Well, here we are in August. At this time of year, most of us north of the equator are beginning to prepare for tournaments and competitions that signal the end of the outdoor tennis season. For you readers who live south of the equator, it is a time to get ready for the outdoor season.
In either situation, most of us do not prepare as deliberately as we should to compete in tournament or club competition. For some, preparation is limited to 2 racquets and a towel (sometimes
players wont even remember the towel).
August usually marks the end of inter-club and intra-club competition. Summer leagues are usually leading up to the final events. For most of us in North America, this is the time of year when all the hard work, practice and planning come together.
So, I want to dedicate this months column to preparing properly for competition. Clearly, the women and men on the pro tours have this process down to a science. Their whole lives (given the extensive length of the active tour year) are geared toward getting ready for important matches. In fact, if one looks at the improvement in the game of Xavier Malisse, it is in direct relationship to his dedication to training and to his thorough match preparation.
I am presuming that you are in shape, and have been playing regularly, as you read this. If not, you are really not ready for serious competition.
Lets begin with racquets and strings. Now, I know some of us are on a limited budget and believe that the strings that we have been using all summer are just fine. In all probability, this is not the case. Whenever I compete in tournaments, I like to have three racquets restrung about a week to 5 days before the beginning of the event. I will take two of these restrung frames and hit with them on alternating days. Why? Well, the tension goes down a pound or so after hitting with them. I want to "break in" two frames prior to the tournament. These two frames, if strung professionally, will probably be within one pound of each other in terms of tension.
I keep the third frame unused. Why? I want to be certain to have a frame that is completely fresh with respect to stringing. Also, the tension on this third racquet is probably a pound or two tighter than the other two frames. If I am in a match and sense that I am spraying too many balls or losing control on my shots, I will go to the third frame, which hopefully, gives me a bit more control.
I like to use frames without any over grip. I find that any type of over wrap inhibits me. How? Well, I want to get my grips quickly, easily and seamlessly. I find that over grips make it a bit more difficult for me to find the proper grip. In this game, every fraction of a second is important.
If you are like me and do not use over grips, you might want to consider having your grips replaced with new ones. This is especially true if you are one who likes a "tacky" feel to her/his grip.
If you do use over grips, I would replace them on each frame the night or day before the tournament. Fresh over wraps make the racquet feel better in your hand. You will want to purchase extra over wraps. Why? Well, in a match on a hot, humid, August day--you may find yourself needing to change an over wrap that has become too moist.
I truly believe that every serious player needs three identical frames. She/he should look to a certified USRSA racquet technician to help make the frames identical in terms of weight, balance, grip and feel. All the pros have their frames customized to meet the specifications of an ideal frame. Within reason, you should try to make every frame feel the same.
Lets turn to shoes. Now, the parsimonious player will play with a single pair of shoes on all surfaces for as long as he/she possibly can. For practice sessions, this probably makes sense. But, for important matches and tournaments, you need the right shoes. Different shoes perform better on hard-court. Others are better on clay. I suspect that many of you are not planning on competing on grass. But, if you are, you definitely need the dimpled soles that really help ones footing on this often slippery surface.
You need two pairs of the same shoes
each pair being broken in. I recall a hard-court match I played in late July some years back. The temperature was literally close to 100 degrees. It was very humid and there was absolutely no breeze. By the time we went to a third set (Yup, I lost the first set), my soles on my shoes were melting from the heat
truly! I found that my movement was restricted, as it felt as though I had some gum on the bottom of my shoe. Although I eventually won the match, I learned an important lesson. I always carry an extra pair of shoes in my bag.
You will want to make certain that you break in both pairs. Although I wear 2 pairs of socks, I find that new shoes need a day or two to feel right. Again, I suggest wearing each of the two pairs for a few days before the tournament.
Generally speaking, I find that the week before the tournament is critical in other ways, as well. I make certain that for at least five days before the first match that I have at least 7 or 8 hours sleep per night. Now, I do not drink alcohol at all
(No, I am not in recovery), but I strongly encourage you to cease and desist all alcoholic consumption at least 3 days before the event begins. Alcohol will drain your body of fluids
just what you dont need.
Unfortunately, I am a carnivore and I love my meats. However, I will begin carbo-loading my body about 3 or 4 days before the event begins. I increase the amount of oatmeal, pasta, salad, healthy breads and rice that I consume, and I stop eating meat all together. Carbohydrates are what your body needs during competition. I may put on a pound or two during these 3-4 days, but I know that I will burn it right off in nerves and physical exertion, once the tournament begins.
I absolutely hate bananas. Still, I will begin to eat them two or three times per day several days before the tournament. Why? Well, potassium is what helps your body stay hydrated. Eating a banana during a match is too little too late.
You need to build the reservoirs of potassium. This takes a few days. Unfortunately for me, bananas are the best natural source for this potassium.
I try to avoid pills and supplements, if I can. So, I eat the bananas despite the fact that I absolutely hate their taste and texture.
About 5 days before the tournament, I try to practice at the same time of day that I am likely to play most, if not all, of my matches. I want my body to get into the biological rhythm of hitting at this time. This also helps me judge elements like sun placement and heat in ways that are probably close to what I will experience during the tournament.
As I get closer to the tournament, I decrease my off court training. I want my body to heal, not be strained. I do, however, practice two or three times per day
but for much shorter periods of time (30 minutes to an hour each time).
I want to get my body used to performing, resting, and then, performing again.
If you are in a tournament, it is not unlikely that you may have to play 2 or 3 matches in one day. You need to get physically and psychologically prepared for this "roller coaster."
I also increase the amount of stretching I do everyday. I try to stretch at least one more time per day than I normally would. Of course, I am assuming that you stretch before and after each practice session and match.
The day before the event begins is a busy and critical day for me.
First, I eliminate all oils and fats from my diet. I find that these actually fatigue me when I play. I want them out of my system by my first match.
I begin to hydrate my body. I literally drink as much water as I can
throughout the entire day (I spend a lot of time in the bathroom). I want my body to hold on to as much water as is possible. Heat and dehydration affect the body and the mind. I want to minimize these effects.
I always make sure to visit the venue at which I will be competing the day before the event begins. I want to see everything. What is the overall shape of the courts? Are there any courts with cracks? What balls will be used? Where are the bathrooms, showers, etc.? Where will I wait in between matches (I dont want to be in air conditioning, but I dont want to be in the sun, either). I try to see the tournament director and confirm my start time. If possible, I like to see the draw. I want to learn as much about the place, the people and the other participants, as is possible.
That night I have a big pasta meal and pack my gear. I am still drinking lots of water.
I carry two bags
a racquet bag and a large sports bag. Between the two, I have the following:
- 3 racquet frames
- 2 pairs of shoes
- 6 shirts (I prefer tee shirts, but some clubs require collared shirts)
- 3 pairs of tennis shorts
- 3 athletic supporters
- 1 sweat suit
- 4 pairs of socks
- 3 headbands
- 1 baseball cap
- 6 wrist bands
- 4 towels (2 large and 2 small)
- 1 bottle for water
- 1 bottle of ibuprofen
- 1 roll of antacids
- 1 box of various band aids
- 1 tube of antibiotic cream
- 1 portable CD player and favorite CDs
- 1 tube of sunscreen
- 1 roll of white tape
- 1 roll of under wrap for white tape
- 2 one-use "Cold Packs"
- 2 plastic bags to use for ice, if needed
- 2 ankle supports (I have rolled each ankle too many times)
- 1 neoprene back support
- 3 energy sports bars
- 2 cans of new balls (identical to those that will used in the tournament)
- 1 "bible" (my name for a book that I carry with tips, strategies, notes on players, etc.)
It sounds like a lot and it is. But, over the years, I have learned the hard way. If it can go wrong it will. Better to be prepared.
I also bring a small cooler that has water and sports drinks suspended in ice.
Before retiring for the night, I like to take two ibuprofen tablets. I find that, if I do this, I awaken less stiff in the morning.
For breakfast on the day of the event, I like Cream of Wheat with a little honey
and of course, a banana. I do not allow myself my morning coffee. I want to limit caffeine because it, too, can lead to dehydration and cramping.
I begin my day with a very easy short jog, and then, I do lots of stretching.
I like to hit a bit before my matches. So, I will frequently have arranged to hit with someone on the same surface well in advance of my first match. If, however, I have an early starting match, I forego this practice.
I do not allow myself any food two to three hours before my first match.
I always arrive to my match at least 45 minutes before it is scheduled to start.
I check in early, and again, I stretch. I also begin my mental preparation.
I like to listen to upbeat jazz on my CD player, close my eyes and imagine myself playing points. Of course, in my imagination, I am playing perfect tennis. I find that this relaxes me and helps me to gain confidence before the match.
Once my match is called, I introduce myself to my opponent, but make it clear that I am not one who wants to engage in lots of idle chatter or dialog. The time for that is after the match. Seasoned players will try to talk to you during game changeovers. This is really a psychological ploy. You dont see such interaction between opponents on the pro level. If I sense that the opponent is going to be one who talks between games, I will move my stuff over to the net post opposite to where he is sitting/standing. This minimizes his opportunity to chat.
If you have not already read it, I strongly encourage you to read my previous article entitled, How to Win the Warm-up. I find that I can learn lots about my opponent and get myself psyched to play, if I use the warm-up period judiciously.
Once the match begins, I do not like to sit during game changeovers. I prefer to take water, to stretch and to think about what is going on in the match. There are added benefits to this ritual.
First, I am keeping myself limber and loose. Second, I make certain that I am keeping myself hydrated. Third, I am using the time to analyze, plan and adjust. Finally, I have been to lots of tournaments where there are no seats for players. By getting used to standing all the time, I have standardized my "routine" regardless of the specific venue and its facilities.
If I win, I like to get off the court, stretch and into a shower as soon as is possible. While waiting for my next match (should it be on the same day), I will look for a quiet place to rest. I like lie down, and again, listen to my CDs. I make certain to stay in a shaded area, but I dont want to go into any air conditioned areas.
In between matches, I do not eat anything but sports energy bars with lots of water. I try to use sports drinks during matches, if I find myself becoming a little tired. Usually, they will give me a little sugar energy.
When I am done for the day, I check my next start time, look to see who I will be playing next, and then, head back home (or to my hotel). Then, I begin the entire process over again.
If I have lost and am out of the tournament, I like to watch the remaining matches. I find that it provides me with insights on why I lost and gives me an idea of what I need to do in the future to prevent such losses.
So, you can see that I take serious competition seriously. My rituals may not be the best for you, but there are some out there which will help you prepare better for tournaments, and thus, perform more consistently.
I am sure that if you spend some time and give this side of your game some attention, you will soon become a tennis overdog.