Hobbling on one leg, Serena Williams toughed it out to win her match at Wimbledon yesterday. It was pretty amazing to watch.
She could hardly move but relied on brute power, tremendous anticipation, and unbelievable go-for-the-lines shotmaking. She was helped by a two-hour rain delay that allowed her calf issue to improve - but it's still pretty amazing.
What really happened?
Toward the end of the second set, Serena noted sudden pain, tightness and cramping in her calf. The cramp was visible. It appeard that she was flexing her muscle to make it look big, but in reality, it was involuntary and out of her control.
She even tried to whack it with her tennis racket to get it to stop. On her next step, she went down to the ground writhing in pain. A quick injury time-out, along with some athletic tape and a wrap, and she was back out there.
In tennis, a sudden pain or discomfort in the calf can be two things most commonly.
Players will sometimes get a sudden pull or partial tear of the calf muscle, specifically the medial (inner) head of the gastrocnemius muscle ("medial gastroc"), something called "tennis leg." I have my theories why this happens more so with tennis players (although it can happen to anyone).
I believe it is related in part to some flaws in the basic design of tennis footwear. "Tennis leg," depending on the severity, can usually take one to three weeks to heal. Many players re-injure themselves because they think it's fully healed just because the limp is gone, and they go back to tennis too soon without doing the preventive rehab.
The other issue that happens to athletes from all sports is muscle cramping. This often hits the calf area (or calves).
It appears the Serena had cramps (especially since both legs seem to be involved, although one was worse than the other). She may also have strained or partially torn one of the calf muscles by trying to run on it while it was cramping.
Once you start cramping, it is almost impossible to stop unless you can rest the muscles for a period of time. The rain delay was indeed a blessing for Serena.
Also, to try to stop the cramps you can stretch gently and massage the area. Some athletic trainers believe that drinking pickle juice or mustard helps stop the cramps quickly. I've actually seen it work with the pros.
Also cramping is more common in very hot humid weather (certainly not the case at Wimbledon yesterday) so drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding even mild dehydration helps. Water, water, water- before, during and after your event. If an athlete is involved in an endurance event, in which they are going for more than an hour, it also becomes important to replace electrolytes (i.e. not just water), and this is where sports drinks are extremely beneficial.
If it were cramps only, Serena should be fine for her next match. If there was a calf strain or partial tear, she's in big trouble since that will not heal that quickly.
They say that it's better to be lucky than to be good. I say it's better to be both! Go Serena!
Have you ever cramped up during sports or fitness activities? How do you prevent it? How do you stop it? Pickle juice anyone?