Sooner or later you'll step on the court and be facing an opponent much tougher than the one you see across the net. An opponent who can turn simple drop shots, which you have always put away, into unreachable winners.
This same opponent will transform lobs, that were once routine overheads, into balls that float just over your outstretched racket, and serves which you once attacked suddenly, with his help, become unreturnable. The opponent's name: AGE!!!
To both the professional and recreational tennis player age is that unspeakable word which signifies an inevitable decline in one's athletic ability.
While everyone experiences the onslaught of age at different times, the symptoms are always the same. Shots which were once easy to reach are now difficult, recovery time between matches is much longer and nagging injuries become more frequent and lingering.
At a recent stop on the "LEGENDS" tour I had the opportunity to speak with some of the games all-time greats as well as experts in the medical and fitness professions to get their thoughts on everyone's "toughest opponent."
Dr. William Lewis, a Connecticut based Sports Medicine specialist who serves as an advisor to the U.S. Olympic committee says that,
"One of the main reasons that people don't live longer, healthier lives is that they are unwilling to follow a healthy and active lifestyle. Such a lifestyle would include proper diet, rest, and exercise."
ADJUST YOUR DIET
"As you get older it is essential to make changes in your eating and exercise habits", says Lewis. Tennis legend Cliff Drysdale agrees. "I've had a solid change in my diet over the last few years," says the 50 year-old Drysdale, "and the results have been tremendous."
Drysdale, a former top ten player and U.S. Open finalist gave up all red meat, whole milk and eggs and began to eat more fruit, chicken and fresh vegetables.
"I'm also off sodas, which I used to live on," says Drysdale. "These changes in my diet have helped me to lose weight and my cholesterol has dropped down to 240. That was about six months ago, I imagine now that it's even lower."
Other legends such as Stan Smith, Ken Rosewall, and Owen Davidson, all have made similar changes and report vast improvements in not only how they feel but also in their level of energy on the court.
Davidson, 51 says "I very rarely eat red meat anymore, never drink milk, and I eat a lot of vegetables and chicken. I also cut out salt and butter."
Ken (Muscles) Rosewall, age 60, is in the fifth decade of a career during which he has won four Australian Open titles, three French Championships and two U.S. Open titles. At the age of 39 Rosewall surprised the sporting world by reaching the finals of Wimbeldon and the U.S. Open, two of the games most prestigious events. Now competing on the Seniors circuit Rosewall describes his nutritional philosophy as being "everything in moderation."
"Australians have always been big meat eaters and as a younger person I ate a lot of meat, eggs and drank a lot of milk," says Rosewall. "As I've gotten older, I've cut down on meat, eggs, cheese, butter and milk and have tried to replace them with lots of salad and fruit."
"About 7-8 years ago I cut back on salt, sugar, butter and red meat", says former world champion Stan Smith. "I'm not a fanatic about it but I'm now toying with the idea of cutting out meat altogether. I try to eat lots of fish, chicken, and I occasionally splurge with dessert. As I've gotten older I've become more aware of the evils of sugar, red meat, salt, etc and have tried to cut down."
JUST DO IT
In addition to proper nutrition, the "super" seniors are strong advocates of regular exercise. The phrase, If You Don't Use It, You'll Lose It, is very appropriate. "Unfortunately, as people get older they seem to cut back on their physical activities", says Stan Smith. "There are other priorities in your life and it becomes difficult to stay as active as you once were."
Smith, the world's top ranked player in 1971 & 72 says that, "As you get older you must work harder to stay in shape and injury free" and encourages players of all ages and levels to develop healthy habits as early as possible.
"A lot of it has to do with how you were brought up", continues Smith. "If you've done the right things early on such as lifting weights, stretching, etc, I think that you can play at a high level for a long time.
"Unfortunately most players, professionals included, haven't done this. They haven't kept their dominant side as strong as it should be or done the weight training to balance the muscles on both sides as well as different parts of the body. This is something that we are trying to instill in the kids involved with our Junior Development programs with the USTA. If we can convince them to develop good habits at an early age, then they'll be able to play at a high level for a long time."
Many, such as Rosewall and Davidson, still prefer tennis as their number one form of exercise and play as often as possible. "I used to do a lot of running", says Owen Davidson "but that was very hard on the body so now I try to get up 3-4 mornings a week at 6:30 and play for an hour with one of my assistants."
Former doubles champion Bob Lutz, puts himself through a vigorous workout on a stationary bike virtually "every day for 40 minutes to an hour," and Cliff Drysdale has designed a rigorous exercise program during which he does "25 minutes of resistance training, followed by 30 minutes on a stationary bike."
"Rarely does a week go by when I don't work out at least three times", says Drysdale who is also a commentator for ESPN and ABC-TV. When asked how, with his busy schedule, he finds the time to work-out, Drysdale responds firmly by saying "I MAKE THE TIME."
STRETCH DON'T STRAIN
"As people age, their muscles lose their flexibility and become more prone to strains and sprains," says Kevin Cleary, President of the One to One Fitness Corporation. "Muscles will tear when they are not warmed up properly or when they are overtired. Thus, it is important to stretch your muscles not only before, but after exercise."
TAKE A BREAK
"Just as important as nutrition and exercise are rest and recuperation", says Dr. Lewis. "After playing a few hard sets of tennis or exercising vigorously the body is worn down, tired, and prone to injury."
Listen to your body", continues Lewis. "If it feels tired, it is. If something hurts, it's injured. Take a day or two off. If the pain or fatigue doesn't go away within a reasonable amount of time, see your doctor."
Growing older doesn't mean you have to trade in your racket for a graphite shuffleboard stick. Smith, Rosewall, Davidson, Lutz and Drysdale and thousands of lesser known players are successfully combating the aging process and playing good tennis well into their eighties and nineties. By following a few simple guidelines you too can become a "Super Senior"
ADVICE FROM THE EXPERTS
DO'S AND DON'TS FOR THE UP AND AGING TENNIS PLAYER
- Watch what you eat and drink
- Warm-up and stretch before exercise
- Cool down and stretch after exercise
- Exercise regularly
- Listen to your body
- Get plenty of rest
- Have regular physical examinations
TRY TO AVOID
- Red meat
- Dairy products
- Junk food