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Sunday, June 30, 2013

What Do Laminitis and Wimbledon Have in Common?

Lush grass at Wimbledon is being blamed for the literal downfall of several players this year. This much higher casualty rate is blamed on the late spring, which is keeping the grass so lush at the end of June. According to a British newspaper article, Wimbledon's high-sugar grasses are also more slippery than non-lush grass.



Grass was in the news today. It was in the sports news, of all places. And the story sounded very familiar.

It wasn't normal grass that made the news, it was lush grass. Grass high in fructans and Non-Structural Carbohydrates.

You know, the kind of grass that causes some horses to suffer from laminitis.

But it wasn't horses who were at high risk from lush grass this time. The risk was to tennis players at the world's most iconic championships, Wimbledon, held outside London, England.

Lush grass can send some horses beyond the laminitis tipping point if they have metabolic sensitivities,just as it can send tennis players to their knees.
At first, Louise Gray's article in the Telegraph sounded like it was a helpful horse care article as it explained how horses can suffer from laminitis after eating too much lush spring grass. 

But what was Maria Sharapova doing in an article about laminitis? There was her picture: she was sprawled on the grass, which would be blamed for her tumble. She wasn't alone: so far, seven players have blamed the grass for their injury or elimination, including American John Isner.

According to Gray, England is having a late spring this year, which means that the grass is also late in its maturation. About three weeks late, in fact. This week might be its peak of lushness. Apparently post-peak grass is less slippery and thus preferred for tennis, but Wimbledon must go on.

The Telegraph quotes unnamed sources as saying that "the grass is looking too lush and full of sugar", which sounds a lot like what we are saying about our horse paddocks here in New England right now. 

Normally, grass selected to be planted at Wimbledon is from types that are known to be low in sugar, to make it tough enough to survive the wear and tear of those serves and volleys, but this year's weather was a fly in the ointment of perfectionist groundskeeping. Lush grass is happy grass, but happy grass benefits neither sensitive horses nor tennis players. Sugar content seems to affect the friction factor of shoes on the grass.

Blame it on the grass: Serena Williams had a good excuse for crashing to the ground during her match at Wimbledon today. The grass is too rich in sugar and carbohydrate.

Not surprisingly, Wimbledon is denying that there is anything wrong with the grass, which one player denounced as "dangerous" as she was helped to her feet.

What we have here is a failure of friction; the surface of some of the shoes worn by tennis players must be a bad match for the Wimbledon grass. Perhaps some shoe soles or some action styles of certain players make them more likely to slip than others.

Somewhere tonight, a sports shoe engineer will be staying up late studying surface friction co-efficients of lush-point vs normal grasses. A lush-grass Adidas sole might be on the drawing board; soles for grass play have been around for a long time and are usually dimpled, while clay-court shoes have a herringbone pattern.

Polo ponies have to gallop, twist, turn and stop on fast grass. While there's always an ideal solution for each individual pony, most wear inner rim or "polo" shoes to keep them on their feet.
Farriers, of course, have a simple answer for the players as they advance to the finals: take a page from the polo ponies' survival guide and add an inner rim to the shoe.

Or what would Wimbledon say if a player emulated a show jumper and appeared at Center Court with grass studs in his or her Nikes? They can be spray-painted white to fit with the tradition, but the divots they create would mar the perfectly smooth grass that a tennis ball needs for a true bounce. At one time, lawn tennis shoes did have spikes, similar to golf shoes.

The next time you see a photo of a Wimbledon player sprawled on the ground, consider this: horsemen aren't the only ones challenged by lush spring grass, and the sugar-factor reason might be the same.

Be sure to read "Lush grass blamed for slippy Wimbledon" by Louise Gray in The Telegraph. You'll probably never see tennis and laminitis in the same article again. It's Nature's way of reminding us to watch the calendar and the weather, and to plan accordingly.

You might also enjoy Thomas Turner's paper, "Lawn tennis shoes for men and for women, c.1870–c.1990"

Photos in this article by William Marlow, Jet Media Works, and Jessica St. John. 

Learn more about equine anatomy education aids available from the Hoofcare office.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing; Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. Please, no use without permission. You only need to ask. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). To subscribe to Hoofcare and Lameness (the journal), please visit the main site, www.hoofcare.com, where many educational products and media related to equine lameness and hoof science can be found. Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to blog@hoofcare.com.  
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