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Match preparation is the key to success

By Nick Saviano


Most matches are won or lost well before you step on the court. Your preparation for a match or tournament varies significantly depending on your personal situation. Pro tennis players establish what are called periodization programs which can last up to a year. The objective of these programs is to reach a peak performance level for a few key events during the year, which for top players usually means the four major tournaments of the Grand Slam (the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open).

Periodization programming means organizing the training activities of an athlete so that the chances of overtraining are minimized and the chances of achieving peak performance are optimized. The periodization programs include everything from physical conditioning programs to technical stroke development. I remember in the winter of 1992 seeing Jim Courier running down the street at the Saddlebrook Resort in Florida, where he was working with his physical trainer Pat Etcheberry. I pulled the car alongside of Jim and asked him what kind of training he was doing. He said, "I am running long distances to establish my aerobic base, which is critical for me when I get over to the French." The French Open was five months away, and Courier was already starting to prepare.

In March 2000, 30 minutes after losing the finals of the Ericcson (now the NASDAQ 100) to Pete Sampras, Gustavo Kuerten was in the weight room with his coach, Larri Passos. Passos said that Gustavo was working hard on his physical strength and other aspects of his game in preparation for the French, which was still two months away. Both Courier and Kuerten were on a six-month training cycle to prepare for their biggest events. Now that’s commitment!

The periodization programs the pros use generally include four phases:

  1. Phase I - preparation phase. In this phase, players practice their tennis but don’t have any tournaments coming up for a while. Typically, they work on technique or add new things to their games. They do more drilling and play fewer practice sets. They also work extremely hard physically to establish a good base of fitness.
  2. Phase II - precompetition phase. During this phase, players are getting closer to competing. Their tournaments are usually within a week or two. The intent at this phase is to sharpen and refine tennis skills in preparation for match play. Players play a lot of point situations and practice sets as they polish their games and build confidence for the upcoming event.
  3. Phase III - competition phase. Players are now competing in tournaments. For the pros, this phase can last months. During this phase, they employ a highly flexible training program to adjust to how they are doing in competition. For example, players will have completely different training programs if they are getting all the way to the finals of tournaments, as opposed to losing in the first rounds. The main objective of this phase is to keep tennis skills grooved, to maintain conditioning, and to prevent injuries so that they are prepared for their next match.
  4. Phase IV - rest phase. After working so hard for so long, players need to rest and recover, both mentally and physically. Often this occurs in the off-season, when players put their rackets down and stop playing for a brief time. But rest for professional athletes means active rest. They will usually participate in some other sports or training outside of their usual tennis routines. The reason for this phase is twofold. First, it provides a physical break from the game to recover from physical fatigue and to let injured or stressed muscles heal. Second, it allows athletes to emotionally recharge their batteries to maintain their enthusiasm for the game. This is extremely important to diminish the chance of burnout after working and competing so hard.

You’re probably saying, "I’m not a professional, and I don’t have that kind of time or commitment." Well, that may be true, but the point is that the same basic training principles apply to all players. You can have "mini-periodization programs" that last as short as one week. Most players have at least a week of time before they play a big match or tournament. Following is a description of a one-week mini-periodization program that you can use in preparation for your next big event.

Let’s assume your tournament is on Saturday and Sunday. I will start the preparation on the Monday before the match and go through each day. These suggestions are not written in stone. They are general, basic concepts to give you ideas for your own personal preparation. This sample preparation program will help you to maximize the time you do have.

Monday (Active Rest or Mini-Preparation Phase)

This is a good time to review your developmental plan so that you don’t get off track on what you should work on. If you have just finished a tournament on Sunday and are fatigued, this is a good day to have some active rest. Get away from tennis, take a mild jog, or do some other light exercise. If you are fresh and eager, this is a great day to work on any technical changes or refinements in your game. Work on specific patterns or anything else you feel needs to be improved in your game. Play sets if you want to, but focus more on working on your game than on being intensely competitive. You don’t need or want to be razor sharp right now. Save that for the end of the week. Physically, you can train hard and push yourself because you will have time to recover.

Tuesday (Mini-Preparation Phase)

Keep working on any of the techniques, tactics, or patterns you started yesterday, but avoid tinkering with anything else or adding something new unless it is absolutely necessary. Playing points or sets is okay, but again I would emphasize working on your skills or patterns rather than competing. You don’t need to be match-ready yet. You can train hard physically, but if you are fatigued from the previous day, ease up a little. There’s no need to kill yourself. Your physical workouts and drilling should be short and intense. The emphasis should be on your anaerobic base because there’s not enough time to significantly improve on your aerobic base. Practice visualization. Take five minutes to visualize yourself performing well, executing the shots you want, and winning points. You want positive anticipation for the competition.

Wednesday (Mini-Precompetition Phase)

Don’t try to add anything new at this point because it will backfire on you during the competition. During this phase, you need to refine what you have been working on and start to sharpen up your match-play skills. This is a great day to play a competitive practice match. Playing points is also very good. If you do any drilling at all, you should use mostly live-ball, match-simulation drills. Check your equipment: rackets, shoes, clothes, water bottles, and anything else you might need for your match. It’s good to plan early. Physically, you can still work hard on the court because you have plenty of time to recover. This is a great day to do a few drills to sharpen your favorite shots. You want to be supremely confident in your weapons. It is easy get caught up in other things and take your weapons for granted. That’s a common, but big, mistake. After practice, get away from tennis. This will help you stay fresh. If you can, scout your opponent or get some insight into her game. Note, for example, if your opponent is left-handed or likes to serve and volley. See if you can line up a practice match with a lefty or someone who plays the same style as your opponent. You can make small adjustments in your practices, but you should stay with your basic strategy and try to impose your game on your opponent.

Thursday (Mini-Precompetition Phase)

Most of your practice should be geared toward sharpening your playing skills. Play the points and drills at full speed. Also play points and practice sets as you would want to play them in the match. By the end of the day, your equipment needs should be taken care of as best you can. You might break a string at the last minute, but there is nothing you can do about that. Make sure your rackets are strung and repaired as necessary and you have the shoes you need for the surface you’re playing on. Don’t leave this to the last minute so that you have to start racing around the day before the event trying to get your favorite racket strung. If you know in advance whom you are going to play, you might want to work on specific tactics that will be effective against that player (refer to chapter 3 on tactics to look at things you can do against the various types of playing styles). Practice your weapons. Hone them until they are razor sharp. Remember that this is the backbone of your confidence. Start playing the patterns and points just as you will want to play them in the match. Play a practice match or set to simulate the competition. If you know the person youÕre going to play, try to play with someone who has a similar style. As a general rule, you can go hard two days before a big match, but don’t overdo it. At the end of this practice, your game should be sharp, and you should feel physically strong and mentally fresh.

Friday (The Day Before)

This is the day before the big match. If you can go to the site where you are playing and hit a few balls on the courts to get acclimated, it can really help. Don’t practice too long. Your goal is to maintain your skills. Today is the time to ease up and have a light practice. Keep it short and simple. The primary objective is to have a short, positive workout, which leaves you feeling confident about your game as well as physically fresh. Don’t dwell on the upcoming match or tournament. A lot of pros will have a quiet dinner or take in a movie simply to get away from tennis and stay mentally fresh. Pack your bag so that all your equipment is ready. Take extra rackets, an extra change of clothes, and a second pair of shoes to be safe. Pack sweats or a warm-up suit, even if it’s hot outside, because you may be inside an air-conditioned room sometime during the day and you don’t want to catch a chill. Also, be sure to have a water container, towel, practice balls, Band-Aids, athletic tape, sunscreen, a hat, and anything else you may need. Make sure that you have your transportation taken care of, you have directions, and you know your starting time. Line up a warm-up partner if you can. If you find that visualization works well for you, I also suggest that you spend some time visualizing yourself out on the court enjoying the competition and playing extremely well. You want positive anticipation about the match. Set up your performance goals. Remember, they should be things that you can control and that help you play up to your potential. Finally, get to bed early and get plenty of rest.

This is an excerpt from Maximum Tennis.

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