. For instance, if a kid is really into Rafael Nadal – he’s 12 years old and he admires Rafa and he wants to play like him, he wants to buy the racket like him. So these pro shops are sometimes very naïve about the effect of a very ridged, hard tennis string on a young player’s arm, shoulder or wrist and therefore you see injuries popping up on juniors all over the place. Parents have to be educated about the technology of rackets. You can’t expect a kid to play with a Rafael Nadal racket with the same type of strings, which is extremely rigid. That will hurt a growth plate in any small kid over a period of time.
What I do with a lot of my kids is we do a lot of on-court rubber bands, dynamic warm ups… it all factors into the system so you don’t get injured. If a kid shows up late, he doesn’t just walk onto my tennis courts and start playing with his friends. I’m going to make him still run two, three or four laps around the court and do a dynamic warmup and then he’s ready to play. I just don’t allow that. It’s asking for trouble.
Everything is connected: If you don’t eat well and don’t hydrate right, it leads to all sorts of injuries. You have to train with a purpose in mind in terms of getting yourself stronger – working with the balance ball, ladder drills, light weights, medicine balls. I train the kids somewhat in the arena of a higher level tennis player, but not to the level that they are going to break down. They are still kids, they are not adults.
In South Africa, when I started playing when I was six years old, I played with a wooden racket that was like an adult racket. I don’t know how we didn’t have our shoulders and everything fall off! It was a very different time, though. There are different lengths of rackets. An 8 year-old can’t play with a regular racket. Parents have to be educated and coaches have to be educated. Honestly, It’s a constantly changing thing and it’s always evolving.
I try to at least educate the parents and I bring in a rep and smart people who know about stringing, know about the thickness of the string, tension of the string, what its made of, what it does to an arm, the vibration technology that is built into the racket. People need to know that tennis is a contact sport. You are hitting some object that you are not designed to do over and over again everyday. You have to be careful with it.
BH: Do the same things apply to the recreational players as well?
JK: Absolutely. Look, if you go to a pro shop in some strip mall that’s been there for 25 years, you know that those people know what they are doing. The player needs to say, hey, I am a 3.5 player or a 5.0 player thinking about playing with a heavier racket because I read up about it and it says it will improve my game… I always tell people if they want to try a new racket, get the right size, the right weight, they should buy up a bunch of them from a pro shop or someplace to try and return the ones you don’t want. At least that way you can test drive a few different makes and you will be surprised at how different they are.
On the other side of the technology, people don’t realize how important tennis shoes are. It’s where the rubber meets the ground. It makes a difference too. If you play with slick shoes on a clay court, you run the risk of falling, pulling a groin muscle and getting hurt. You’ve gotta be in the know.
BH: You saw your fair share of injuries in your career. What advice do you have for athletes (of all sports) on how to handle an injury?
JK: It depends on what type of injury you have. Some injuries are nagging things like a sore shoulder or just a heel spur and you know you don’t want surgery on it and you just need to manage it. You need to really understand the injury and the factors that are going to help you. You have to become smart about your injuries. Being in the sport for so long, I have learned how to manage myself almost even better than a doctor.
BH: Now that we are seven days into the Australian Open, and as a two-time Australian Open champion, what do you think of when you think back on your time in this tournament?
I was lucky enough to win two majors and I am very proud of that accomplishment. And I have won 12 other tournaments in singles around the world. I can honestly say that I have had an amazing career. I am very fortunate to have played for a very long time, even though I got injured at the end of my career, I played for 16 years… which is a long time for back then. Australia was a tough tournament, it was smack dab in the middle of the summer and you can have an incredible heat wave or you can have four seasons in one hour. The weather can change very quickly.
When we played it, it was on a different site and was on grass – very, very hard grass courts. Buy the end of the second week, the grass was basically yellow and dead, so you were playing on quasi-dirt with some sort of a growth on it. So, it was a very different tournament than it is today, obviously.
The Australian Open is by far the most fun grand slam tournament of all four. The players say that, the fans say that. It’s a beautiful place and I can’t wait to get back. I am definitely going to Australia in 2018 with my family.
BH: Let’s make a plan to follow up with you at this time next year after you and your family go back… we can get your real-time perspective on this awesome tournament.