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.”

How far does a tennis player run in a match ?

It varies, depending on playing style, according to data that IBM and SI.com recently published when they teamed up to analize data from the recently completed Australian Open. Their research revealed that, among the top men, David Ferrer, who is known for his speed and agility, covered the most distance. Through three rounds of the 2015 Australian Open, Ferrer ran approximately 10,000 meters (6.2 miles). On the other end of the spectrum, top-ranked Novak Djokovic had covered less than half that distance, somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 meters through three rounds.

SI.com reports that this is because Djokovic tends to play closer to the baseline, while Ferrer plays farther back. Apparently running less can sometimes be a good thing, as top-ranked Djokovic headed for the quarterfinals while Ferrer was eliminated  in the fourth round.

A similar analysis conducted at the 2014 U.S. Open found that Caroline Wozniacki ran more than twice as far as Serena Williams (9,709 meters for Wozniacki, 4,509 for Williams) to make it to the final. Williams defeated Wozniacki convincingly in the final. Wozniacki famously put all that running to good use two months later when she ran her first marathon, New York City, in just over 3 hours and 26 minutes.

It’s not uncommon for a player to run more than three miles during a five set match, though in more extreme cases, players have run more than five. That is particularly impressive when you consider how tiny a tennis court is (27 feet wide for singles). We’re talking about hundreds (maybe thousands) of sharp directional changes.

Despite the fact that tennis matches can last around 5 hours if they go to five sets, the average distance covered in tennis is much lower than football and hockey. Indeed, in the longest tennis match ever played, between American John Isner and Nicholas Mahut from France at the 2010 Wimbledon championships, which lasted 11 hours 5 minutes, it is estimated that the two players covered around 9.6km (6 miles) each. So in the longest tennis match ever played, the players still did not cover the same amount of ground as a standard footballer would. However, this stat can be very misleading as not only is the tennis court significantly smaller than a football pitch, but also the majority of movements are sprints, meaning distance covered should not be the only stat considered. Indeed, in a five set match, the distances covered between the two competitors can vary greatly. In a 2007 US Open match, World number 1 Novak Djokovic beat Radek Stepanek from the Czech Republic in an epic 5 set match. In this match, Stepanek ran close to 8km (5 miles), while Djokovic only ran 5.6km (3.5 miles). Indeed the values can vary greatly in tennis, as a player winning an easy match in 3 sets can run as little as 1.6km (1 mile) !

Grunting vs Shouting

Grunting vs Shouting

Does anyone else share my feelings on this ? I’m referring to tennis players, mainly women but not only I might add, who insist on making a noise every time they strike the ball. Now I understand that a player might grunt or utter an exhaling sound every time they strike a ball, but what amounts to screaming or even shouting at the moment of impact just isn’t good for the game !

This subject is not new, and has been talked about in length in the past. But nothing was ever done about it as the “culprits“ were deemed to be staying within the laws of the game. And while I agree with that I still believe that sometimes it’s not right and is really not good for the game. In fact, I firmly believe that we are losing supporters of tennis as a result of it! In particular, I’m referring to matches played at the recent Australian Open Championships. Unfortunately, it mainly occurs during women’s matches. Now before you accuse me of being sexist towards women, may I just say that I enjoy watching women’s tennis just as much as watching the men. While there is no doubt that the men’s game is more physical and there is more skill involved, a women’s match can be enjoyed just as much for the stroke making and stamina that is on show. However, during the earlier rounds I found myself turning down the audio because I was becoming irritated by the constant noise coming from the women. And then in the final, what was an excellent match was spoilt by the constant shouting by Maria Sharapova every time she struck the ball, even when she was playing a delicate shot which did not require a huge amount of exertion. I have no doubt that Serena Williams exerts just as much energy when she strikes the ball, but besides hearing a soft grunt or slightly louder exhale, we were not subjected to the same irritating sound as that which was coming from her opponent.

On Sunday we were treated to two and a half sets of wonderful men’s tennis by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, before Murray ran out of steam and Djokovic won the match in four sets. But besides the odd grunt or murmur from the players, there was hardly a sound to be heard from either player, which in my mind just added to the viewing pleasure. Occasionally, a player might add a few decibels to their grunt which only heightens the tension as it’s normally during a tight situation in the match. This slight misdemeanour can be forgiven given the circumstances, and knowing that it’s probably not going to happen again for a few games, the viewer continues to enjoy the match as he or she should.

Over the years we have seen a number of changes being introduced to tennis resulting in there being less chance of mistakes being made by officials and lines people. As a result, the game has become even more watchable than ever before. It’s time some of the players changed as well, because after all, the game is bigger than the individual. I do hope that the powers that be would start clamping down on this sooner, rather than later!

The Worst Nutrition Advice Ever (7 Shocking Lies)

Flavia Del Monte, Registered Nurse, CPT, CN and Creator of Skinnylicious Cooking has a very important message to share


The Worst Nutrition Advice Ever (7 Shocking Lies)

Did you know that the world’s nutrition history is absolutely riddled with nonsense

We’ve been told to eat in a ton of different ways, some of which are unnecessary, some flat out wrong!
The following Highly Controversial article, written by a world renowned female fitness expert and Registered Nurse, identifies the 7 worst offenders in all of diet history. . . 

== The Worst Nutrition Advice Ever (7 Shocking Lies)

What you’re about to read may go against EVERYTHING
that you’ve been told by nutrition experts, dieticians,
the media and possibly even your personal trainer.

Rest assured, the article is the NOT the authors
‘opinion’, it’s information backed to the bone with 
35 scientific references and sources.  

= The Worst Nutrition Advice Ever (7 Shocking Lies)

 

(Grab a free ebook –Fantastic Organic Food Tips Here 

The Energy Drink Scam — Do Energy Drinks Help You, or Can They Actually Make You Fat?

Every year in my Health Studies classes I am initially confronted with a gaggle of students who bring into class a selection of energy drinks.

By the end of their first month they bring in water and there would not be an energy drink in sight.

Why?

 

Well fairly early on in their program I do a lesson with them on Energy drinks and the plan of my lesson goes something like this ….

 

Are these “energy” drinks really any good for you?
Do they actually increase your energy?
Do they really have some sort of magical energy formula?
Will they help you lose weight?

 

In fact because I lecture on Nutrition there have been occasions where I have been hauled out of class and taken to some unsuspecting student who is consuming 2 litres of coke a day in a different class and informed to please let them know what damage they are doing to their body.

So …Energy Drinks?…lets take a look…..Can they make us fat?

Read on

 

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