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"Spring" Back into Your Game

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Ron Waite, USPTR

Well, it’s April and for those of us who live North of the Equator, outdoor tennis is just around the corner. Every year, I watch countless numbers of recreational and competitive players simply walk out onto courts, and start playing sets. Now, it is true that some of these players have played once or twice per week during the winter. However, to believe that one is ready to play her/his best tennis with this, as the sole preparation, is naïve at best.

So, this month’s article is dedicated to helping you become the best player possible this summer.

Assume, if you will, that June 1 is the target date for beginning to play your best tennis. Well, you have two months to get ready. Do you really know what to do? Hopefully, you will after reading this month’s column.

The first step that must be taken is to make a commitment to doing what is necessary to play your best tennis. You might want to consider this to be a delayed New Year’s resolution. However, this is a resolution that you need to keep!

The second step is to take inventory. Before you can move forward, you need to be aware of your starting point. Tennis is a game that requires the right equipment, good physical conditioning, well-developed strokes and competitive determination. Each of these areas should be examined carefully and honestly.

Let’s start with equipment. You may want to consider a new racquet…if and only if…your old frame is either "dead" or in some way inadequate. Over time, even the best racquets lose their ability to flex. Literally, they get beat up to a point where they are no longer responsive…a trait which is labeled as "dead." Your old racquet may not provide the power, balance or maneuverability that you desire. In these situations, it is probably time to start trying out different frames. Most racquet shops have a demo program that allows the prospective buyer to try a frame before purchasing. Unfortunately, the demo frame may not be strung at your preferred tension or not have your size grip. Still, trying a demo is better than buying a racquet "blind."

If you are satisfied with your old frames, you still will want to have each frame re-strung. Old strings that have been in the frame for a few months become brittle and lose their elasticity. I always have my racquets strung by a USRSA certified racquet technician. I am very fortunate to have one of the best working here in New Haven. Chris Gaudreau has strung frames for virtually every pro on the men’s and women’s tour. I am certain that there is a certified racquet technician near you. If not, you might want to call Chris at the Racquet Koop and send him your frame. I will string my own racquets in a pinch. But, whenever I can, I have Chris perform the task. A certified racquet technician will go beyond stringing and examine the frame for grip wear, grommet damage, and any potential problems. Believe me. Professional racquet stringing is well worth the money.

In the spring, I have my racquets strung at my favorite tension but with 15-gauge string. Normally, I use a thinner 16-gauge string. By going to the thicker 15 gauge the effective tension is 2 pounds lower than it would be with 16 gauge strings. The spring is usually cooler than the temperatures associated with the summer months. This cooler, spring temperature makes the strings constrict a bit more than they would during the summer. So, the reduced effective tension that results from 15-gauge string is offset by the cooler temperature’s constricting effect. In addition, the 15-gauge string wears a bit better…giving me a little more life out of my stringing.

For more complete information on stringing your racquet, refer to my previous article entitled, "Stringing You Along."

Now that you have your frames in order, we move to the question of overall physical condition.

Here, you must be brutally honest with yourself. Are you carrying any extra weight from the winter? Are you in good aerobic shape? Do you fatigue easily? Are you moving with speed? How is your body’s flexibility? Only you can honestly answer these questions.

Before you begin any exercise regimen, it is imperative that you discuss your plans with your physician. I use the spring for my annual checkup. I discuss with my doctor what my plans for the coming season are, and how I intend to exercise my body. Given my knees (I was a catcher when I played baseball), my physician will frequently advise against certain activities. It just makes good sense to get a checkup before you set your sails toward improving your game.

Given your self assessment and the advise of your doctor, you need to setup a desirable but realistic exercise regimen that addresses your individual needs. Much of this plan should include cross training. Running, biking, swimming, walking and strength training are often part of the mix.

Make certain that your plan is viable. You must be able find time to do what you set out to do. It may mean rising a little earlier and getting out before you head to work. I awake at 5:00 AM and am out running by 6:00 AM to 6:30 AM almost every day. It is the only time I have for off-court exercise.

It is important to start slow and to increase at a reasonable rate. One doesn’t want to sustain an injury before the tennis season begins. If you are strength training or working out at a gym, you might want to consult with a personal trainer. She or he may be able to devise a plan that meets your needs with the least amount of risk.

Stretching before and after each workout can go a long way in helping you to avoid injuries. You can learn some of the stretching techniques that I use by referring to my previous article entitled: "Turbo Training: Stretching It to the Limit But Not Beyond."

Finally, you probably want to take a look at your diet. If you are not eating properly, you are not going to perform at your maximum potential. Again, your physician is the best person to consult when it comes to the diet that will work best for you. The players on the college team that I coach will be the first to tell you that I consider diet imperative. I constantly watch what my players eat…particularly as we approach matches!

Recapturing and improving your strokes is next on our planning list. If you are a fairly well skilled player, it will take at least two weeks of hitting (assuming you hit at least five days per week) to get back your old form. The question is: "Do I want to regain my old form or do I want a new one?"

Tennis is a game that requires quite a bit of time and effort to make a relatively small change. My belief is that you can only effectively change one thing at a time. Take an inventory of your strokes, and make a priority list for those things that you want to change. If you are really dedicated, you can probably only change a maximum of three strokes in a given 5-month tennis season. Most players can only change and improve one stroke. Refer to my article entitled: "Surviving Change."

Try videotaping yourself as you make changes. Seeing yourself on tape can be a bit frightening, but does afford you a way of analyzing what needs to be done to change a weak or faulty stroke. See my previous article entitled: "Video: Seeing Your Way to a Better Game."

If you search the TurboTennis Archives, you will probably find a past column that will give you suggestions on how to improve or change that weak stroke. However, you might want to search out a USPTR or USPTA certified instructor to help you make the necessary changes. Either organization can give you the name of pros near you.

I strongly believe in the benefits of hitting against a wall or backboard as part of your recapturing/change process. First, you don’t need a partner. Second, you can hit lots of balls in a short period of time. Third, you can work on one stroke at a time until you feel comfortable with your progress. Most of us learned to play tennis using the backboard. As a means of getting back your strokes and timing, I don’t think it can be beat.

Don’t neglect your serve! This is the single most important stroke in tennis and for some players it the stroke that is least practiced. Spend lots of time hitting serves…especially second serves!

If you never lost your serve in a match, you wouldn’t lose the match. If you never double faulted, your chances of winning the game go up significantly. So, second serves are really of utmost importance. They need to be reliable under pressure…when things aren’t going well! I practice 100 serves virtually everyday. Of these 100, at least 70 of them are second serves.

You need to ease back into hitting. If you haven’t hit for a while, your hands will not be calloused. The last thing you want is to develop blisters as you are trying to get back into competitive form. That’s why I recommend that for the first two weeks, you hit every other day.

By the end of two weeks, your hands should have developed most, if not all, of the necessary calluses.

As you find yourself regaining your physical conditioning and game form, you will probably want to start serious, focused practice with a hitting partner who shares your desire to improve. To help you in this area, I would call your attention to a couple of my previous articles: "The One Hour TurboTennis Workout," and "Variety is the Spice of Practice." Both of these columns will give you ways in which you can efficiently and effectively practice to improve your game.

We now need to turn to the mental side of the game! Most of us will spend lots of time training for tennis by hitting, running, strength training, etc. But, how many of us are willing to dedicate the time necessary to become a more mentally fit and competitive player? First, I think every player has to have the right attitude about winning. If you look at my previous article, "Winning…It’s All in Your Mind," you will be presented with my approach to competition. However, Sports Psychology has much to offer the modern player! My colleague, John Murray, writes an absolutely incredibly insightful and useful column entitled, Mental Equipment. In addition, he has written what I think is the definitive book on the mental side of tennis entitled, Smart Tennis.

I strongly encourage you to buy and read his book, read his column and e-mail him with your questions. No serious player can afford to overlook this important side of the game!!!

The last facet of our Spring Training involves goal setting. I firmly believe that every player needs a specific set of short and long term goals if he/she is to improve. These need to be written down and referred to everyday. In addition, I would strongly recommend that you keep a daily journal for the two months, from now until June 1. In this diary, record what activities you performed that day, what problems you experienced, what progress you are making and any other insights that may come to mind. If you can keep this journal for these two months, I bet that you will want to continue with this record after June 1! If setting goals is not natural to you, I invite you to read my previous column entitled: "Goal Tending." Hopefully, this column will make the process of defining and achieving goals more clear.

Come June 1, if you have followed the advice in this column, you will be ready to play your very best tennis. Once the competitive season begins in earnest, you will want to start experimenting with different strategies. You’ll be able to because you will have improved your game by having done the necessary homework. I will be writing about ways in which you can develop strategic options…so, please keep coming back!

If you spend the next two months preparing yourself in these ways, I assure you that this summer; you will be a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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