Rising tennis star Jack Sock was dominant in the first two sets of his match against Ruben Bemelmans last Thursday. He looked energetic and fresh, pelting forehands and smashing serves. By the fourth set of the match, though, things took a dramatic turn. The 22-year-old American cramped up so badly that he had to quit the match, and be carried off the court.
The scene has become downright common this US Open — with a record 16 players forfeiting their matches because of debilitating cramps. Some resulted from injuries flaring up at the wrong time, but the lion's share of those who've had to throw in the towel were otherwise healthy players who suddenly cramped up. These are professional athletes with access to the world's best trainers. What did they do wrong?
Muscle cramps occur "when the muscle is fatigued to a point where it can't operate anymore," says Stephen Conti, a massage therapist for the U.S. Soccer Federation. Fatigue can happen for a number of reasons including mineral depletion, especially magnesium or calcium, dehydration, and overexertion. All of these are made worse by heat, the primary factor at these games.
Temperatures have been in the high 90s with raging humidity during this Open. Leading up to the main event in New York, many players spend extra time in the United States. But a number of those warm-up events take place in milder climates like Toronto and Palo Alto, California, and acclimatizing can take two to three weeks, even for elite athletes. "When the body doesn't have time to acclimate to the heat," says Scott Sailor, president of the National Athletic Trainers' Association and chair of the Kinesiology department at California State University Fresno, "you rapidly expend a lot of fluids and electrolytes."
You also more easily overexert yourself, especially during challenging matches. Charles Carson, a D.C.-based personal trainer points out that affected players tended to be outside of the top seeds. Prime examples: Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis, ranked 71, who called it quits up 2 sets to 1 against Richard Gasquet (12), and Uzbekistan player Denis Istomin (33), who had to retire in the third set of his match against Dominic Thiem (20). "They're used to blowing people out, and against these big guys in the sport, they really have to grind," he says.
Once in the midst of a cramp, athletes often have a trainer massage the area, or they chug water or drinks with electrolytes to rehydrate. The problem with treating a cramp in these ways is that it takes time and rest to recover. "If you're working really hard and continuing to compete, even if you're drinking water you're still depleting and becoming dehydrated," Carson says. "You're not going to be able to uptake as much as you're losing."
Avoiding cramps is much easier than trying to deal with them in the moment. That means drinking plenty of water the day before a big workout or competition, monitoring how much you're drinking, as well as knowing how much you sweat in different climates and conditions. This goes for elites and recreational athletes alike. "Just like these pro athletes, you should follow the same rules," Sailor says. "Our bodies are incredible, but we have to take care of them properly."