The Complete Player: 4 Unusual Talents Required for Success on Tour
September 9, 2012 · Print This Article
by: Jack Han
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a week inside the Player’s Lounge during the Rogers Cup in Montreal (photo blog: http://bcomconfidential.wordpress.com/category/tennis-2/page/4/). The time I spent chatting with players, coaches and tennis parents gave me a glimpse into the life on tour and a different perspective on what it means to be a touring professional. To make a living playing tennis, you need to be more than just a great ball striker and an outstanding physical specimen. The little things count too, things that you may never have considered before. Here, I present to you the unusual talents you need to possess in order to make it on the tour:
Talent 1 – Sleep Anytime
“What does a professional tennis player and a kindergartner have in common?”
The answer: They both take naps in the afternoon.
A typical tournament routine for a 7PM match:
10AM: Rise, breakfast and transportation to tournament site
11AM: Light off-court training/warmup
12pm: Treatment or massage if necessary
1PM: On-court training
5:30PM: Pre-match warmup
6PM: Strategy talk with coach/personal pre-match routine
7PM: Match time
Every day between 1 and 4PM, it’s quiet time in the lounge: players sleeping on the couches, players sleeping on the floor; players sleeping everywhere. If you didn’t know any better, you might mistake the room for a Greyhound bus terminal at 2 in morning. After 2 or 3 hours of practice and fitness work in the morning, most players would not be able to function during a night match without getting some shut-eye in the afternoon.
For maximum performance, quality sleep is a must. That is true for anyone, even people I play against in recreational leagues, but obviously the stakes are much higher on the Tour – acute insomnia has cost a few people Grand Slam titles.
Everything is fine and good at the big tournaments (Grand Slams, ATP Masters, WTA Premiers) – you get big couches, towels to drape over your legs and even a pillow, but it’s a lot harder to find a good place to crash at a 50K Challenger event in, let’s say, Tashkent. That’s when not being picky about what kind of surface you sleep on can come in handy. It’s the butterfly effect: the tiny bit of extra rest might make the difference between a first-round loss and a semifinal run, which in turn may just help you gain direct access to the next Grand Slam tournament. We may never know exactly how many pro careers were made or broken on the floor of a third-world tennis club.
Talent 2 – Sleep anywhere
Actually, sleep is so important that I’ll address it in two separate sections. This time, I’m talking about the ability to overcome jetlag.
You may already know that playing on tour means a ton of travel, but below is a real-life example:
On August 2rd, a WTA player from China travels across 12 time zones to play in the Rogers Cup in Montreal
After having exactly 2 full days to recover, she plays in both the singles and doubles draw at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Canada between August 5th and August 10th.
On August 11, she spends 12 hours on a plane back to Beijing, China (12 time zones the other way), and then takes 2 other planes to a small town where a national team tennis competition is being held. She is expected to represent her city team in competition in the following week.
After winning a national team title, on August 20th she is on the move again, this time back across those 12 time zones to participate in the US Open qualifying tournament. She wins two matches before losing 5-7 in the third in her final qualie match. After that, she teams up with her doubles partner from the Roger’s Cup and gets to the quarter-finals of the main draw, upsetting Kim Clijsters in her last ever women’s doubles match ever in the process.
Total days: 28
Total time zones crossed: 36
Total matches won: 4 singles, 4 doubles
How do you do this for 45 weeks out of the year without becoming totally fried mentally? Your guess is as good as mine.
The parent of a recent junior Grand Slam champion told me that her child’s coach (herself a former WTA player) suggested her take melatonin to combat jetlag during the Asia swing this fall. I told her that, in my experience, melatonin doesn’t work that well (my dad was an insomniac for several years – that went away as soon as he sold his business and learned to manage his stress with physical activity). Plus, once you get started, it’s a slippery slope.
Many players I’ve talked to take sleeping pills on long flights, a practice that I find troubling. In the beginning of your career, your coach may have you take 1 to help you get to sleep on a long flight to Asia. If that becomes a semi-weekly habit, by the time you’re 25, you’ll need to take 3 or 4 just to fall asleep. In his autobiography, Boris Becker has admitted to becoming dependant on sleeping pills due to constant use. Some players mix pills with alcohol (Andre Agassi comes to mind), which is also not recommended.
Talent 3 – Eat Anything
In professional tennis, picky eaters need not apply.
Sure, the player’s buffet at the Roger’s Cup had a good selection of everything healthy (and even gluten-free pasta – check out my blog if you want to see all the pictures), but the vast majority of tournaments don’t come close to offering the same level of fine dining as an ATP Masters or WTA Premier event. In a Challenger-level tournament, you’ll be lucky to see bread and jam in the player’s lounge, if anything.
Let’s say you find yourself in Tashkent, Uzbekistan or Bangkok, Thailand for a chance to win a few thousand dollars and grab some precious ranking points. What do you eat? Lamb skewers or pad thai bought from shady street carts, or two cheeseburgers from McDonalds? It’s a catch-22. Either you go with the unknown evil (food-borne illnesses that can knock you out of the next 2 tournaments) or with the known evil (greasy McDonald’s burgers – you may even succumb to temptation and get fries while you’re there, too). Either way, it will be challenge to play your best tennis eating junk, or food that your system is just not accustomed to. For players ranked below 100 in the world, this is a constant concern.
Talent 4 – Talk to Anyone
When you spend 10 000 hours hitting tennis balls between the ages of 7 and 16, you really don’t have time for much else. As a result, many players end up on tour with the social skills of prepubescent teens. For a young player with game, maturity and social savvy can be a great help for several reasons.
Having an outgoing personality is a huge asset for a player hoping to capitalize on his or her talent. Sponsors care less about how much stick you can get on your backhand volley, than how much of their product you can move with a smiling primetime TV endorsement. Physical attractiveness is part of the formula, especially for girls, but being bubbly and likeable helps either way. Not many people would consider Kim Clijsters or Andrea Petkovic classically beautiful, but they are (or in Kimmie’s case, were) both immensely popular with fans, sponsors and other players.
2) Relationship with Tour officials
The world of professional tennis is a small one. If you plan to do well on the tour, then you should expect to see the same faces often. It helps to be cordial with umpires, line judges and tour officials on the court, and friendly with them off the court. They are often the best source of information concerning things such as travel accommodations, court assignments and rain delay updates, which can influence the way you choose to structure your practice and match day routines.
3) Practice partners
ATP players practice mostly with each other, so as a male player you are pretty much forced to interact with your peers in order to find a practice partner; not so on the WTA Tour. Women pros mostly practice with hired hitting partners and coaches. This to me explains the lopsided scores and prominent mental breakdowns you see in WTA matches – the girls can all hit the ball, but not many of them are mentally resilient enough playing against their peers because they’re too used to hitting with stronger male players. In Montreal, my friend’s coach set up a practice set between her and Melanie Oudin. Oudin (who is really a very nice girl, by the way) beat her 0-8. My friend was not happy about playing (and losing) practice matches – she was just way too used to just drilling, as opposed to playing practice sets with other WTA players.
“Why doesn’t she play with other women pros more often?” I asked her coach afterwards.
“Getting her to set up practice matches is like pulling teeth. She’s way too shy,” he answered.
4) Doubles pairings
Another question: “What’s the different between a doubles player and a Wall Street trader?”
The answer: “On a tournament sign-up day, there are no differences between the two”
Indeed, because there are no qualifying draws for doubles tournaments run in conjunction with singles tournaments, things get quite hectic in the player’s lounge in the final hours before the sign-up deadline. Like day traders, players are frantically trying to find partners with enough ranking points to get them into the main draw. Lesser-ranked pairs are “bumped” down, out of the tournament before it even starts, so it is not uncommon to see 3 or 4 players literally chase after the same player – one with enough points to get them direct access – and try to talk him/her into a partnership. The odd thing is, these fly-by-night doubles pairings are often extremely successful. The two finalist teams in Montreal and the mixed-doubles winners in the US Open this year were assembled this way, at the 11th hour.
About the Author: Jack Han is a business lecturer, entrepreneur, 4.5 level player and occasional tennis writer living in Montreal, Canada. Check out his personal blog at bcomconfidential.wordpress.com.
Follow him on Twitter at @KSplayersClub or on Instagram @SoireeCulturelle