Why is clay court tennis different?

Tennis is perhaps one of the only sports that requires an athlete to compete on more than four different surfaces throughout one season. Just off the top of my head, you have Plexicushion (Australian Open), Har-Tru (Green Clay, Charleston Open), Red Clay (French Open and Europe), Natural Grass (Wimbledon, England and Netherlands), Deco-Turf (US Open, Hard Court, USA) and other variations of hard court surfaces throughout the world. The impact on the body and mind in order to adjust your style of play, movement and strategy every couple of months (even weeks if you consider that the French Open is played only three weeks before Wimbledon), makes tennis one of the most demanding and interesting sports in the world.

I would like to draw your attention to clay court tennis, specifically red clay. I personally find this surface one of the best for game development because it teaches players the following:

  • Adjustment: a player is required to make more adjustments with their feet as there is never a true bounce of the ball (the direction changes on each bounce)
  • Patience: a player has to hit more tennis balls in each rally because their opponent can utilise the slide to retrieve
  • Resilience: there is no such thing as winning a point quickly, because the speed of the ball is absorbed dramatically on impact, slowing the ball down off the bounce, giving the opposition more time to retrieve and extend the rally
  • Movement: the slide is one of the most important types of movement for a tennis player to master, as it teaches a player the importance of fluidity of movement whilst transitioning from one stroke to another during a rally (notice how professional athletes are now sliding on harder surfaces as well).

These four areas are perhaps the most difficult to develop in younger players. Having said all of the above, it is important to note that clay court tennis favours a defensive style of play, due to the slower bounces and ability for players to retrieve by utilising a slide. Many players that train in Asia, Australia and the US develop offensive styles of play since they are exposed to harder surfaces much more than red clay. In contrast, players that train in Europe and South America develop strong defensive styles of play and create patterns of play due to their exposure to red clay.

I believe the best way to develop as a player is to strike the right balance between playing on slower surfaces (clay, plexicushion, synthetic grass) and faster surfaces (hard courts, deco-turf) in order to understand how to be both a defensive and offensive player. Once your body develops, you will begin to notice your strengths and weaknesses as a player and only then you can find your game style accordingly.

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Back To The Beginning Again

Tennis is one of the toughest sports in my opinion, not just because it is an individual sport, but also due to the fact that there is no set criteria to follow in order to achieve success. If anyone has tried to play tennis at a high level or even a recreational level, it soon becomes evident just how much you dont know about the sport and how little credible information is available to you.

If you are interested and passionate about a specific job, you will be provided with a job description, which assists you in considering your chances of landing the role. If you want to purchase a product, the price, brand and description of the product is given to you prior to purchase. If you want to travel to a certain country, it just takes one online search to find out everything you need to know to proceed. In a way, there is some form of expectation and so working towards meeting that expectation seems plausible. What about tennis? Where are the ‘trip advisors’ or ‘expedias’ in relation to tennis? It’s non existent. You may be wondering why this is the case. I know I have on many occasions.

The biggest reason for that in my opinion is because becoming a professional tennis player is like wanting to be a successful actor/actress, singer, performer, artist etc. Nobody really knows whether or not someone will excel, even though the potential is evident. There are no two individuals who will have the same journey either. Take Venus and Serena Williams for example, who were born to the same parents, raised in the same household, had the same upbringing, but have had very different careers as tennis players both on and off the court. There is no certainty that being taught at a prestigious school, academy or anywhere else and by whom for that matter will result in success either. It’s a matter of trial and error, drawing to a halt and then starting back at the beginning again in order to find what brings out the best in you or your player. The trigger for this process is when you begin to see your results plateau over a period of 6 to 12 months. Flexibility is just the start. Being open to new ideas, innovation and changing routines/processes is what this is all about.

In sport, your biggest rivals are your competition. The key is to be on your toes so to speak, keeping your eyes and ears open, continually studying your competition to understand their strengths and weaknesses. All the while to ensure you HAVE and SUSTAIN a competitive advantage. Differentiating yourself is the greatest asset of all!

 

The DNA of a Professional Athlete

I have been underestimated on many occasions due to my background of being a professional athlete. This apparently meant that I have lived a privileged life and knew nothing of hardship, loss, disappointment and pain. It was almost as though people thought I lived a luxurious lifestyle. All they heard was that I was travelling from one city to another each week to compete, but going behind the scenes, it tells a very different story.

In my opinion, a professional athlete has to endure a great deal from a very young age, particularly those who have reached the highest level in their respective sport. Imagine being ‘tested’ for faster times, more repetitions of a particular activity, better precision and refining your technique on a daily basis. There is nowhere to hide, because you cannot escape the truth that lies within a video recording or a time that is below your personal best. The professional athlete learns very quickly that failure and success is part of everyday life. The only thing you can do is accept that fact (which builds resilience and forms the basis of having good sportsmanship), and take ownership over your actions. This then allows you to focus your mind on the job at hand, which is simply being better at your craft. No compromises. No excuses. After all, a slump in form means that its time for you to pay a visit to the sidelines for a duration of time that you have no control over. All you can do is keep showing up and persevere with the hope that you will get that phone call, offering you a position back on the field/team again. And for those professional athletes that compete in an individual sport, any slump in form will result in you simply drifting further and further away from the pack within a few short months. The road ahead seems ever so daunting.

Imagine facing all of the above realities from the age of say 5 or 6 and throughout your adolescence, simply by being exposed to sport at a professional level. The lessons learned can be carried on throughout the rest of your life. There is certainly nothing luxurious about it. I hope that the next time you come across a former professional athlete, the word ‘resilient’ comes to mind as opposed to ‘privileged’.

 

 

 

 

Lessons from the French Open

  1. Be cool – Playing the big points well can get you across the line, i.e. Garbine Muguruza during the second week of tennis, particularly against Samantha Stosur and Serena Williams.
  2. Work the crowd – The French crowd loves showmanship and they support the player who is entertaining. Remember that tennis is a form of entertainment and people are paying money and/or giving up their time to watch you compete.
  3. Sliding is an art form – I noticed many athletes losing their footing at times throughout the tournament, so as a tip to juniors or anyone out there playing on clay courts, not every ball requires you to slide into it to make your strike. Balance is key.
  4. Tennis player by day, tourist by night – One thing I can assure you is that you don’t get the opportunity to travel a great deal in your life time, so when you have the chance, make the most of it! Go into the city or town, meet with the locals, enjoy their cuisine and way of life, even try to communicate in the local language too. You’ll have a blast.
  5. Be patient – This is so crucial when playing on the clay, because this is the slowest surface in the game and naturally, your opponent will run more tennis balls down so you cannot expect the usual ‘one-two-three’ strike combo you love to play. It’s all about hitting multiple strokes per point, so be creative and expect another ball at all times.
  6. Black always works – How good does the black tennis apparel look against the red clay? I think it looks amazing! 😉

I believe that the clay court tennis season is the most physically demanding season of them all. If you practice on the clay courts frequently, you will not only learnt to be more patient, but you will become a fitter player. It’s important to vary your training from clay court to hard court and find a balance that suits you. Have fun out there!

 

The core issue in tennis as of 2016

Tennis has had an interesting 2016 thus far, with the biggest surprise being Sharapova’s failed drug test at the Aussie Open. My personal opinion is that her case shouldn’t be treated lightly and a lengthy ban is the only response necessary for an athlete who admits to using a performance enhancing drug throughout her entire career. I’m positive the media would’ve wanted to ride that wave for many months, going back and forth about whether or not Sharapova was guilty or innocent, then after the verdict on Sharapova’s ban from the game, media will spend a few more months building up fans about what their view is on the length of the ban and if it was appropriate or not.

Sharapova is a powerhouse in the sport of tennis, and she has certainly made friends in high places throughout her career. Having said that, there hasn’t been many professional tennis players coming to her defence, perhaps Novak Djokovic has been the most supportive of all and Serena Williams was also sincere about her thoughts on the issue. In my opinion, it is of no surprise that we have a new debate, the one on equal prize money in tennis, once again. This has certainly come out of nowhere, thanks to Raymond Moore’s misogynistic statement about equal pay in tennis (costing him his job as the CEO and tournament director at the BNP Paribas Open and rightly so) and Novak Djokovic’s very ill-informed statement about equal pay. I wonder just how much of this comes down to redirecting the fans’ focus onto another topic which in my opinion isn’t as important as doping in tennis at present.

The tennis world is a small one, almost like one big family at the highest level. Of course there are rivalries and friendships but the one thing that you will always see in the tennis world is the desire to protect the image of the game and the players’ welfare. At some point you have to accept that there are players who don’t care about the game of tennis, integrity of the sport and other players’ welfare but rather, their own individual success and living off the limelight and endorsements that this sport provides them. In my opinion, Sharapova is the latter and anyone who comes to her defence is also much similar to her in nature. As a former professional tennis player tennis and coach at present, I insist that we have to name and shame professional tennis players who proactively play ‘around’ the rules for years and once they get caught, insist that they are innocent. The response from Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Kristina Mladenvovic is exactly what this sport needs. The tour is not made up of one or two terrific players, instead there are thousands of players worthy of their shot at the highest level and it’s time that we give them a chance at success. Being over-protective of players at the highest level is the core issue here and it needs to change now.

 

A final for the ages

The Australian Open women’s final produced one of the most spectacular matches in the open era. For me personally, it was the best match I have seen in the history of the sport!

Serena Williams was chasing history, looking to equal the great Steffi Graf who holds an open era record of 22 major singles titles. When it came to Australian Open finals, Williams was 6 and 0 for wins versus losses. Angelique Kerber was chasing her own dream, to become a grand slam champion. Germany hadn’t produced a grand slam champion since 1999 when Steffi Graf triumphed in Paris. All week, she had been receiving messages of support from the legend herself.

It was clear right from the start that Serena felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, whilst Angie was cool, calm and collected. From the first ball hit, I could see that Kerber was fearless. She was poised and composed, almost as if she had been to a grand slam final dozens of times when in actual fact it was her first major final! Serena on the other hand was erratic, spraying her groundstrokes long and wide. Kerber was reading Serena’s serve unbelievably well and chased every ball down, making Serena play just one more shot in each rally. On top of that, when Serena came into the net, Kerber delivered her signature passing shots with precision (hitting Serena with one of them!) It was clear that Serena was certainly under her best level of tennis, but she kept swinging and in the second set it was all Serena. The key factor which hampered Serena’s chances was that she didn’t gain many ‘free points’, which is what she often relies on in the big moments. She couldn’t hit her signature ace out wide on the deuce court or down the tee on the advantage court (only 7 for the whole match). That must’ve impacted Serena’s confidence that she just couldn’t put her opponent away.

I confessed to my family with whom I was watching the match with that, if Kerber does not triumph tonight, I will lose all faith in the sport of tennis. I just couldn’t fathom that a player could go on and lose a match where they have performed in sublime fashion over the course of 2 hours. Only 13 unforced errors to 25 winners and 5 aces to 3 double faults. WOW. I just couldn’t see what else Kerber had to do to triumph, but it clearly shows us what it takes to beat the best!

The entire tennis world and sporting world is cheering for Angie, she deserved the title and has inspired many onlookers in the process. By staying positive, working very hard and believing in yourself, she proved that you can make your dreams come true. Even her opponent, Serena, admitted in her post-match press conference that she found inspiration from what she faced out on court. Serena’s praise for Kerber, graciousness in defeat and sportsmanship post-match is evidence of what a wonderful person, competitor and champion she is. Kudos to both women!

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Do Lead Up Tournaments Matter?

At the end of December, when others are looking forward to a holiday, time off work, spending Christmas and New Year’s with family and friends, tennis players are traveling and competing as per tournament schedule requirements. I observed that the way players finished a season would impact the start of the new season. It almost sets the tone for the next group of tournaments, which was evident last week with Svetlana Kuznetsova, winning the Kremlin Cup at year-end 2015 then having an off season and starting 2016 with a win at the Apia International in Sydney. There is no way you can fault how Kuznetsova and her team have handled the past 3-4 months. Victoria Azarenka and co have also been flawless in terms of their preparation, winning the Brisbane International over very strong competition. Current world no.1 Novak Djokovic has only lost 2 matches in 6 months, which is nothing short of amazing!

It will be all eyes on Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios as they prepare to beat the likes of Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal in just over one week’s time. They are Australia’s best chance at this years major, so I wanted to go a little deeper into the way they have performed in the lead up to the event. Tomic had a nice run in Shanghai in October of 2015, competed in a couple of ATP Tour events thereafter, had an off season and as a lead up to the Australian Open, competed in two ATP Tour 250 events in Brisbane and Sydney. Kyrgios was impressive at Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo in October 2015, competed in a couple ATP Tour events thereafter, spent December competing in the Indian Premier Tennis League and as a lead up to the Australian Open, decided to accept an invitation to compete for Australia in both the Hopman Cup and Kooyong Classic.

Tomic and co seem ‘ranking-focused’ whereas Kyrgios and co are ‘exhibition-focused’. There is no right or wrong way to prepare for a major as it depends on the individual player, but both Tomic and Kyrgios were not able to finish matches in their lead up events, due to illness and injury respectively. That is quite concerning because there was no great deal of stress placed upon them over the past few months in terms of match numbers. The proof is in the pudding and lead up events are a tell tale sign of which players will excel at the majors. It will certainly be one exciting fortnight! 🙂

 

Are Certain Age Groups Essential?

I remember growing up and competing in so many tournaments all over NSW. It was important to compete against a variety of players so we often ventured out to the regional events as well. The one thing I can recall vividly is that coaches, tournament directors, referees, parents etc would often comment on the reduced size of the draws within the older age groups. They would often be at a loss as to why this was occuring.

Fast forward over 10 years and I see the same thing happening. If you take note of the amount of entries in the under 12 and 14 events, the figures are healthy. In contrast, the under 16 and 18 events are more than often struggling to fill a draw of 32 players (elimination). There doesn’t seem to be a difference in the singles and doubles events either. Now, I don’t have the statistics to back up my comments however if you have competed in any NSW sanctioned event or frequented tournaments held within NSW, I am confident you will agree that there is a direct correlation between age and participation. I believe that there is enough statistical data for Tennis Australia to analyse and perhaps acknowledge the fact that there is definitely a correlation between age and participation.

Tennis is a unique sport, because you can play tennis for your entire life, no matter your level. It is a very challenging sport, so naturally the more time and effort you put into developing your game, the better you will become. This leaves the question, why are the entries into the under 16 and 18 events dropping off? There are so many reasons for this, for example it could be education, social life, work, friends, family, loss of interest, moved onto another sport etc.

If you are a serious athlete, it is important to compete against players within your age group, otherwise it is irrelevant. Here is my potential solution to this issue:

The Potential Solution

  • Introduce a ‘kids circuit’ of events which incorporates the hot shots stages of tennis*. There is a lot of potential here at this stage, whereby tennis clubs, coaches and facilitators can really engage families and their children by the philosophy that tennis is ‘more than a game’. The club culture and atmosphere can set the tone for the crucial developmental years ahead. It can help boost participation at a club level, which is the springboard to competitive tennis. A special ‘Australian Open’ prize for the entire family could be one of the many offers available to competitors.

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  • No change to the under 12 and 14 event categories. Why change something that has a proven track record?
  • No change to the under 12, 14 and 18 national championships. Perhaps the under 16 national championships should be revised as relevant or not and ultimately scrapped if the latter is decided upon. The reason for this is that there is no ‘reward’ or ‘incentive’ for the players who excel here. For the under 12 and 14 category there is the potential for exposure, selection into national academies and other touring programs and for under 18 category there is the Australian Open wildcard, AIS scholarship program opportunities etc.
  • Scrap the under 16 and 18 junior category and introduce a new category named ‘Open Teens’, with a minimum age, ranking and number of events played per calendar year criteria for younger players (this should align with the current ITF junior circuit age and eligibility rules and regulations). In terms of the draw types, there are many options here, such as having players compete in various pools, leading to a main draw play off, a compass draw or round robin with a play off, or main draw and qualification. Of course, the rankings will play a part in terms of the seeded and unseeded players as per normal. The positives of this change is that the draw will fill up with better competition due to the variety in age and ability. As a coach, I can tell you that the amalgamation of two age groups within a 4-5 year range will be the best thing for the development of a junior player. If the ITF are doing that, then why can’t we do the same in Australia? There will also be a reduction in administrative and labour expenses for clubs and most importantly, improve the culture of tennis so that players are encouraged to compete as adolescents and not discouraged due to the lack of entries. This can lead to further participation at a higher level and a better transition into professional tennis.
  • No change to the Australian Money Tournament and Pro Circuit.
  • No change to other events not mentioned.

This may seem like quite a revolutionary ‘idea’ however something needs to be done. There is no use to continue using a structure that is not working, so there really isn’t any risk with implementing a new structure in my opinion. If nothing is done, then we need a miracle.

 

 

*Hot shots tennis events are currently being held across Australia, however to my knowledge there is no ‘circuit’.

How To Beat The Heat

It is fair to say that tennis is an outdoor sport for many people all over the world. I am an Australian and have grown up playing tennis outdoors. I feel as though the toughest challenge apart from the game itself, is dealing with extreme heat and a high degree of humidity. There really is nothing that can prepare you for the conditions here in Australia, except experiencing it firsthand and seeing how your body responds. Having said that, there are a few things that you can do to help you deal with such conditions.

  1. Wear loose-fitted clothing and opt for material such as Dry-Fit (Nike) or Climacool (Adidas).
  2. Try to avoid wearing dark colours since they absorb the heat rather than reflect heat such as black, dark blue and purple. White is the best option during these conditions.
  3. Use a hat/cap, sweatbands and a lot of sunscreen.
  4. If you are comfortable with wearing sunglasses, then it is a great option as it can reduce glare.
  5. Wear a fresh pair of socks every 90 minutes of play. This can help avoid blisters. There is also the option of wearing two pairs of socks on each foot, however one pair should not be as thick otherwise you will not be comfortable.
  6. Drink sports drinks such as Gatorade, Powerade or Mizone alongside water in order to replace the electrolytes within your body that you lose through sweat.
  7. Bananas are a great source of potassium and during change overs or in between session breaks, taking a bite into a banana is a great idea.
  8. Glucose tablets may also be beneficial to you, however it does depend on the individual. I used to prefer eating lollies to glucose tablets, my favourite are the All Natural jellies.
  9. Taking a shower using cold/cool water after sessions can help relieve muscle soreness and pain.
  10. Try an ice bath at the end of the day if you are very keen!

 

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