In Good Conscience

In Good Conscience: Even riches and top doctors can't fix a broken body

Andy Murray, Santi Cazorla and Tiger Woods enter the New Year trying to fight the toll on their bodies.

The surgeons have done their utmost best, four times on Woods' back which has been subjected to competitive golf since he was 16. He is now 42. The swing is modified, the clubs in his hands are the best money can buy.

But Father Time is not on his side. Even so, Woods is driven by - defined by - his game. He returns this month to Torrey Pines, near San Diego, where he has been a winner seven times.

Next month, he plans to be at the Genesis Open at the Riviera course in California. His foundation now runs that tournament at the venue where, back in 1992, he made his PGA Tour debut as an amateur.

Nothing in the life of The Tiger has been amateur since. His fortune today is believed to be US$1.3 billion (S$1.73 billion).

He doesn't need the money. He does still crave the competition, even though it is now nearly a full decade since he last won a Major, at the Riviera club.

Much younger men can identify with his pain. Rory McIlroy, for example, missed the second half of last season through a stress fracture of a rib, followed by spasms of the rhomboid muscle beneath his left shoulder.

The stricken Santi Cazorla celebrating with Mohamed Elneny and other Arsenal team-mates after their shoot-out win over Chelsea in the Community Shield last August. The Spaniard has endured nine operations in 14 months and still hopes to play again this season. PHOTO: REUTERS

Woods, we presume, will never be at his peak again. But will half a year of rest put McIlroy, not yet 29, back to the swinger he was in 2014 when he won The Open and PGA Championship and 2015 when he was fourth in the Masters?

Tiger Woods doesn't need the money. He does still crave the competition, even though it is now nearly a full decade since he last won a Major, at the Riviera club.

Time, the relentlessness of the PGA and European tours, and ever younger challengers, are out there.

The same goes for tennis.

The circuit seems almost inhuman these days. Tournaments are spread through 11 months. Air travel, relentless events, practice to adapt to the four different surfaces all put strains on different parts of the body that the sport was never designed to accommodate.

Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, why, even Roger Federer the king of smooth, had to listen to their medical teams (and their bodies). Federer took time out, and returned this time last year to pick up where he left off, as the supreme player of his time.

But Federer has learnt to pick and choose, to play only the tournaments he knows he can last. He has to do, given the advancing years, and given that his sport is simply too intense, too greedy, to think of the wear and tear on human flesh and bone.

Murray, alas, has neither Federer's natural gifts, nor his luxury of economy of style. To will himself, force himself, up there to be the first Briton to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry 77 years before him took monumental physical and mental effort.

We could see it when he was a boy. Murray now suffers from a long-term hip injury that, either through degeneration or the dreaded early onset of arthritis, forced him out of Wimbledon last July.

He has since split with his coach Ivan Lendl, in part over the question of whether to undergo surgery or simply try rest and recuperation. Doctors could not give Sir Andy, knighted for services to tennis and to British demands for a winner, the guarantees he sought before undergoing the knife.

Now, after he flew back to Blighty from Aussie, he has to face the question that frightens every sportsman - what to do with the rest of life.

Murray is thinking aloud about mentoring young players in his game. On Instagram this week, he posted a photograph of himself as young boy.

"I choose this pic as the little kid inside me just wants to play tennis and compete," he wrote. "I genuinely miss it so much and I would give anything to be out there."

The heart yearns, the body declines.

Spare a thought for Cazorla, the third man in this trilogy. Football is a physical contact sport, and there are a great many players, such as Germany's No. 1 Manuel Neuer, who have missed out on a year of active participation.

Cazorla has suffered longer. Just before his 33rd birthday last month, the delightful little Arsenal and Spain playmaker, underwent his ninth surgical intervention in 14 months.

He posted a photograph online of his emaciated right lower leg, showing the skin graft on the ankle. The Achilles tendon in that ankle was kicked by a Bulgarian 14 months ago.

The opponent may not have meant to harm Cazorla and was probably just not quick enough or clever enough to win the ball during a Champions League mismatch between Arsenal and Ludogorets Razgrad.

But the effect was, and remains, career threatening.

There is also a suggestion that the same ankle was weakened even earlier, while Cazorla was on Spanish national team duty in 2013.

At 1.68m, but with a mighty ability to spread the ball around with delicious accuracy, he always gave the impression of being a child at play. An irrepressible, beautiful player.

Cazorla hasn't given up on playing this season. He is back home in Salamanca in Spain working again, for the ninth time in little over a year, to build up the strength in the limb.

Arsene Wenger is in touch, but accepts he cannot remotely feel Cazorla's pain and frustration. The longest-serving manager in the Premier League, but beyond that a trainer in French football since 34 years ago, he says he has never seen a more harrowing injury.

At one stage, Cazaorla's surgeon told him he should be thankful if he is ever able to walk on that leg again. Gangrene set in, and amputation was a real option.

It has not, yet, come to that. indeed, Cazorla hasn't given up returning this season, to Arsenal and, who knows, to the World Cup.

Murray, Cazorla, Woods and a lot more we could name are at the point when money is not primary. Simply playing to the best of their ability is their New Year's wish.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2018, with the headline 'Even riches and top doctors can't fix a broken body'. Print Edition | Subscribe