Vacation Equation: Tennis' Offseason Is A Preseason
Vacation Equation: Tennis' Offseason Is A Preseason
Photo By Siggi Bucher By Soman Chainani
"It’s a good drug, tennis," says Martina Navratilova, no doubt referring to the sport’s adrenalized thrills, competitive ecstasies. But tennis is also a potent drug for its fans because it never runs out. Where football, basketball and baseball fans are forced to find other hobbies for anywhere from four to eight months, tennis fans never have to leave the couch.
After the year-end championships crown the No. 1s, then Fed Cup, Davis Cup and charity exhibitions keep cravings satisfied until the fleeting diversions of holiday parties, eggnog and New Year’s confetti flit by and fans are again getting their fix as familiar faces gut it out in the grueling heat of the Australian summer.
The calendar says tennis has an off-season of about 40 days, but a true off-season is one where the athletes don’t have to think about their sport. James Blake so rarely takes days off that he relished the feeling of doing absolutely nothing this past off-season. "It was phenomenal," he said. "I don’t get that very often, just doing nothing and really sitting around and relaxing."
Marat Safin headed to the mountains of Monaco. Mark Philippoussis hit the waves in Hawaii. Kim Clijsters and Lleyton Hewitt treated themselves to a Turkish spa vacation Down Under. Still, tennis pros might get to paradise, get a racquet out of their hands and get their bags unpacked, but the December to-do list is no doubt shrieking in their brains. About six weeks after tennis players settle into their ‘vacations,’ they are back on court for the first Grand Slam, the kickoff to another 11-month season and a ceaseless globetrotting journey across surfaces and continents. "Every other sport has vacations," says Safin. "Time to recover, you know, to have vacations with your family and then just to prepare yourself for the next season. We have nothing. This year I had two weeks of vacation. So, I mean, there is nothing, no time to do something."
But griping about this off-season is about as futile as ignoring its realities. The real issue, then, is what exactly to do with those 40 days. Get as far away from the white lines as possible? Dig deeper and push yourself to new heights in training? Chase exhibition dollars? The week after Thanksgiving 2003, a quick survey of the world’s top players revealed a mix of all three agendas.
In Wesley Chapel, Fla., Justine Henin-Hardenne and Mardy Fish had just arrived at the Saddlebrook Resort to begin off-court training with fitness guru Pat Etcheberry. In preparation for their return to the tour, the Williams sisters found a balance between inspired red carpet appearances and vigorous practice sessions. Andre Agassi joined Andy Roddick and James Blake on the celebrity charity circuit. Kim Clijsters watched boyfriend Lleyton Hewitt win the Davis Cup in Melbourne before starting training in the Australian summer.
"The goal of the off-season is to start the year healthy and fit," says Pam Shriver. "You have to combine recovery time — time to mend old nicks, tendonitis — with strength training focused on improving your core stability. It’s not the time to play a lot of tennis. You really just have to get over the past year. With about two weeks to go, they’ll pick it up and have more hitting sessions and play more sets."
Still, many top players push themselves harder during their "vacation" than at any other point during the season. Agassi and Henin-Hardenne are both known for the rigors and results of their winter training regimes. After sprinting over Vegas sand hills for yet another year, Agassi came to Australia his usual refreshed, prepared self. In an exhibition tournament before the Australian Open, he thumped Roger Federer in straight sets, a stunning reversal of the Masters Cup final only six weeks earlier. "I’ve been doing this for almost 18 years now," said Agassi of his training. "It’s hard to sort of change something that isn’t broken. As you get older, you have to make adjustments. You have to listen to your body a little clearer, which means pushing yourself when you’re feeling like you can really make progress, and sort of being aware of where you need to give yourself the breaks. But overall, it’s been an intense program that has lived up to everything I expected it to be and every bit as good as, if not better than, years before."
Henin-Hardenne avoided Fed Cup play and took about two weeks off after the season-ending championships before resuming training at Etcheberry Sports Performance at the Saddlebrook Resort. "The goal is to get her to a fitness level that will help her surpass her results last year, but at the same time keep her fresh physically and keep her motivation just as high," said Etcheberry, her fitness coach. To strike this balance, Etcheberry separated stamina training from shot making. "At first, I think it’s good for players to get away from tennis entirely," he said. "But you can begin physical training away from the court. For the first few days, Carlos [Rodriguez, Justine’s coach] wasn’t even here. It’s a team effort. That’s what makes a good player. The tennis coach, fitness trainer and player should all be communicating and working together." Before she started hitting tennis balls, Etcheberry designed a one-week training routine that would get Henin-Hardenne to a new level of strength, agility and speed.
Henin-Hardenne has often said that Etcheberry’s winter training program is so intense and demanding that it leaves her in tears. At the WTA Tour Championships, she even went so far as to say that she hoped Etcheberry’s routines would be more painful than last year. When Agassi was told this in Houston, he voiced his skepticism: "There’s always going to be a certain amount of sacrifice involved any time you push yourself to cross boundaries, but there are a couple of crimes in training. There’s a crime of sort of having such commitment and desire and running yourself into a wall and having it sort of come back to bite you in the backside. The other crime is that you have such desire to sort of strive and to make gains, but the program itself doesn’t allow you to accomplish that. So you have to know what you’re doing, you have to know why you’re doing it. You have to know its effect in the short term and in the long term. If [Justine] is looking forward to pain, I would just caution her to keep her mindset on a career, not on just another great tournament or a great year."
Though preparing the mind for a great year is a key element of off-season training, recovering from and strengthening against injuries is equally important. Days before the draw for the Australian Open, a series of withdrawals and injuries decimated the field, causing both players and commentators to question yet again whether the short off-season endangers players’ health. Chanda Rubin offered a compelling theory for the spate of injuries, suggesting that the long trip to Australia makes some players more hesitant to "play" their way into form. "You just have to take care of your body first and know when you need to start [playing]," she says, "because [Melbourne] is not across the street; it’s coming a good way. So if you’re not ready, it’s better to know that ahead of time."
Navratilova, meanwhile, sees injuries as a natural result of training on hard surfaces. "The players burn themselves out because they play too much on hard courts at a young age," she said last year. "Mostly the injuries you see in the legs." To avoid overstressing her joints at age 47, Navratilova and fitness trainer Giselle Tirado developed a specific, intense program that emphasizes consistency, flexibility and strength. "It’s not a huge volume," says Navratilova of her time spent stretching and weight-lifting, "but it’s concentrated and intense." Navratilova points to the diversity of the routines — plyometrics, basketball, pilates, soccer — as a key element of keeping her enthusiastic and focused. Indeed, Tirado makes it a point never to repeat the same routine.
While veterans like Navratilova and Agassi have well-rehearsed off-season training routines, Roddick just had his first winter with coach Brad Gilbert. "I’m not sure how much I’m gonna take away from the game," he said in the middle of November. "But I hope to get started on a good physical training program up in the next week or so. This is the one time where you can go all-out on physical activity and not have to worry about the consequences of having to play the next week." Indeed, when Roddick flew to Baltimore in early December to participate in Shriver’s charity event, he gave Shriver the impression that he hadn’t been spending much time with the racquet. "I got the feeling he wasn’t playing a lot of tennis,” said Shriver. "Both he and James Blake [also part of the exhibition] seemed more focused on improving their fitness at that point." Federer, at the time, appeared the least urgent of the top men. "It’s still far away, next season. I worked hard this year… Really looking forward for my holidays."
Federer and Roddick would show up a month later looking rested, but rusty. Despite adding bulk to his frame, Roddick lost to Jonas Bjorkman and David Nalbandian in his Australian Open tune-ups, although he was clearly on track by the time he arrived in Melbourne. Federer, meanwhile, managed only six games against Agassi in an eight-man exhibition event and came into the press conference reeking of self-reproach. "I don’t know whether it was him or me," he said.
"I really have to go out on the practice courts because there are a few things I am not happy with. I have got a few days left, though, and I will use them," he added, like a student about to embark on a midnight MCAT cram session. Already Federer had learned a valuable lesson about the tradeoff between resting and revving during the off-season. He would arrive in Melbourne focused, determined and ready when the points began to matter.
While micromanaging training, resting tired bodies and staying fresh are crucial ingredients of off-season preparation, players also have to practice and compete enough on court before Australia to handle the big-point pressures of the year’s first Grand Slam. "Everybody is different, but the one thing in common is that they don’t like to play a lot of competitive sets [during the off-season]," says Nick Bollettieri from the IMG Academy in Bradenton. "They have six weeks to hone their game, work in the gym, gain strength.
"When (Maria) Sharapova is on court, she doesn’t want to hit with another competitive girl. She wants the practice to be a Maria Sharapova practice. (Tommy) Haas, on the other hand, is rehabilitating and coming back after a long layoff; so he likes to get more into points. And someone like (Max) Mirnyi does a little bit of everything." But even though the players seem to get away from formal scoring as much as possible during the off-season, Bollettieri says their competitive spirit still blazes. "At the end of the day, we play King of the Court, with up to 14 different players on court, four at a time. They really get into it; it’s just as competitive as what you’ll see at the (Australian)Open."
Though Venus Williams sat out six months of competition from Wimbledon to the Australian Open, she made it back onto the practice court determined to come back better than before. "I am always thinking of moving to the next level and winning the Grand Slams and winning all the tournaments that I play," she says. "It is a competitive stream that you never lose, but that will take time." Indeed, if there was one lesson for Venus to learn during the off-season, it was patience. "The hardest thing was definitely accepting my limitations, to accept that I couldn’t do it. And growing up in the Williams house, there was no such thing as ‘can’t’ or ‘cannot.’” When Venus began to sense that she could go all-out in December, she still played it safe. "You can’t go gung-ho and get out there and practice five hours because you’ll come back with five more injuries," she says. "I have done that, and this time I was a lot smarter. It took three or four practices before I could go out there and practice an hour or hour and a half or two hours. …I told my mom and trainers, ‘Don’t let me do it. Don’t let me practice too long.’ "
After losing to Lisa Raymond in the third round, it remained to be seen whether Venus would keep her expectations grounded and dig in for the long process of coming back — or whether she would ramp up her training to make up for lost time.
Whether you’re running up hills in Las Vegas, grooving forehands in Bradenton, banking money for charity in New Orleans or playing front-page exhibitions in Bombay — as Anna Kournikova did in her continuing, nearly one-year old, "vacation" — tennis players all have the same goal during the off-season: to push past their own limits, to fulfill their potential and to reach the next level. Ultimately, the results of the work and the careful planning put into off-season training will be borne out on the far side of the world, but players aren’t hesitant to declare their ambitions.
Safin, ranked No. 77 as 2004 began, after a slew of injuries in 2003, aims to be No. 1 by the end of the year: "There is an opportunity for everybody. I’m one of them." After finding her form in her first rounds at Melbourne, the normally humble-to-a-fault Amelie Mauresmo made a similar claim, uncharacteristically declaring that she could take the title and contend for No. 1. (Injury would later douse that claim.) When asked about his expectations for his star pupil in Australia, however, Etcheberry erred on the side of understatement. “Justine’s just trying to do better,” he said laconically. "She will have improved court quickness, footwork." He paused for a moment, perhaps thinking of the mental rigors of defending Grand Slam titles, the ferocity of a Williams challenge to her crown, the limits of her size and game. But with his student having sweated it out in the Florida sun, shattering one glass ceiling after another, he knew he didn’t have to back down. “Justine will be ready,” he said, leaving it at that.
Freelance writer Soman Chainani’s previous article for Tennis Week was “When Two Are One” in the Oct. 21, 2003 issue.
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