Life after tennis

When Li Na announced her retirement from tennis last September, the two-time Grand Slam champion had banked as much as $24m (£16m) in the 12 months preceding her decision. Former British Davis Cup player Jamie Baker, who’d once been ranked number two in the British game, made his decision to quit in June 2013. However, his career earnings over nine years of competition totalled a more modest £360,000. Both players had battled significant injury and fitness problems during their time on tour, but their future prospects were worlds apart.

Li Na, 32, one of the most recognised, inspirational figures – not merely in China but throughout Asia and beyond – commanded huge off-court commercial value. Li Na retired at the top of the tennis tree and is worth millions. In contrast, Jamie Baker, 26, had achieved a career high ranking of 186 in 2012, but had nothing like the sponsorships and endorsements enjoyed by the Chinese player to show for his dedication. So, looking for a new job took him completely out of his comfort zone, having previously given little thought to anything else except succeeding at tennis. “I knew there would be a life outside tennis. But I definitely didn’t know what that was going to be,” he says.

We are sitting in the same London head office where he was interviewed last autumn for a role – one that he now holds – within the UK corporate division of bank Santander. Unlike many players confronted by such a stark change in circumstances, Baker had actually made moves in the months before he stopped playing. “I knew who I was going to speak to, and how I was going to get in front of as many people as possible, to assess the options,” he says of those job hunting days. And, importantly, he sought advice from the British game’s governing body – the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) – where he was introduced to its senior performance lifestyle advisor, Rachel Newnham.

She says: “Most tennis players have few qualifications. They left school early on. Education is looked on as if it’s ‘tennis or nothing’. “They think they’re going to stay in tennis. They think that coaching is the next thing they’re going to move on to.” For Baker, however, coaching was never the goal. With a brother already working as a trader in the City, he had an inkling of another, off court, world. But it was Newnham’s contact at a recruitment agency that properly set him on his way into banking. “Part of the reason I wanted to stop playing was to give something else a go,” he says. “It was just a question of when.” He said he was made aware of the many different jobs in finance, not just City trading, and that such knowledge helped enable him to “give this a shot and get into the business world”.

Baker, now 28, has become a role model for Newnham in her drive to make other UK players appreciate what is possible outside of the sport that has consumed them all their lives. Making such a change involves a change in attitude and culture among players, says Newnham. “There is no shame in having a plan B – the smart ones have one. Usually it’s the lower ranked players who are aware that they are going to have to do something else after tennis.” Newnham says although players’ CVs may be short of formal qualifications such as GCSEs, the skills they pick up as tennis competitors are transferable and hugely in demand in a lot of jobs. “Motivation, leadership skills, teamwork, having the commitment, the drive, and focus are hugely thought of by employers these days,” she says, referring to these attributes as “life skills that you can’t teach”.

These words offer encouragement to Tara Moore, 22, who’s currently ranked number six in Britain. Her funding was among those that were cut under LTA reforms announced last December. She’s still keen to make her way in the sport she’s played since she was six years old, but understands that her plans may have to change unless her fortunes improve on court. “I’m finding ways to continue playing tennis but if you’re not in the world top 100 or 200, you’re not earning money. We’re barely breaking even,” she says. “If I was to stop today then I would have nothing. I would have to start from zero. And that’s incredibly tough, incredibly scary. “But Rachel shows us that there other things besides tennis, there are so many other things we can do and skills we can use from tennis.”

Moore’s house-mate in London is another who appreciates Newnham’s expertise. Oliver Golding, the 2011 US Open Boys’ Champion, announced his retirement just before Christmas – at the age of just 21 – and has consulted her on what he might do next. Currently he’s working at his mother’s tennis coaching company while working out his next move. Around 80% of British players choose to stay in the game either coaching or working in administration. Martin Lee is among them. Now 37, he runs his own coaching business in Buckinghamshire with another former player Paul Delgado. Lee, who reached a career best world ranking of 94, always knew he wanted to work in tennis, following his father who was a coach for 40 years. Initially after retiring he tried his hand at sports management, but missed the court environment. His company, Living Tennis, offers tuition from community to elite levels, including coaching a thousand children each week at its eight venues. Three years after their launch, turnover has increased to £500,000. Their office is now at Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, where they won the contract to run the tennis facility. Lee admits it’s been a daunting venture. He says he’s permanently tired, regularly working 12 hours per day, seven days a week. “When you’re a tennis player, you only think of one person and that’s yourself,” he says. “You have to be selfish because it’s your career and it’s your job.”Now it’s totally the opposite. The last person we think about is ourselves. We’ve got to get enough money in to pay everyone and we’ve got to make sure everybody gets the most out of their time.” The same commitment which qualified him to play in Grand Slam tournaments during his ten years on tour now earn him a living in a very different way. Lee and Baker find it hard to replace the camaraderie and thrill of competition in their new roles. Both make time to play the game when they can and enjoy the familiar, instant feedback of winning or losing. But for Baker, who was working as a commentator at the Australian Open, there is a strong connection between the past and the present which bodes well for the future. “I feel like my tennis life has prepared me for what’s happening now,” he says. “I hope that in 10 or 15 years I will feel I am making a big difference, and I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to go through that journey.”

Physical reasons to play tennis

Tennis helps your:

1. aerobic fitness by burning fat and improving your cardiovascular fitness and maintaining higher energy levels.

2. anaerobic fitness by offering short, intense bursts of activity during a point followed by rest which helps muscles use oxygen efficiently.

3. ability to accelerate by practice in sprinting, jumping and lunging to move quickly.

4. powerful first step by requiring anticipation, quick reaction time and explosion into action.

5. speed through a series of side-to-side and up and back sprints to chase the ball.

6. leg strength through hundreds of starts and stops which build stronger leg muscles.

7. general body coordination since you have to move into position and then adjust your upper body to hit the ball successfully.

8. gross motor control through court movement and ball-striking skills which require control of your large muscle groups.

9. fine motor control by the use of touch shots like angled volleys, drop shots and lobs.

10. agility by forcing you to change direction as many as 5 times in 10 seconds during a typical tennis point.

11. dynamic balance through hundreds of starts, stops, changes of direction and hitting on the run.

12. cross-training by offering a physically demanding sport that’s fun to play for athletes who are expert in other sports.

13. bone strength and density by strengthening bones of young players and helping prevent osteoporosis in older ones.

14. immune system through its conditioning effects which promote overall health, fitness and resistance to disease.

15. nutritional habits by eating appropriately before competition to enhance energy production and after competition to practice proper recovery methods.

16. eye-hand coordination because you constantly judge the timing between the on-coming ball and the proper contact point.

17. flexibility due to the constant stretching and maneuvering to return the ball toward your opponent.

Yoga and tennis

Tennis requires cat-like reflexes with short bursts of strength. These short movements do not allow the muscles to extend their full length. When muscles are strenuously worked they become tight and can lose their elasticity unless properly stretched. Yoga exercises can increase the body’s range of motion. The lack of movement because of inflexibility binds the joints. Without the elasticity of the muscles, an athlete can be a prisoner within his own body.

Using yoga techniques makes it possible to retrain the muscles. Most tennis athletes play in a constant state of muscle tension. Yoga trains the body to relax muscle tension. Learning to begin your game in a relaxed state could mean gaining an extra step on the ball.

When in a ready position muscles are contracted and ready for action. To move, muscles must be relaxed and then contracted again to spring in any direction. By retraining the muscles you begin from a relaxed position, giving a quickened reaction time.

Yoga breathing exercises can help improve endurance and stamina. When exerting in sports or exercise we often hold the breath as a way to create strength. Yoga trains the body to create strength through breathing control. Holding the breath at points of exertion takes a great deal of energy that could be used during long sets or matches.

Learning the correct way while doing a yoga pose is simple. Exhale during the execution of a pose until you feel the muscles’ full length of stretch (maximum resistance). Never hold your breath. Breathe normally and listen to the body. Hold for 30 seconds, then release the pose slowly. By constant practice of yoga poses you’ll soon apply breathing techniques in everyday routines.

A simple spine twist is excellent for rotational sports. It can help increase needed flexibility of the shoulders and back and hips. Remember to apply the breathing technique to this pose.

Begin the spine twist by sitting on the floor with both legs straight out in front of you. Keeping the spine straight, bend the left leg placing the left foot on the outside of the right knee. Now, place the left hand on the floor behind you with your arm straight and the right elbow bent. Positioned on the outside of the left thigh place the right hand on the left hip.

Slowly exhale while turning the head and upper body to the left, looking over the left shoulder. Pressure from the right arm should keep the left leg stationary while pressure from the left arm and torso gives you the twist. Stronger use of both arms increases the twist. Hold this pose for 30 seconds and repeat twist on the opposite side.

A total body conditioning and flexibility routine is essential for the avid tennis player. Yoga techniques could be the edge you need in developing your game.

Psychological reasons to play tennis

Tennis helps you:

1. develop a work ethic because improvement through lessons or practice reinforces the value of hard work.

2. develop discipline since you learn to work on your skills in practice and control the pace of play in competition.

3. manage mistakes by learning to play within your abilities and realizing that managing and minimizing mistakes in tennis or life is critical.

4. learn to compete one-on-one because the ability to compete and fight trains you in the ups and downs of a competitive world.

5. accept responsibility because only you can prepare to compete by practicing skills, checking your equipment and during match play by making line calls.

6. manage adversity by learning to adjust to the elements (e.g. wind, sun) and still be able to compete tenaciously.

7. accommodate stress effectively because the physical, mental and emotional stress of tennis will force you to increase you capacity for dealing with stress.

8. learn how to recover by adapting to the stress of a point and the recovery period between points which is similar to the stress and recovery cycles in life.

9. plan and implement strategies since you naturally learn how to anticipate an opponent’s moves and plan your countermoves.

10. learn to solve problems since tennis is a sport based on angles, geometry and physics.

11. develop performance rituals before serving or returning to control your rhythm of play and deal with pressure  These skills can transfer to taking exams, conducting a meeting or making an important sales presentation.

12. learn sportsmanship since tennis teaches you to compete fairly with opponents.

13. learn to win graciously and lose with honor.  Gloating after a win or making excuses after a loss doesn’t work in tennis or in life.

14. learn teamwork since successful doubles play depends on you and your partner’s ability to communicate and play as a cohesive unit.

15. develop social skills through interaction and communication before a match, while changing sides of the court and after play.

16. have FUN… because the healthy feelings of enjoyment, competitiveness and physical challenge are inherent in the sport.

Fit tips from the Pro’s

It’s hard to resist getting on the courts after watching your favourite tennis players duel it out in tournaments around the world. But pros say that while tennis may be the perfect answer to your fitness needs, too much of the sport may force you to take a seat on the sidelines.

“Tennis is a wonderful way to get fit and meet new people,” said Karl Hale, a tennis coach and a tournament director in Toronto.”But people don’t realize that playing too much, or with the wrong technique, can cause injuries.” He suggests that those starting out join a local club where they can take group lessons to learn basic techniques and get a handle on the sport. “It’s important that you don’t develop bad habits when you first start playing,” said Hale. “Because that’s where most of the injuries like tennis elbow and back or ankle injuries come from.” He said that he tells his clients to start off by playing twice a week, in order to “give your body time to adjust.” After a month or so, you can increase your playing time to three or four days a week on the courts if you want to keep improving. Hale considers tennis to be perfect for people looking for a sport that can help them maintain a healthy lifestyle, especially if they alternate a few days on the court with a few sessions at the gym. “Tennis is one of those sports which you can play from when you’re eight to 80,” said Hale. “It’s something which you can continue for the rest of your life. Seniors tennis is very big right now,” he added.

Despite the intense daily training regime of tennis pros like Daniela Hantuchova, who’s ranked 10th in the world on the WTA Tour, she agrees that those new to tennis should take it slow. “When I started playing, I would only play two days a week,” said Hantuchova, 24, who began playing when she was six, and now plays most days of the week. Currently, she follows a strict schedule, common to most players at her level, of hitting for four to five hours a day followed by a 90-minute session in the gym. Because of the immense strain on her body, she tries to gives herself a day or two off a week to allow her body to “regenerate.” “I think taking just as much time for regeneration as you do for practice, is the key to being healthy all the time,” she said. “Most of it comes down to staying positive and being at balance with yourself – I think that can really help to prevent a lot of injuries.”

For ninth ranked Nadia Petrova, a lot of it comes down to knowing how far you can push your body.”We get injured all the time, because we push our bodies too far,” said the Russian tennis star. “I think in many sports it’s like that where people just take their bodies for granted.” “There are some days when we have just finished a three- to four-hour match, you are really sore and the last thing you really want to do is go out on the court again.” “That’s when you have to know what to eat, remember to stay hydrated and sleep–that is really the best way to recover.”

While some professional players have the luxury of having physiotherapists, trainers and massage therapists with them while they’re on tour, the average player has to rely on common sense, and a few introductory lessons.”If you know how to hit the ball properly, chances are you won’t injure yourself,” said Hale. “And once you get the hang of it, don’t overdo it on the court.”



Tennis elbow affects millions but it can be beaten

Tennis is a physical sport. Running, jumping, swinging, and sometimes diving on the hard court; like any sport, there are many ways that tennis players can incur an injury. However, there is one injury that is so prevalent among tennis players the injury itself has the word tennis in the name; that injury, of course, is tennis elbow.

While tennis elbow, known medically as lateral epicondylitis, is not limited to tennis players, it is estimated that one third of all tennis players will experience the condition at some point in their lives. Anyone who engages in lifting at the elbow, or repetitive movements of the elbow and wrist, is likely to be susceptible to this condition, so naturally tennis players are at high risk.

The cause of pain from this condition is not a medical certainty, although it is believed that it is caused by small tears of the tendons attaching the forearm muscles to the bone at the elbow joint. It is the muscles of the forearm that are used to cock the wrist back – extensor carpi radialis brevis – that are the suspected culprits in this condition.

So how do you know you have tennis elbow and not some other painful condition? Individuals with this ailment typically feel pain on the outside of their elbow, especially when grabbing an object and cocking back the wrist. The pain is generally more severe when lifting something – although pain while resting should be expected – and it is often described as a pain that radiates down the forearm. Pain from tennis elbow generally starts gradually, although it has been known to have a sudden onset as well.

If you believe that you are suffering from tennis elbow you should consult with your physician immediately. Treatment for this condition is typically noninvasive, and over 90% of patients are successfully treated without surgery. Tennis players can often address the problem through some subtle changes in their equipment and technique.

A good first step is to make sure that you are using a racket with a properly sized grip. Another option is to reduce the tension on your racket strings. That reduction in string tension will soften the impact of the ball, and reduce twisting of the forearm during off-center hits. Lastly, changing your actual tennis stroke can help reduce the negative impacts on your elbow as well. Players who learn to swing without leading the racket with their elbow in a flexed position can often alleviate much of the condition and reduce the likelihood of reoccurrence.

There are noninvasive medical options that can address the pain of this condition as well. Anti-inflammatory drugs are used to combat both pain and inflammation. If a regimen of anti-inflammatory drugs is not successful, cortisone injections are an option that has proven successful for some patients.

However, injections are not always successful and if relief does not come quickly then you are likely not going to be served by continued injections. However, medication is not the only avenue that one can explore when trying to alleviate pain and discomfort in the elbow region. Use of an elbow brace can reduce the strain placed on the elbow during the tennis stroke.

Sadly, if the aforementioned treatment options are not successful then surgery may be the only road to relief. The good news is that surgery has a very high rate of success, and it is only required in a small percentage of patients.

The secret life of a hitting partner

“You’re not the master of your destiny,” muses Thomas Drouet. A 31-year-old Frenchman by way of Monaco, Drouet lives in an ambiguous and uncertain world, that of a hitting partner on the professional tennis tour, whose vagaries he understands all too well after seven nightmarish months in the employment of former Australian No. 1 Bernard Tomic, which resulted in Drouet being assaulted and hospitalized by Tomic’s father. “Nightmare is an understatement,” he says. “But I learned to work under permanent stress, so any job I take now is easier.”

To the casual observer of practice sessions at this year’s US Open, hitting partners tend to be invisible, invariably perceived as little more than bag carriers. Their real role is usually more complicated. Many act as travelling coaches, scouting opponents, discussing tactics and working as part of a small team, which has become in-vogue for players like Andy Murray, who prefer to receive advice from a variety of sources.

“I’ve always done my homework,” says Joe Sirianni, a laid-back Aussie who’s worked with Ana Ivanovic and Eugenie Bouchard. “You analyze the next opponent, bring that information back on court and hope they use it. It’s generally things like, ‘Watch for the wide serve on big points. Stay away from the forehand as much as possible, remember that she’s weaker on the backhand return”.  Having done the research, it’s often the job of the hitting partner to emulate the next opponent as much as possible ahead of that match. The best are versatile, flicking between the topspin of a South American clay-courter to the heavy slice and dexterity of the tour’s craftier competitors.

Such skill requires high-level talent, of course. Most hitting partners once dreamed of competing on the big stage themselves. Drouet spent several years competing on the tour, slugging it out in the twilight zones of professional tennis. Some simply reach their limit, but many more lack the financial clout needed to fulfil their promise.

Andy Fitzpatrick has spent the past year working for Sloane Stephens, but as a junior was considered one of the most talented players in Britain. After years of travelling to obscure tournaments in Africa and Asia, covering expenses by couch-surfing and the odd gig as an underwear model, he found himself at age 24, with a career best ranking of 461, considering his options. He almost quit tennis altogether, but a stint practicing with Roger Federer impressed onlookers enough to land him the job with Stephens. “To reach a higher level than I did, you need massive backing,” he says. “As a hitting partner I can play, get a regular income, which I’ve never had, and keep my level up while being exposed to top-tier tennis.” Fitzpatrick now enjoys five-star hotels and tickets to A-list parties, but this glitzy alternative career is available to only a few of the thousands of talented journeymen on tour. Becoming a hitting partner takes contacts and networking ability, and Fitzpatrick and Sirianni were able to get introductions to some of the sport’s leading names. But while the lifestyle may be cosier than tennis’ backwaters, it offers little security, with no long-term contracts. A hitting partner’s employment exists solely at the whim of the player. After Stephens lost in the first round of Wimbledon, Fitzpatrick suddenly found himself cut loose at the start of the summer hardcourt swing, before being picked up by Urszula Radwanska.

Those who work for the very best can sleep a little easier. Sascha Bajin, or “Big Sascha” as he’s known on tour, has worked for Serena Williams since 2007. Even during Williams’ lengthy layoff from 2010-2011 while she recovered from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and stomach hematoma, she preferred to retain Bajin on full salary rather than hire him out to rivals. Bajin is far from a conventional hitting partner, describing his job as part coach, part sounding board, part babysitter, part shoulder to cry on and part bodyguard. (It should be noted that Williams can afford to pay more than most of her peers, and also provides a longer list of demands.) “How much you do depends on how much the player trusts you and how disciplined you are,” says Drouet, whose resume also includes names like Marion Bartoli and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. “Some hitting partners don’t really care and just turn up to hit balls, but I never saw myself as just a bag carrier. I’ve always wanted to ultimately be a coach, so I’m always looking for opportunities to help my player.”

Indeed, Drouet has already established his own academy for promising juniors. Bajin, for his part, expects to land another job when Williams retires, but as a male player with experience on the women’s circuit, he’s in the sweet spot, where the demand for hitting partners exists. Over the past decade the power and athleticism of women’s tennis has skyrocketed, so much so that the best female players are capable of matching the men when just hitting up and down from the baseline. As a result, top players are all but forced to train with men to keep pace with the increasingly ferocious power of their rivals. “When we hit, I’m playing at normal speed from the back of the court,” Sirianni says. “When I was younger I hit with (Anna) Kournikova, and she was a good player, but she didn’t hit the ball like Ivanovic and Bouchard. The girls are a lot stronger, a lot quicker these days. You only notice the difference to the guys when you add the serve and movement into the equation. On the men’s tour, the players have more variation, while the girls are more one-dimensional, but that’s the girl’s game. They can all play all the shots, but compared to the guys, they don’t tend to use them.”  As for the emotional element of the job, hitting partners say, most find themselves becoming part-time shrinks, with their most defining work done away from the court.  “You’ve got to keep your player happy,” Sirianni says. “Try to keep them smiling, in a good frame of mind, good work ethic, being intense on court. You want them completely focused on the task at hand. Communication is key, and you’ve got to try and gel and learn how to work together.” After seven years, Bajin is now finely tuned to Williams’ fluctuating emotions, judging whether he needs to relax her or pump her up ahead of a key match. But the real test comes after a tough defeat. “Everyone is different,” Sirianni says. “Some players like to talk about it directly after the match or the same night, but with some you just need to give them their own space and let them sleep on it. Of course, there’s going to be tears, especially big moments, big tournaments. If she’s up in a match, then eventually loses, that’s tough and that’s hard, you’ve just got to try and stay positive.” Not necessarily an easy task when your job may be on the line, but the most successful players are able to put egos aside. “Players can split with you at any moment,” Drouet says. “But working with Tsonga was a good experience. He’s very generous — you almost become part of his family. I love his sentiment. He tells his team, ‘We win together, we lose together, and when we work, we suffer together.’ This attitude helps the player when times get tough on the tour, your whole team is around you and that can make a whole lot of difference.”

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